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PRIDE 2022: “ROCK’S TRUEST FAIRY”

“What you’re about to see and hear is an unusual and exciting theatrical event. This young man … is the act of tomorrow. Ladies and gentlemen, Jobriath!”

With these words from guest host Gladys Knight, NBC’s Midnight Special presented a performance by what many would consider the first openly gay American rock star―though one who ultimately never shone despite the obvious distinction of his artistry.

Born in Philadelphia in 1946, Bruce Wayne Campbell showed an early aptitude for music, playing organ at church and advancing to the point where he was introduced to Philadelphia Orchestra director Eugene Ormandy as a child prodigy. By high school he had developed an interest in classical composers, writing the first two movements of his own symphony (a project that would be left unfinished).

In the early 1960s the young man’s attention turned to folk music after he attended a number of Peter, Paul & Mary concerts. He formed his first group, The Last Three, with a pair of identical twins. The trio was short-lived, however, as its members each departed for college, with Campbell enrolling in the music program at Temple University. This period of formal music education was also brief as Campbell found himself drafted to serve in Vietnam. Within months, he'd gone AWOL, moved to L.A. and rechristened himself Jobriath Salisbury (by some accounts, the moniker was a combination of “Job” and “Goliath”).

While most people evading military service would attempt to keep a low profile, Jobriath instead auditioned for a new stage musical called Hair, landing the role of “Woof,” a gregarious character who, it’s implied, is gay. He loved the limelight, but his outsize personality proved too much for the collaborative spirit of the show and he was fired for upstaging the rest of the cast.

He continued pursuing music, joining rock band Pidgeon as lead singer. They released one album, to little fanfare. By this point, the military police had caught up with him, after which Jobriath effectively feigned a mental-health crisis so he could spend the rest of his service in a psychiatric hospital, where he continued writing songs.

Thereafter, he recorded a demo tape, which landed in the hands of Jerry Brandt, the impresario who’d launched the careers of Chubby Checker and Carly Simon, who took it upon himself to track down Jobriath and manage his career in a partnership modeled after that of Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker.

Brandt secured the artist a recording contract with Elektra Records for a reported $500,000 and launched an unparalleled media blitz for Jobriath (now calling himself “Jobriath Boone”) in the spring of 1973, with posters on hundreds of buses in New York City and Paris, as well as a massive billboard in Times Square featuring Jobriath’s nude figure—all before the public had heard a note of his music.

Hyperbolic allusions were fed to the press―“Elvis, The Beatles and Jobriath”―and Jobriath attempted to use his sexuality as a selling point, in contrast to glam rock’s technically heterosexual icons David Bowie and Marc Bolan, calling himself “rock’s truest fairy.”

Brandt also announced plans for a series of concerts at the Paris Opera House: a spectacle in which Jobriath, dressed as King Kong, would open the show by scaling a mini-Empire State Building, which would turn into a large penis that ejaculated Jobriath onto his piano, where he would suddenly appear dressed as Marlene Dietrich. Reports vary as to how much preparation actually went into these shows, but Elektra postponed the dates, then canceled them, citing mounting production costs.

After months of hype, Jobriath’s debut album―co-produced with no less than Eddie Kramer (Bowie, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin)―was released in June of 1973. Simply titled Jobriath, the LP received largely positive reviews. Among them was one by Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden, who wrote, “Jobriath brings to rock a voice uncannily reminiscent of Mick Jagger's and a theatrical intuitiveness and thematic sensibility superficially similar to David Bowie's. Like Bowie, Jobriath is fascinated by extraterrestrial fantasies that combine autoeroticism and prophecy, though Jobriath's musical and poetic vernacular are blunter, deliberately eschewing intellectual sophistication for a bold populist stance."

The album was nonetheless a commercial failure, despite the barrage of promotion. Follow-up Creatures of the Night, also a collaboration with Kramer, was released six months later. When it was reissued in 2008 (by Collectors’ Choice alongside Jobriath), PopMatters allowed: “Sonically, these songs are amazing, the arrangements impressive in their blend of gospel and soul flourishes over rock and classical structures, and Jobriath’s voice is brilliant as he inhabits his characters.” His sophomore release fared even worse in the marketplace due to a complete lack of promotion.

The would-be superstar at last made his public debut on The Midnight Special performing standout “I’maman,” a song that challenged conventional notions of masculinity. But the viewing public scarcely knew what to make of his unapologetic blend of musical theater and full-out rock and roll.

Ultimately, he was too “out there” for mainstream audiences, and even the LGBTQ+ community didn’t readily accept him as gay culture was moving towards a more leather-bound, hypermasculine sense of identity, as opposed to Jobriath’s effeminate brand of old-Hollywood glam. He was targeted in the press, which made a laughingstock of the performer poised to be “the next David Bowie.”

When Jobriath finally had his concert premiere, in June of 1974, the shows were a far cry from the mammoth production the Paris extravaganza was intended to be. Rather, they were intimate affairs at New York’s Bottom Line. A national tour concluded with a sold-out show at the University of Alabama, where Jobriath and his band performed five encores and were eventually shut down by the fire marshal. But this success was an exception. Jobriath was dropped by Elektra before a third album could be completed.

In January 1975, less than two years after his requisitely rock-star-handsome visage was plastered all over New York City, Jobriath announced his retirement from the music industry and took up residence in the pyramid-shaped apartment atop the famed Chelsea Hotel. He reinvented himself yet again, this time as a cabaret singer known alternately as “Bryce Campbell” and “Cole Berlin,” playing clubs and restaurants and occasionally supplementing his income with sex work (under yet another assumed identity, “Joby”). He also wrote a number of musical works and plays during this period.

He began to feel ill as early as 1981 but continued performing and writing. Jobriath died at his piano in 1983, one of music’s first AIDS casualties.

While he never enjoyed the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, his music and story have been championed by artists like Morrissey and Def Leppard, who’ve performed and recorded Jobriath’s material in an effort to shed light on one of music’s great lost artists―and because, for some, it’s hard to resist an obscure but beautifully crafted and highly melodic, Broadway-spiced pop song.

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