Queer Music Of The 1950s and 1960s

Happy 2021 Pride! Though LGBTQ+ Pride should be celebrated every month, June is the month officially designated to celebrating one’s identity, orientation and possible otherness.

To celebrate Pride this year I’m going to create thirty-song playlists broken out by decade, kicking off today with two decades combined – the 1950s and the 1960s. I’ll post these lists sporadically throughout the month.

Here is what you’ll hear on today’s playlist and what makes it queer:

“Cry” – Johnnie Ray

Poor old Johnnie Ray, as he was referred in Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen,” was a closeted gay man, arrested for soliciting male undercover officers on more than one occasion. “Cry” was a humongous hit, spending more than two months at #1.

“Hound Dog” – Big Mama Thornton

Chances are you’re familiar with Elvis Presley’s hugely successful version of this song from 1956. Three years earlier, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, who preferred to dress in what would be considered men’s clothing, sold a half million copies of her version, from which she made $500.

“Too Much” – Bernard Hardison

Another song covered by Elvis, Bernard Hardison released his version two years prior to The King. The song was played on the web radio series Queer Music Heritage, though I cannot find any other indication anywhere about Hardison’s sexual orientation.

“Don’t You Want a Man Like Me” – Billy Wright

As a youth, Billy Wright sang the gospel in church and worked as a female impersonator. The openly gay Wright was an influence on young Little Richard, suggesting he wear his hair in the pompadour style. Speaking of…

“Tutti Frutti” – Little Richard

No matter that the hit version altered the original lyrics “Tutti frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy,” the song and the performer are oh so queer.

“Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” – Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns

As his nickname might indicate, Huey Smith was a piano player. The singer in his band was an openly gay man named Bobby Marchan.

“Chances Are” – Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis never covered up his sexual orientation, though he didn’t come out as gay until 1982, when a reporter printed his off the record acknowledgment.

“Jailhouse Rock” – Elvis Presley

“Number 47 said to number 3, ‘You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company. Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me.” Nothing queer about that, right?

“Secretly” – Jimmie Rodgers

“Wish we didn’t have to meet, secretly / Wish we didn’t have to kiss, secretly / Wish we didn’t have to be afraid to show the world that we’re in love / ‘Til we have the right to meet openly / ‘Til we have the right to kiss openly / We’ll just have to be content to be in love secretly.” Make of those lyrics what you will.

“Rockin’ the Joint” – Esquerita

Though Little Richard released records prior to Esquerita, it was Black flamboyant Esquerita who taught Little Richard his style of piano playing and perhaps introduced the high-pitched “whoo”s in his singing.

“Frances and Her Friends” – Frances Faye

Frances Faye was openly embracing of bisexuality in her stage shows, as the lyrics of this tune will attest. In the late 1950s she met a woman named Teri Shepherd who became her life partner.

“My Baby Likes Western Guys” – Brenda Lee

Oh, does he now?

“He Don’t Care About Me” – The Miracles

Yes, those Miracles. Written by Smokey Robinson with lead vocals by his wife Claudette, you wonder why he don’t care about her. When she sings “Don’t he know that I could make him gay?,” you just have to respond “Girrrrrrrl!”

“Up on the Roof” – The Drifters

Rudy Lewis, who sang lead on this Drifters hit as well as “On Broadway” and others, was a closeted gay man who sadly died of a drug overdose when he was just 27 years old.

“Any Other Way” – Jackie Shane

Though she didn’t call herself trans, Jackie Shane presented and sang in a way typically associated with women. She considered herself to be a gay man, and my use of pronouns here is not intended to disrespect that.

“You Don’t Own Me” – Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore came out as a lesbian in 2005, revealing that she knew she was attracted to women since age 20 and never sought to hide out, though didn’t announce it before then.

“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – The Beatles

Many believe that The Beatles’ John Lennon wrote this song about the group’s gay manager, Brian Epstein. It wasn’t until 1967, two years after this song’s release, that England decriminalized sex between two men over the age of 21, and Epstein would no longer have to hide his love away. Sadly, he died in August of that year.

“See My Friends” – The Kinks

The Kinks’ Ray Davies wrote this song about a young man who is unsure of his sexual orientation, a feeling Davies said he experienced.

“To Try for the Sun” – Donovan

The song’s teenage narrator and his “gypsy boy” friend have an obvious affection for each other. “And who’s going to be the one to say it was no good what we done?”

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” – Dusty Springfield

“I know that I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. There was someone on television the other night who admitted that he swings either way. I suppose he could afford to say it, but I, being a pop singer, shouldn’t even admit that I might think that way. But if the occasion arose I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” – Dusty Springfield, 1970, in an interview with The Evening Standard

“Do You Come Here Often?” – The Tornados

Produced by legendary gay producer Joe Meek, “Do You Come Here Often?” has to be heard to be believed. The song was the b-side of a forgotten 45, released on a major record label.

“I’m a Boy” – The Who

The story of a boy whose parents wanted a girl, so his mother raises him as a girl.

“Willkommen” – Joel Grey

From the Tony Award winning musical Cabaret, written by openly gay lyricist Fred Ebb and openly gay composer John Kander, based on a book by openly gay writer Christopher Isherwood, comes this number, performed by Joel Grey, who publicly came out in 2015 at age 82.

“Sweet Soul Music” – Arthur Conley

Arthur Conley was living as a closeted gay man in the United States when “Sweet Soul Music” became a smash. He later moved to the Netherlands, changed his name to Lee Roberts, met a man who became his life partner, and then lived as an openly gay man.

“Arnold Layne” – Pink Floyd

“Arnold Layne” became Pink Floyd’s first hit single, despite Radio London eventually banning it from airplay as its subject matter of a transvestite stealing women’s clothing off clothes lines was considered by them to be too distasteful for “normal” society.

“Let the Heartaches Begin” – Long John Baldry

Reginald Dwight changed his name to Elton John after Elton Dean, a fellow musician in the backing band of Long John Baldry, the gay vocalist from where the John comes.

“Save the Country” – Laura Nyro

The late Laura Nyro was bisexual, enjoying romantic relationships with men and women, the longest one being with painter Maria Desiderio.

“Triad” – The Byrds

Written by The Byrds’ David Crosby, this 1967 recording of a song about a throuple went unreleased until 1987.

“Candy Says” – The Velvet Underground

Inspired by Candy Darling, a transgender actress in Andy Warhol films, “Candy Says” tells of a trans woman who has “come to hate her body.”

“That’s the Way God Planned It” – Billy Preston

A brilliant musician whose friends and collaborators knew he was gay, Billy Preston didn’t publicly come out until shortly before his passing in 2006.

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Throwback Thursday: 1964

Nobody would deny that 1964 was among the most pivotal years in rock and roll. Nobody except Lester, a guy I worked with decades ago. He was an idiot. The Beatles and the other artists who stormed the US pop charts during the first British Invasion made an indelible impact on contemporary music and culture. Motown was ascending and producing classic singles. Girl groups were still hanging around creating pop perfection. Bob Dylan was making himself known, messing with the vocals one expected on a hit record. And Dionne Warwick was already the queen of Twitter.

Here are thirty songs that partly defined 1964. Take note, Lester.

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A Carole King Playlist

Here’s a fun fact (or three): In the history of the Billboard Hot 100, nine songs have hit #1 performed by different artists. The first two songs to achieve this feat were “Go Away Little Girl” (Steve Lawrence in 1963 and Donny Osmond in 1971) and “The Loco-motion” (Little Eva in 1962 and Grand Funk in 1974). Both of those were written by Carole King (b. February 9, 1942) and the late Gerry Goffin, who she married. To date Carole King has a writing credit on 118 Hot 100 hits. 118. One hundred eighteen.

Here are 30 of those 118 songs Carole co-wrote.

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Throwback Thursday: 1988

Nineteen eighty eight was, on the US pop music chart, one of those in-between years. The “New Wave” British invasion had greatly subsided and England wasn’t as much of a presence on the charts as it was a few years earlier. Rap was increasing in popularity and hitting the top 40 more frequently, though it was still a far cry from the dominant position it holds today. Of the hip hop song’s on today’s playlist, only two made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 – LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali,” which peaked at #31, despite selling a million copies, and Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” which peaked at #36, despite selling two million copies. Alternative music lived up to its genre name as an alternative to the music on the pop chart, so if you wanted to hear Sonic Youth or The Dead Milkmen or The Primitives, you had to tune into college radio or the stations on the left side of your FM dial. Those artists, alongside U2, R.E.M. and INXS, could be found on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, which premiered in September of 1988. New Jack Swing tracks from artists such as Keith Sweat remained popular on Black radio and crossed over, while Black artists such as Tracy Chapman and Living Colour failed to make much of an impression on Black radio. So-called Hair Metal was a presence on the pop chart; grunge would help fix that in a few years. Configuration-wise, CDs outsold vinyl LPs for the first time in 1988, though cassettes outsold both.

Here are thirty of 1988’s finest:

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Your (Almost) Daily Playlist (11-8-20)

Inspired by the November 8 birthdays of Bonnie Raitt, Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace, Eric B., Rickie Lee Jones, Sam Sparro, Wizzard’s Roy Wood, Minnie Riperton, The Manhattans’ Gerald Alston, Leif Garrett, Khia, J.J. Jackson, Diana King, Patti Page, Icona Pop’s Caroline Hjelt and Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew.