On September 18, 1977, Aaron Russo, Bette Midler’s manager, produced “A Star-Spangled Night for Rights” at the Hollywood Bowl. The focus of the four and a half hour concert was gay rights. Performers included Midler, War, Richard Pryor, Helen Reddy, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits and Tanya Tucker. Among the approximately 17,000 people in the audience was Paul Newman, Olivia Newton-John, Valerie Harper and Robert Blake.
It had been a rough year for gay rights. In June, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign proved successful when Dade County, Florida voters repealed the gay rights ordinance they had just passed in January. In Arkansas, the state legislature reinstated the sodomy laws it repealed two years earlier.
As a result of these setbacks, gay rights marches appeared around the country, official Gay Pride parades drew their highest number of participants to date, and Russo organized the concert to benefit the Save Our Human Rights Foundation.
California Senator John Briggs threatened to blacklist every Hollywood performer or politician who supported or attended the show. The following year Briggs sponsored a proposition to remove all gay or lesbian employees and their supporters from California schools. The measure was defeated due in large part to the efforts of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. On September 18, 1977, Milk had yet to be elected to that position.
The concert went well for its first few performances, but took an ugly turn when comedian Pryor took the stage. Among the things he said: “Motherfuck women’s rights!” “Fags are prejudiced.” “I’m sick of y’all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were you doing during the Watts riots – sucking each other’s dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I’m getting the fuck out of here.” And the finale, “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my happy rich black ass!” It wasn’t his best material. And yes, if given the choice between arson, destruction, looting, beatdowns and fellatio, my selection is a no-brainer.
Next on the concert bill…Tom Waits! It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer was to perform a comedy set at Mr. Burns’ birthday party. Mr. Smithers gets on stage and announces “I have some sad news to report. A small puppy, not unlike Lassie, was just run over in the parking lot. And now it’s time for the comedy stylings of Homer Simpson!”
Waits was invited to perform at the event by his close friend Bette Midler, who he met three years earlier at The Bottom Line in New York. Subsequently, Midler recorded Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” in 1976 and they did a duet on Waits’ Foreign Affairs album released the year of the Hollywood Bowl show.
Before Waits took the stage Aaron Russo came out to apologize for Pryor’s outburst. “I’m terribly embarrassed and don’t know what to say about what just happened, but I do think this show tonight started out and will end up on a positive note.” However, the audience was agitated. Waits gave up after two songs.
The crowd wanted the headliner. Bette Midler bounded on stage and asked the crowd “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass?” The crowd cheered and she closed the show.
Today Tom Waits turns 65. Aside from Milder, his compositions have been recorded by Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones, among others. Here are twenty career highlights.