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100 years of LGBT music and why gay history didn’t start with Stonewall

100 years of LGBT music and why gay history didn’t start with Stonewall

A mural celebrating David Bowie in Brixton, London, photographed by Darryl Bullock

You might think pop stars singing openly about same-sex love is a relatively recent phenomenon. A new book explodes that myth.

David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 years of LGBT Music, by Bristol-based British writer Darryl W Bullock, takes a comprehensive look back at a century’s worth of queer artists.

Most of us are familiar with the likes of Elton John, Scissor Sisters, Freddie Mercury, Boy George and Sam Smith. However, music fans are likely to treasure this exhaustive tome as it highlights the contribution from many artists now forgotten or, in some cases, unappreciated during their lifetimes.

It also demonstrates that not only have there been LGBT recording artists since the dawn of recorded music but many did little to hide their sexual orientation.

Jazz, blues and cabaret

The book begins in the bordellos of New Orleans. Gay pianist and singer Tony Jackson earned a cult following in the early 1900s and was among the first to hear one of his compositions committed to record.

The earliest days of blues and jazz had plenty of queer voices. Some of them were surprisingly brazen (Ma Rainey, Gladys Jackson).

In Europe, gay culture flourished in Germany’s Weimar Republic prior to the rise of Nazism. In England, Noel Coward was but the most successful of several gay singer songwriters – many of who earned a living on the music hall circuit.

‘What surprised me most was how “out” a lot of gay, lesbian and bisexual artists were in the years before World War II,’ says Bullock to GSN.

Darryl W. Bullock
Darryl W. Bullock

‘If you look back the 20s and 30s, to the Pansy Craze and the Berlin cabaret period, and even a decade earlier, to the birth of jazz, there were some really out and outrageous gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals, who were fiercely proud of their sexuality, and weren’t bothered about people knowing that they were gay or not.

‘We’ve been brought up to think gay history started with Stonewall, and it just didn’t.’

Forgotten figures

Names now largely forgotten include 50s crooner Johnnie Ray. His career stalled when he was arrested by the Detroit vice squad on the charge of soliciting and undercover policeman.

Then there was the flamboyant Esquerita. An African American, proto rock’n’roller, his wild act was a direct influence on Little Richard (someone who has himself given conflicting accounts of his sexuality).

Billy Tipton was an acclaimed jazz musician in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It was only after his death in 1989 that his family revealed the fact he had been transgender. His sons only learned of the fact themselves when their father was dying.

L-R: Ma Rainey, Billy Tipton and Johnnie Ray
L-R: Ma Rainey, Billy Tipton and Johnnie Ray Wikimedia Commons

Bullock says he continues to discover forgotten artists.

‘Arthur Conley had a massive hit with Sweet Soul Music in the 1960s. Everyone knows that song. Then he came out, left America, went to Amsterdam, and lived for 20 years in pretty happy anonymity. He just performed and released records occasionally under a different name.’

He says one of the pleasures of researching the book was discovering acts and songs he hadn’t previously heard about.

‘I’m still discovering things I didn’t know when I was writing the book,’ Bullock laughs. ‘More recently I’ve discovered a very out, gay r’n’b soul act from the 50s called Charlie and Ray, who released around nine singles and were outrageous on stage.

‘Their records are very sexually ambiguous – which is unusual for the time. Most records at the time were ‘I love you girl’, but there’s none of that in their records. They don’t mention gender.’

Glad to be gay

Bullock says the first queer artists to make a big impression on him was Tom Robinson. Specifically his 1978 post-punk anthem, Glad to be Gay.

‘It was around the time I tried to come out to my dad, so I was about 14. I’d tried to come out to him and he didn’t deal with it very well, so I kept it quiet, but it was while I was dealing with my own sexuality and coming to terms with it.

‘I saw Tom Robinson performing an angry, acoustic version of Glad to be Gay on the Secret Policeman’s Ball. It blew my mind. I’ve always been passionate about music, but grew up on a diet of the Beatles and Tamla Motown and stuff like that. Seeing Robinson play, realizing there was this music out there that was quite angry, punky, and I could actually relate to myself.

It would still take Bullock a few more years to come out himself.

‘I tried to conform for a little while and go out with girls. I got engaged when I was 16 to a girl. That would have been around 1981. But I realized it was wrong, completely, and it was at that point that I had to come clean.

‘Although I didn’t tell everybody, I told a few close friends. Most dealt with it quite badly, but I’d made my decision, and then from the age of about 20, I came out completely and decided everyone needed to know.’

Queer connections

Bullock’s love for music has continued throughout his life. He talks with passion about contemporary artists such as John Grant and country singer Drake Jensen.

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, the Tate in London hosted a major exhibition of ‘queer art.’ Some question whether you can conveniently lump together artists based only on their sexuality. Where does Bullock stand on this in relation to music acts?

‘Personally, I think it goes back to influence. Little Richard is someone obviously incredibly conflicted about his sexuality. But his influence is palpable. It’s huge. Especially on David Bowie.

‘That’s the thing for me. I’m not trying to write a book to claim everyone’s friends with each other. What I want to say is everything an artist does affects someone else. If each of these artists, in their own way, have influenced the next generation, that’s incredibly important.

‘And I do think it’s important these people are celebrated, remembered and put back in public consciousness for what they did, even if it was only a little. They still helped to put us where we are today.’

Important voices

Does the success of performers like Sam Smith and Sia mean sexuality is irrelevant now for musicians in countries like the US, UK and Australia?

‘Sexuality isn’t irrelevant. As long as there is a fight somewhere in the world, it’s always going to be relevant. Until we can eradicate homophobia in the rest of the world, it’s going to be relevant.

‘For me, if you’re a teenage kid feeling massively repressed, living with a redneck family who won’t even have a conversation with you about sexuality, hearing a voice, it could be Sam Smith or Sia … hearing or knowing there is someone out there that has this voice, it’s basically putting their arm around you and telling you everything’s going to be OK. It’s so important.’

David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, by Darryl Bullock, is published 7 September There will be a public launch event and panel discussion on Friday (8 September) at the British Library in London.