Thursday, 30 June 2016

Sylvester part 1

Today, our subject is another artist who had no problem letting the world know that he was gay. Compared to yesterday's Labi Siffre though, he was flamboyant, while Labi was low-key: he lived an adventurous life, while Siffre led a quiet one: more importantly, he had a life that was too short, being taken at 41 by the plague that AIDS was in the 80s. He is Sylvester James, Jr., known to everybody by his first name, Sylvester.

Sylvester was born in Watts, L.A. in 1947 to a middle-class African-American family. His father left home while Sylvester was still young and his mother later remarried. She was a devout Pentecostal Christian and young Sylvester went with her to church every Sunday, where he developed an interest in gospel music. Having been an avid singer since the age of three, Sylvester regularly joined in with gospel performances.

Sylvester realized that he was gay at an early age. At the age of eight, he engaged in sexual activity with a far older man at the church, although he would always maintain that this was consensual and not sexual molestation. His mother could not accept that he was gay and neither could the church congregation: Sylvester was forced to leave the church at age 13 and to leave his mother's house at age 15.

Sylvester spent much of the next decade staying with friends and relatives, in particular his grandmother Julia, who expressed no disapproval of his homosexuality. He began frequenting local gay clubs and built up a group of friends from the local gay black community, eventually forming themselves into a group which they called the Disquotays. The group dressed up like women, and threw ferocious gay parties in neighborhoods whose strongest institutions were conservative black churches. Legendary Etta James befriended them and would often offer her home as the location to their parties.

Sylvester's boyfriend during the latter part of the 1960s was a young man named Lonnie Prince; well-built and attractive, many of Sylvester's friends described the pair as being "the It couple". He went through a variety of jobs, from cooking in McDonalds to being a make-up artist in a mortuary. By the end of the decade, the Disquotays had begun to drift apart, so Sylvester decided to move to San Francisco, where he joined an avant-garde performance art drag troupe known as The Cockettes.

Although a significant member of the troupe, Sylvester remained a relatively isolated figure; not only was he one of very few African-American members, he eschewed the group's more surrealist activities for what he saw as classier, more glamorous performances onstage. In the Cockettes' performances, he was usually given an entire scene to himself, often with little relevance to the narrative and theme of the rest of the show, although through doing so, he gained his own following.

On New Year’s Eve 1970, Sylvester met and fell for a young white audience member, Michael Lyons, who was then suffering with a heroin addiction. Sylvester immediately proposed marriage, and they entered a relationship and moved in together. Although same-sex marriage was then illegal throughout the United States, the couple held a wedding in the Shakespeare Garden of Golden Gate Park, in which they proclaimed their love for each other. In keeping with their free love values, they agreed to have other sexual partners and would give each other away to friends as birthday presents.

Soon, the Cockettes began to gain increasing media attention, with celebrities such as Rex Reed, Truman Capote, and Gloria Vanderbilt enthusing about their performances. Rolling Stone magazine singled out Sylvester’s performances for particular praise, describing him as “a beautiful black androgyne who has a gospel sound with the heat and shimmer of Aretha’s.”

The success led the troupe to decide to take their show to New York City, a city with a long history of drag culture. They traveled there in November 1971, staying at the run-down Hotel Albert on 11th Street and immediately immersing themselves in the city’s avant-garde, attending parties held by Andy Warhol and Screw magazine. Spending so much of their time partying, most of the Cockettes didn’t rehearse, the exception being Sylvester, who wanted to perfect his act. When the opening night at the Anderson Theater came about, the Cockettes performed as they had been doing in San Francisco, but their show did not go down well with the audience or the critics, and was panned in media reviews. Sylvester’s act, on the other hand, was widely praised as the highlight of the show. Realizing that he had far better prospects as a solo artist, on the second New York performance he opened his act by telling the audience, “I apologize for this travesty that I’m associated with.” On the seventh performance, he opened the show by walking on, announcing that he would not perform that night because he was leaving the Cockettes, and then walked off. The Cockettes disbanded the following year.

Returning to San Francisco, Sylvester was immediately offered the opportunity to record a demo album by Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine. Using money provided by A&M Records, the album featured a cover of Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s song “Superstar,” which had been a recent hit single for The Carpenters; nevertheless, A&M felt that the work wasn’t commercially viable and declined to release the album. For the album, Sylvester had assembled about him a group of straight white males whom he gave the name of “The Hot Band.” After A&M’s initial rejection, the band provided two songs for Lights Out San Francisco, an album compiled by San Francisco’s KSAN radio and released on the Blue Thumb label. Gaining a number of local gigs, they were eventually asked to open for David Bowie at the Winterland Ballroom; the gig did not sell particularly well, and Bowie would later comment that the people of San Francisco “don’t need me. They’ve got Sylvester,” referring to their shared preference for androgyny.

In early 1973, Sylvester and The Hot Band were signed by Bob Krasnow to Blue Thumb. On this label, they proceeded to produce their first album, in which they switched their sound from blues to rock, which was considered more commercially viable. The backing singers were the Pointer Sisters. Sylvester would name this first album Scratch My Flower, due to a gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker adhered to the cover, although it would instead come to be released under the title of Sylvester and his Hot Band. Scratch My Flower consisted primarily of covers of songs by artists such as James Taylor, Ray Charles, Neil Young, and Leiber and Stoller, and would be described by Sylvester biographer Joshua Gamson as lacking in “the fire and focus of the live shows.” It would proceed to sell poorly.

From this album, here's an interesting cover of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade Of Pale:

Sylvester and his Hot Band went on tour around the United States, receiving threats of violence in several Southern states, where widespread conservative and racist attitudes led to antagonism between the band and locals. Wherever possible on tour, Sylvester would visit gay bathhouses. In late 1973, the band recorded their second album,Bazaar, which included both cover songs and original compositions by bassist Kerry Hatch. Once again, it sold poorly. My Life was specially written for Sylvester, about his life at that time, by W.Peele Jr. & W. Sams Jr.:

Frustrated by the lack of commercial success, the Hot Band left Sylvester in late 1974, after which Krasnow cancelled his recording contract. Sylvester set himself up with a new band, with two drag queens as backing singers and when that didn't work out, he tried forming a new act in 1975, but that didn't work either. He then employed a new manager, who then opened auditions for new backing singers, with Sylvester being captivated by one of those auditioning, Martha Wash. Sylvester asked her if she had another large black friend who could sing, after which she introduced him to Izora Rhodes. Although he referred to them simply as "the girls", Wash and Rhodes named themselves the Two Tons O' Fun and continued to work with Sylvester intermittently until his death, developing a close friendship with him. They were soon joined by bassist John Dunstan and keyboard player Dan Reich.

This formation began playing in gay bars and clubs and they caught the attention of producer Harvey Fuqua, who subsequently signed Sylvester onto a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977. The first album, named simply Sylvester, contained Over And Over by the songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson which was released as a single. The single had some success in Mexico and Europe.

I Tried to Forget You was co-written by Sylvester himself, along with James "Tip" Wirrick:

Tomorrow we'll deal with Sylvester's encounter with mainstream success and the years that led to his early death.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Labi Siffre

Labi Siffre neither had huge international hits, nor broke sensational chart records. He caused no drug or sex scandals - in fact he was with the same man for 49 years. He isn't a superstar, he is a thinking artist, an openly gay singer who has built a small cult following with works that deal squarely with homophobia and racism. In addition to his nine albums, the multi-talented Siffre has written three books of poetry and has also written for the stage. He isn't a diva, he is a regular guy. As much as I enjoy writing about flamboyant, larger-than-life personalities like Bowie, Elton, Little Richard or Cole Porter, sometimes I feel like honouring the less flashy artist, who happens to be talented and does his job well. Hello Mr. Siffre!

Labi, born Claudius Afolabi Siffre in London/1945 was the fourth of five children to a Nigerian father and a British mother of Barbadian-Belgian descent. Despite his Catholic education Siffre has stated that he has always been an atheist. In an interview to The New Humanist he describes his life in relation to religion:

"With neither my permission nor my understanding I was baptised and confirmed a Catholic. My parents didn’t go to church but on Sundays made my brother Kole and I go. By the time I was eleven we went, with the collection money, to a coffee bar instead. I followed Kole into a Catholic monastery school, St Benedict’s in Ealing. The first words I heard from the teaching staff was a disgusted “Oh no, not another Siffre”. I was seven. I would be there for almost eleven years. We were taught by monks (History = the evil of The Dissolution of the Monasteries) and by secular teachers.

I’ve always been an atheist. I’ve never had religious belief. Pre-teens, I assumed God was in the same make-believe category as Father Christmas; a game of pretend between children and grown-ups. Sometime in my early teens I realised, with incredulity, bemusement and regular bouts of “No, they can’t be serious” that they are serious. They really believe in an omnipotent man who lives in the sky, gave us rules by which to live, does magic tricks of life and death and, though all knowing, is excused responsibility for the consequences of his creative actions."

In 1964, at the age of 19, he met the love of his life Peter John Carver Lloyd. They remained together until Lloyd's death in 2013, having entered a civil partnership in 2005, as soon as this was possible in the UK. In the same interview, given a year before his partner's death, he also talks about gay marriage:

"I favour it. In time it will help heterosexuals realize that love is love is love is love and the responsibilities inherent in love, regardless of sexuality, should and must be acknowledged by the state. That inclusion will encourage the ideal that all are accepted as valid and equal members of society, and thus share equal responsibilities.
I have never felt welcome in the land of my birth. In December 2005 after 41 years of love, my partner, Peter Lloyd, and I entered a Civil Partnership. We gained, for example, the legal right for him to attend my funeral or for me to attend his. The alienation lessened. State recognition of equal validity in love through the equal right to marriage would further lessen that alienation."

He also shares his views on how straight people view gay men:

"Heterosexuals in general are comforted by thinking they can tell if someone is gay, or not. In order to support that delusion they insist that gay characters be presented to them (the majority audience) in a way that they, in their arrogance, will accept as gay. Primarily this means camp (or being a depraved killer who loves opera or strokes his cat in a sinister way). In that regard little has changed. In terms of sexuality, the challenge has always been for heterosexuals to display more backbone."

Siffre played jazz guitar at a jazz club in Soho in the 1960s as part of a band. His top three all-time musicians/bands are The Beatles, Glen Gould & Charlie Parker. His top 3 all-time composers are Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schönberg. Other influences include Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzerald, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Errol Garner, Jimmy Reed, Wes Montgomery, Ahmed Jamal, the MJQ, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Stan Tracey, Gil Evans, Gary Burton, Mel Tormé, Ray Bryant, Carmen McCrae, Jimmy Giuffre and Gerry Mulligan.

His first album, with his name as the title, came out in 1970. It was an impressive first album. We'll hear two songs from it: first, I Don't Know What's Happened To The Kids Today is sung from the point of view of the older generation:

Love Song for Someone is a tender love song:

His second album came out in 1971 and was called The Singer and the Song. The opening song is a jazzy love song that starts out playfully and climaxes thoughtfully:

Bless The Telephone, a beautiful song, was interpolated by RJD2 for his song "Making Days Longer" (2004):

Crying Laughing Loving Lying (1972) was his most successful album in the UK. It contained It Must Be Love, a hit single at #14:

A few years later it was covered by Madness and was an even bigger hit (#4 UK, #33 US):

The next single, Crying Laughing Loving Lying did even better in the UK, peaking at #11:

Also in this album, My Song was sampled by Kanye West in his song I Wonder (2007):

From that same year, his song Watch Me made #29 in the UK chart:

His next album was For the Children (1973). Prayer was one of the songs:

The Children Of Children was another:

The next album was Remember My Song (1975). The opening song was I Got The. The song was sampled by Eminem (and his producer Dr. Dre) in My Name Is (1998). Siffre had something to say about it:

"Dissing the victims of bigotry – women as bitches, homosexuals as faggots – is lazy writing. Diss the bigots not their victims. I denied sample rights till that lazy writing was removed. I should have stipulated “all versions” but at that time knew little about rap’s “clean” & “explicit” modes, so they managed to get the lazy lyric on versions other than the single and first album."

Here's Labi's song:

The Vulture was also in this album:

Disillusioned by the limited success of his albums and fed up with the treatment of Black artists by the British music industry ("The insistence that one should be “ethnic” is endemic, irritating and insulting"), Siffre went in self-imposed retirement. He came out of it in 1985, when he saw a television film from apartheid South Africa showing a white soldier shooting at black children. In response to it, he wrote Something Inside So Strong which, when released in 1987, became his biggest hit, peaking at #4 in the UK:

Lovers was also in this album:

Man of Reason was released in 1991. The album opened with City Of Dreams:

Also in the album was Sensible Betrayal In The City, a song on sexual politics:

His last song album, in 1998, was appropriately titled The Last Songs. The songs of this album don't appear to be on youtube, but they can be found on spotify. It's really worth listening to: Labi Siffre - Last Songs

In addition to his music, Labi Siffre has published essays, the stage and TV play Deathwrite and three volumes of poetry - Nigger, Blood On The Page and Monument. A renaisssance man indeed.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Johnny Mathis

Today's person of interest is a cool singer in the style of Nat "King" Cole, who has sold over 350 000 000 records around the world, making him the third biggest selling artist of the 20th century. He is also an accomplished athlete, who once (in 1956) had to choose between going to the Olympics and his recording career: he chose the latter. He's considered to be the first black millionaire. Also, he was really sexy in his youth. He is Johnny Mathis.

Mathis was born in Texas in 1935, the fourth of seven children. When he was 4, the family moved to San Francisco. His parents were domestic workers (professional cooks). His father also worked in vaudeville. He was a singer and played the piano and Johnny was fascinated with him. Here he is, discussing his early life, in a 2014 interview for the UK paper, The Guardian:

"I got involved early and extensively in singing in every capacity of my daily life – I sang in church choirs and in choirs at school. I took music lessons. My dad taught me my first songs, took me fishing, hunting – a lot of outdoor activities, free activities; that was the main thing, it didn't cost anything.

My oldest brother was sick for a very long time before he died. I forget the disease but he was hospitalised for a long time and he needed care. He was a wonderful guy and he died too soon. And mum and dad, they died very early because I think they just worked too hard. Mum was just 56 when she died and Dad was 64 but the impact of their deaths on us was muted. We're a little reserved in our emotions and although I think we felt it and it had a great bearing on our lives, we didn't show any outward signs. But their legacy, as far as I was concerned, was extraordinary. Mum taught me to cook and Dad taught me a lot of things, mostly how to sing."

In 1954, he enrolled at San Francisco State University on an athletic scholarship, intending to become an English teacher and a PE teacher. A few months later, while singing at a jam session with a friend's jazz sextet at a club, he attracted the attention of the club's co-founder, Helen Noga. She became Mathis' music manager and in September 1955, having learned that George Avakian, head of Popular Music A&R at Columbia Records, was on vacation near San Francisco, she managed to persuade him to come hear Mathis at the Club that he was singing. After hearing Mathis sing, Avakian sent his record company a telegram stating: "Have found phenomenal 19-year-old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts."

Turning down the chance to compete in the Olympics for his singing career, Mathis released his first album, a slow-selling jazz album, in late 1956. His second album was produced by Columbia's vice-president and famous producer Mitch Miller, who helped define the Mathis sound, consisting now of soft, romantic ballads.

The first single to come out of this collaboration, in early 1957, is actually my favorite Mathis song. Wonderful, Wonderful is a great song and a million seller. It peaked only at #14 in the US Pop chart, but its influence was much bigger than that. It was used in many films and TV shows, more notably in The X-Files and Desperate Housewives.

It's Not for Me to Say, which followed, was as influential. Its chart fortunes were even better (#5 US) and established Johnny Mathis as a force to be reckoned with. Here's a live version of the song:

His next single really upped his game: Chances Are was a #1 hit, became a gold record and was inducted in the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1998. Johnny was now a superstar.

The B-side to Chances Are was almost as popular: The Twelfth of Never also reached the US Top 10 (at #9). 16 years later it was a #1 hit in the UK by Donny Osmond.

Near the end of 1957, a great year for Mathis, came this Oscar-nominated song: Wild Is The Wind, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, appeared in the celebrated movie of the same name, starring Anna Magnani, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Franciosa.

His biggest hit for 1958 was another Oscar-nominated film song: A Certain Smile was from the movie of the same name starring Joan Fontaine and Rossano Brazzi. It was written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster and made #14 in the US, while it was also his first big UK hit, reaching #4.

During that very same year, his album Johnny's Greatest Hits was released. It went to #1 and stayed in the US Albums chart for 490 non-consecutive weeks (last chart appearance was in 1968). For 15 years it held the record for the most number of weeks on the US album chart, until this record was broken in 1983 by Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon.

1959 saw the release of another classic from Johnny: Misty, composed by Erroll Garner with lyrics from Johnny Burke, made #12 in both the US & the UK.

In 1960, My Love for You was yet another Top 10 for him in the UK.

Gina, in 1962, returned him in the US Top 10 after 5 years. It was a tribute to Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.

What Will My Mary Say was also a US Top 10 hit, a few months later, in 1963.

In 1965, here he is with another Oscar-nominated song: The Sweetheart Tree was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the Blake Edwards' film starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, The Great Race.

In 1966, this time he picked an Oscar winner to sing: the classic The Shadow of Your Smile came from the Taylor-Burton vehicle The Sandpiper.

In 1967 he covered Folk troubadour Tim Hardin's Misty Roses (there are also great versions by the 5th Dimension and the Zombies, among others).

In 1968, still putting his faith in movie songs, there was the Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (A Time For Us), the Nino Rota theme arranged by Henry Mancini.

In 1975, he returned to the UK charts with I'm Stone in Love with You, a song that was previously an international hit by the Stylistics.

A year later, he had his first #1 in the UK with the Xmas hit When a Child Is Born.

In 1978 came his biggest hit ever: #1 in th US Hot 100, #1 US R&B and #1 in the UK. It was a duet with Deniece Williams called Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.

In 1982 came a duet with the great Dionne Warwick called Friends In Love: it was to be his last US Top 40 hit.

Johnny Mathis wasn't too vocal about his sexuality. He never attempted to pass as straight, but he didn't proclaim his gayness until an interview in Us Magazine in 1982, where he was quoted as having said, "Homosexuality is a way of life that I've grown accustomed to." On April 13, 2006, Mathis granted a podcast interview with The Strip in which he talked about the subject once again, and how some of his reluctance to speak on the subject was partially generational.

In an interview for UK Saga Magazine in 2011, Mathis said of his sexuality: "Well, there was a time when it was perceived as such a negative, then Elton and others came out and it became “What’s the big deal?” I got over that a long time ago but I used to be concerned people would think it made my music not as good as that of others."

Bucknell University's Vincent L Stephens wrote an interesting article called Shaking the Closet: Analyzing Johnny Mathis’s Sexual Elusiveness, 1956-1982, in which he says:

"Though pop crooner Johnny Mathis inadvertently revealed his homosexuality in a 1982 “off-the-record” interview his sexuality had long been an open secret prior to this disclosure. “Shaking the Closet” argues that the notion of “the closet” is insufficient for understanding Mathis’s career and those of many other seemingly “closeted” queer public figures. The presentation suggests that the non-threatening sexual image Mathis presented in the 1950s was an overt commercial strategy intended to appease white audiences and adhere to an imperative for public respectability, an enduring theme within African-American cultural politics. Despite these seeming compromises close critical attention to his musical choices, visual imagery, and press clippings reveals a complex performance of sexual elusiveness that is as available to a queer gaze as the racialized heterosexual gaze implicit to pop music. The presentation offers Mathis’s career as an exemplar of queer subjectivity informed by a combination of racial, sexual, and commercial contexts that define sex and gender disclosure beyond the typical verbal rituals associated with “coming out,” and transcending the usual connotations of the sexual closet."

Johnny Mathis, now an octagenarian, is still alive and well and performing: 5 months ago he performed to a sold out audience in Florida's The Villages as part of his “60th Anniversary Concert Tour." There's life and there's music in him yet.