It’s interesting that Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records who in 1970 told his top male vocalist Marvin Gaye that the new song Gaye had written, “What’s Going On,” was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” and that he shouldn’t do protest songs, would five years later have Motown be the first major label to release a pro-gay anthem.
Bunny Jones, a heterosexual Christian woman, owned several beauty salons in Harlem. Most of her employees were gay. Seeing how they needed to suppress their natural selves and being aware of the issues they faced, she wrote song lyrics about a man who says he’s “happy, carefree and gay,” the way God made him.
Set to music written by Chris Spierer, also straight, Jones looked for a male vocalist to record her song. After catching a performance of Hair at the Westbury Music Fair, she approached one of the show’s actors, Charles “Valentino” Harris, and told him of the song.
In 1975, at age 22, Valentino recorded his only record, a single entitled “I Was Born This Way.” Jones released it on a label she started, named Gaiee. On her own she sold 15,000 copies of the song. This got the attention of Berry Gordy, whose Motown Records picked up the single for distribution.
Valentino’s record got some club play, particularly in the UK where it was a #1 disco hit.
Two years later Motown approached a gospel singer named Carl Bean and asked him if he would record a new version of “I Was Born This Way.” Unbeknownst to Motown, Bean was gay. In early 1978, Bean’s version of the tune reached #15 on the Billboard Disco chart.
The song has since become something of a classic. Two years after Bean’s success with “I Was Born This Way,” Motown released Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” It would hold the #1 position on the Disco chart for five weeks and have much crossover success at pop and r&b radio as well.
Today Berry Gordy celebrates his 85th birthday. Friday is dance day at Tunes du Jour. Here are twenty of Motown’s best disco/dance tracks from the 1970s thru 1990.
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