Nov 2012 Script
Guy Blackman: Everyone Involved were a collective of musicians in the early 70's in London. They were about 16 people who banded together to record this album, called "Either/Or" and they only made a thousand copies of it, in kind of plain sleeves and they stamped "do not buy this record, do not pay for this record" on the labels. And insisted that it just be given away for free and they divided the thousand copies among all the members, and then just gave it to their friends. It was very high-minded and was probably one of the first instances of openly gay songwriting that I could find, for "Strong Love," so for me I had to put that song as the first track on the compilation because of the historical significance of it.
Everyone Involved - A Gay Song (1972)
That was a UK band named Everything Involved, and I thought their song, called "A Gay Song," was the perfect one to start this show. This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage and this particular edition of this show for me was a delight. I got to interview Guy Blackman, an artist and record producer from Melbourne, Australia, who recently released a CD compilation that is dear to my heart. He named it "Strong Love," and it celebrates the openly gay music of 15 male artists or bands from the 1970's. So to me this is pure history of the kind I relish. And I'm at a distinct advantage in being the one interviewing him, as I've been in contact with him since he started the project over six years ago, and we've had a lot of communication. So to me, and I hope it comes across that way, it's really a conversation between two friends and historians talking about music they both love. I started off asking Guy how he got the idea for the project and why he wanted to do it.
Guy Blackman: I got the idea because I started collecting these records by obscure 70's openly gay performers. I'm quite a music nerd, been running my record label for 20 years now, and I've always liked putting together compilations. I've done a bunch of them on other subject lines in the past, and it just occurred to me that...you know, I was really taken aback really, when I realized how much great music was out there that hadn't been anthologized before, and most of the artists that I was collecting were pretty much unknown, unremembered, apart from people such as yourself, JD, I thought that people needed to hear it, really. I like the idea of presenting some of this history and making it accessible to a wider audience.
JD: Well, I'm kind of surprised that this idea has almost rarely been done. There was one CD in Germany, called "Queer Noises," about five years ago, and that's about it.
GB: Yeah, I was already working on "Strong Love," as far as I can recall, before "Queer Noises" came out and I was a little bit stopped in my tracks temporarily when I saw that. I thought maybe the work had already been done, but then once I checked that compilation out, and it's a great compilation, and Jon Savage (the producer) did a fantastic job putting it together, it's still quite a different compilation than "Strong Love" in many ways. I mean, "Queer Noises" deals with the subject of homosexuality and a lot of recordings made before Stonewall. You know, "Strong Love" is pretty much the first compilation to address out gay male expression on record.
JD: Right, that's a great compilation, but it's not really out and proud.
GB: No, exactly, you put it a lot more succinctly than I just did, that's for sure.
JD: So, how did you pick the artists and recordings?
GB: Well, to be honest, I scoured your website. A lot of the artists were first introduced to me by episodes of Queer Music Heritage, and reading the transcripts. I mean, there's probably another five or six artists that could conceivably been included on the compilation, but I didn't feel like I was selective as such. I feel like I was really trying to include as much as possible and there isn't all that much to include. I mean, I guess more keeps coming to light the more people explore the subject, but yeah, I mean, there's only about 20-25 records or artists making records that I really discovered. I'm talking about people that fit into my vision of the first wave of openly gay songwriting from Stonewall until pretty much the start of the AIDS crisis.
JD: That may be the answer to my next question, is there a common thread between the artists and songs that you chose.
GB: I really like the diversity across the compilation, I mean, the common thread is the willingness to put your career on the line for the sake of open kind of self-expression, I guess. It must have been a very, very daunting thing to do, especially back in the early 70's when a bunch of these records first started materializing. It's hard to kind of put myself back in there, I mean, I came out about 1991-1992, when I was 17, I think, and by that point I really felt no, no qualms about being openly gay to my family and to my friends. Twenty years before then it would have been a much different situation.
JD: Tell me about your record label.
GB: Oh, my label's called Chapter Music. It has been going since I was a teenager, in my hometown of Perth, in Western Australia. I started it in '92, so this year's the twentieth anniversary of the label, which is exciting...and a bit kind of scary, really. Yeah, it's always had a number of different focuses. I still put out a lot of records by new Australian underground and DIY pop kind of artists. I've done a bunch of reissues. That's always been a strong interest of mine, starting with Australian bands from the late 70's and early 80's during the kind of post punk era. It's a labor of love. I've always worked day jobs and earned money on the side so I can fund the obsession with documenting and promoting the music that I love.
JD: Are there any other releases by gay and lesbian artists on your label?
GB: Well, the Chris Robison Many-Hand Band album came out a few years back on Chapter, that was a reissue of his solo album from 1974 that he recorded all by himself, late nights at studios in New York. He was a member of the New York Dolls, and Steam and Elephant's Memory and a bunch of other great bands. I'm sure the story is told more fully out there on the Queer Music Heritage website.
Well, I did interview Chris Robison in 2005, but I didn't play the late 70's unreleased track Guy includes on this CD, called "Big Strong Man in My Life," so I asked him about it.
GB: "Big Strong Man in My Life" by Chris Robison is a really, really hilarious tongue-in-cheek song written by Chris, basically from a women's perspective. It's a little bit un-pc, really, saying that the women's movement is all well and good, but sometimes I just need a big strong man in my life.
Chris Robison - Big Strong Man in My Life (197x)
JD: You live in Australia, do you think, looking at this collection and putting it together as a quote, foreigner, that you might have had a different perspective?
GB: I'm not sure. I mean, I wasn't restricting myself to only American or only English artists. I mean, I was just looking for whatever I could find in the English language, I guess. Yeah, Australia-wise, I didn't really find anything I felt was really appropriate, as much as I would have liked to. I guess in 2012, being Australian connected to the internet and everything I don't think my perspective is that vastly different from someone from America or the UK or anywhere else.
JD: What was the biggest challenge in the project?
GB: Well, I guess tracking down the artists was complicated at times, and then winning their trust, I guess. You know, I had to let people know somehow that I wasn't just a johnny-come-lately, somebody that was actually going to be able to follow through what I was proposing, even though it took a lot longer than it should have. Some of the licensing issues I found difficult to deal with, for the few artists that actually had their albums released by larger labels, that's where the problems came. I had to approach the publishers of a couple of songs, Steven Grossman, Robert Campbell, and in both instances the turned me down, saying no, I couldn't use the tracks, and then I kind of got around that by various means. So, yeah.
JD: Was there a song in particular that you were just delighted you could include?
GB: I mean, they were all really, really close to my heart...
JD: Yeah, I feel the same way, they're all treasures.
GB: Yeah, exactly. I mean, "Out," "Out" by Steven Grossman was probably one of the ones that I got most excited about when I found out that I could use it, because it was one of the last ones that I got permission to use. I think Steven's position as the first openly gay artist to release an album on a major label, and also just the power of that song "Out" as a coming-out anthem. It's probably one of the strongest feats of songwriting, pure and simple on the record. Yeah, that live in the studio recording has just as much of the power of the original album recording, I think, so I was very satisfied and pleased to get that.
And this would be the perfect time to hear that track. Steven Grossman is one of my heroes and the version Guy was able to use is a live recording from 1975 from KPFA's radio show "Fruit Punch."
Steven Grossman - Out (1975)
JD: What was the Robert Campbell issue?
GB: Oh, just that his record was released on Decca, a major label and also published by a publishing company. It was finding the people who owned the rights, for the copyright and for the publishing. And in the end I came to a direct arrangement with the artist himself, because the reality was that once the compilation emerged it was very unlikely that anyone was going to throw a lawsuit at me or anything like that.
From Robert Campbell's 1977 LP "In the Shadow of a Downtown Movie Show," here is "Dreamboy."
Robert Campbell - Dreamboy (1977)
JD: The person who wrote your liner notes, Richard Dworkin, is a friend of mine and I'm so pleased you got him to that, because he has a unique perspective on many of these artists.
GB: Oh, absolutely. He's one of the few people that actually can say that they saw quite a large number of these artists performing at the time, and he himself played with a bunch of them, having both first hand and second hand interactions with a lot of the artists on the compilation. I was really very pleased with what he wrote for the compilation. It really helped put you there, for people who weren't there at the time.
JD: Right, he gave a real "this is how it was" look at it.
GB: Yeah, exactly. It must have been a pretty exciting time for gay men and gay musicians, just to feel like something was changing, and there was a new freedom, and it was possible to stand up and sing your heart out, openly about being gay, and still find an audience.
JD: Being a historian I couldn't help but notice several of the artists on the CD have connections to each other, like Charlie Murphy and Blackberri and if you widen the circle, Steven Grossman and Buena Vista. For gay men's music, do you think the community was really that small?
GB: I don't...I don't really have a strong idea of how many gigs these people were playing, and how many people were turning up, and what kind of venues that they were welcome to play in. But I do get the feeling...I mean, it was never a large number of people that were really aware of what was going on. Even in the contemporary media at the time I guess these records did get noticed, in The Advocate or something like that. It's quite often that they were dismissed and reviewed very negatively, which I found quite surprising when I first realized that.
JD: I have a number of old issues of The Advocate and gay artists weren't really mentioned that much at all.
GB: Yeah, it's quite surprising really that things that seemed pioneering and almost heroic to people like me and hopefully you now, were not really given much attention, or if they were, kind of dismissed as kind of amateur, or not worthy of being on a pile with Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland, I guess.
JD: I think maybe also, disco was becoming the quote unquote gay music, which I don't agree with, but that got a lot of attention.
GB: Yeah, absolutely. I guess kind of a sensitive guy strumming an acoustic guitar, and singing his personal songs would seem like a big downer to the people caught up in the kind of hedonism of disco at the time.
Well, up next we'll hear about one of those sensitive guys strumming his acoustic guitar, singing a personal song.
JD: I found it interesting with the artist Michael Cohen that you didn't pick a song from his two albums, but you picked one from an earlier album, a very rare album, where he just went by Mike Cohen.
GB: I think that that song, "Evil & Lusty," is probably...I mean, for me...it's his best song. He was the first person that really set me on the path to putting this compilation together. My boyfriend Ben brought home a record from thrift store one day, the first Michael Cohen album on Folkways. That was my first introduction to the concept of openly gay songwriters from the 70's. And it took a long time to percolate but eventually I just became more interested in his story. And I think that's how I discovered your website, JD, because I started googling Michael Cohen, and then found what you'd written about him. And that set me on a path to find other like-minded songwriters and performers. "Evil & Lusty" itself has the lyrics I'm gay and I'm proud. I feel like that's a really, really important statement to make and to be heard to make, and also because I'm a musical history nerd, and this record, the Mike Cohen record, came before his two Folkways ones so it's earlier and more historically significant in some ways.
JD: And definitely more rare.
GB: Yeah, there are not many copies floating around.
To add to that discussion, the self-titled album by Mike Cohen was done in conjunction with volunteers from WBAI-FM in New York City, and was recorded after hours, and it became one of the very earliest lyrically gay albums. From it is the track "Evil & Lusty."
Mike Cohen - Evil & Lusty (1973)
An artist who has long fascinated me went by the name Smokey, and released several 45s in the late 1970's, with titles like "Leather," "The Ballad of Butchie & Claudine," and one used on this compilation, named "Strong Love." So I naturally wanted to know why that song was made the title track.
JD: Why did make "Strong Love" the title track?
GB: That's an interesting one. I felt like the name, the title of the song jumped out at me as a really appropriate name for the compilation. You know, I had some misgivings because the actual song, "Strong Love," doesn't have specific gay, man to man kind of references in it. I mean, it could be taken as a song as a man to a women, or just because of the context, and the story behind the band Smokey, I felt like it was...and also, Smokey himself, him telling me that the song was just a song about gay love, I felt that meant that the song was suitable for the compilation. I just liked the idea that the compilation is about the growing strength in some ways of open expressions of gay love, so yeah, I felt "Strong Love" was a good compilation title.
JD: I understand you have a CD of Smokey material in the works.
GB: Yeah, that's been coming for a while now, and it's getting closer and closer and closer. I think they released five 7-inchers...those 7-inchers though are some of the outlandish and amazing music that I've ever heard. And then there's a whole wealth of unreleased stuff that the guys have in their vaults, because Smokey was basically a duo of the singer John "Smokey" Condon and his partner E.J. Emmons. And E.J. was an engineer who recorded a bunch of disco artists and some new wave bands in L.A. in the 70's and 80's. And so they had access to studio time whenever they wanted basically, and I think they just recorded and recorded and recorded, from 1973 to 1981, so there's just a wealth of material. And I think that's been one of the things that's meant the compilation's taken a while to see the light of day, cause there's just so much stuff to wade through and to remaster and to select. It's hard to pick which ones cause there's so much great stuff there.
JD: Will it be a double disc?
GB: Well, at the moment it's all fitting on one CD, but I'm also planning a separate 12" for one of their most out-there songs, by the name of "Piss Slave." So, yeah, there's a vinyl LP planned...you'd get a download card in it that has all the stuff that can't fit onto the vinyl, but then you'll have a CD version as well that has everything.
So there's an excellent teaser for a future release on Guy's label of material by Smokey, but for right now here is his song "Strong Love."
Smokey - Strong Love (1976)
JD: Have you had any criticism about the CD to the tune of "where are the women?"
GB: Well, I was expecting some. Nobody that's reviewed it that I've seen has made a serious issue out of it. I always preface, try to make it clear in a compilation...I put a little note in the back of the booklet that this is a CD that's kind of grown out of a personal obsession of mine, and it's not meant to be an even-handed overview of gay liberation as a whole. Yeah, it's come from my own particular interest in the music of gay men. And I also feel like a lot of the artists, such as Cris Williamson, Holly Near, etcetera, people who recorded for Olivia and other labels, women's music labels in the 70's still...they're still famous in many ways. Much of these guys on "Strong Love" are languishing neglected, and unremembered until now.
JD: Right, the women's music is available, mostly, even if you can find it on eBay as an album. At least there were albums. A lot of these folks are not on album.
JD: One of the songs, I think maybe the only song, other than the Robison track that was new to me was "Hots for a Hustler."
GB: Yeah, I was very, very pleased to be able to get that track. "Hots for a Hustler" is a track by Scrumbly & Martin, Scrumbly Koldewyn, who was a member of the Cockettes, in San Francisco around the late 60's, early 70's. I wrote to him, cause I found him online, asking if there were any Cockettes recordings that I might be able to use for the purposes of the compilation, and he wrote back saying that, "you could use a song that we recorded on the radio in the 70's sometime if you like." And it was such a sweet, smart funny song, expressing the fear of persecution too, which I think is a really nice thing for a song on the compilation to touch on. The Cockettes are just one of the most life-affirming bands or groups of people that I found out about, so it was really very thrilling for me to get a track by a couple of people that were involved in that.
JD: And an unreleased track at that.
GB: Yeah, exactly. This is just by the by, but the question of whether it was an openly gay song has come up with a few of these tracks. Because that one, as he pointed out to me in the past, was written from the perspective of a closeted department store salesman or something like that, from a musical that was produced at the time. I supposed that fact that it was sung and performed kind of makes it an out gay song.
JD: Oh, I think it fits.
Scrumbly & Martin - Hots for a Hustler (1977)
Again, that was "Hots for a Hustler," by Scrumbly & Martin of the Cockettes.
JD: I want to congratulate you on the liner notes, not just the section that Richard Dworkin wrote, but the individual descriptions. To me as a historian it was just the right amount of information.
GB: Oh, good, I've always been someone who's poured over liner notes on other releases, records that I bought over the years. I really want to know as much as possible without getting overloaded with information, so yeah, hopefully I got the balance right. There wasn't very much information to be found about a bunch of these artists. A record like "Stand Up For Your Rights" by International Gay Society, that record, never written about by anybody ever and the people who made it aren't traceable. I mean, Bobby Sanders is long gone. So yeah, I'm basically just presenting the fact that there wasn't much to say, really, but hopefully doing it in an informative way.
And Guy is correct, I also couldn't find much information about Bobby Sanders and his record "Stand Up For Your Rights." The act is billed as the International Gay Society. I played it last month as part of my "Songs About Anita Bryant" show, and in that show I also played another song on Guy's compilation, named "Tell Ol' Anita," by Conan. So I feel less guilty about not including them in this show. After all, there just is not time in an hour show to talk about and play all 15 songs on the CD. I think I'm doing good at fitting in as many as I did. Other folks on the compilation include Blackberri, Lavender Country and Paul Wagner. They all of course have been played on past QMH shows.
JD: Tell me about you putting Buena Vista on the CD.
GB: Well, I really like the idea that Buena Vista were a regularly gigging band, as opposed to a solo artist. I mean, there's a lot of solo artists or bands that are driven by the vision of one person on this compilation. Buena Vista seemed like a lot more egalitarian...kind of summed up some of the free-wheeling vivacity of San Francisco gay culture in the 70's. Plus I feel like "Hot Magazine" expresses how far the gay rights movement had come in this short time, between 1969 Stonewall, and where is it, 1977 when "Hot Magazine" was released...I mean, that was a song not about how it's okay to be gay, or the persecution has to stop, or anything like that. It's a song about going down to the x-rated bookstore and buying a couple of skin flicks and how much fun it is sidesteps any social issues and kind of expresses this kind of light hearted fun attitude. I think that's really, really sweet.
JD: And this was an act that had one 7" 45 and really nothing else released, and there's really almost nothing unreleased available.
GB: Yeah, I guess you can see them in "The Word Is Out" documentary, performing a few songs. I never tracked down a copy of the Buena Vista 7". Richard Dworkin, who plays drums in the band was the guy that supplied me with the music file of the song and the scan of the covers. I guess that's similar to a lot of other artists on the compilation. They didn't have the backing of any big record labels, so they were lucky enough to make one record, made 500 copies of it or something, and then that was it, really.
Indeed, the San Francisco band Buena Vista released one 45 rpm record, and other than a couple short but delicious clips in the film "Word Is Out," that's all there is. Here is their song "Hot Magazine."
Buena Vista - Hot Magazine (1978)
JD: I want to talk about probably the most expensive record on the compilation. Do you know which one that is?
GB: Actually that's a good question. The one I paid the most for was the Conan album. Was that the one you're talking about?
JD: No, and the one I'm thinking of is Tom Robinson's "Good To Be Gay."
GB: Ah, of course. Last time I saw that advertized, or sold anyway, it was a thousand dollars or something ridiculous like that.
JD: I paid much more than that for my copy; I just had to have it.
GB: Oh, my God, I'm amazed that you even have one. I think there were only, what was it, 300 copies made.
JD: 300 made, who knows how many still exist.
GB: Yeah, sure, I have a feeling that audiofile that I ended up using for that one wasn't a direct transfer from a seven inch, supplied to me from Tom Robinson himself. I think it might have gone via cassette, or something like that. It definitely had a few audio issues we had to work on in the mastering studio to get it to sound as good as possible. Tom Robinson himself doesn't even have a copy of it.
JD: Oh, cool (both laugh) let's talk about the song itself.
GB: Yeah, the song itself, "Good To Be Gay," by Tom Robinson was originally called "Glad To Be Gay," but then I guess after Tom released a much more famous song called "Glad To Be Gay," a later 7" with the Tom Robinson Band, this song got retroactively re-titled, just to avoid any confusion. Yeah, it's just a really infectious reggae-inspired pop song, so much more optimistic and bouncy and good natured than some of Tom's kind of angry more punk era stuff. Yeah, he was surprised that I wanted to use that song rather than his better known song of the same name. And again, my nerdy music historian instincts came to the fore, and I wanted to use something that was a few years earlier and lesser known.
JD: Absolutely what I would have done.
GB: (laughs) That's good to know.
Like Guy said only 300 copies of the song were pressed, to be sold at the 1975 Campaign for Homosexual Equality conference in Sheffield, England.
Tom Robinson - Good To Be Gay (1975)
And you can hear Tom talk about that song in an interview I did with him, on my August 2004 show.
JD: Any question I should ask that I didn't?
GB: Ah, I think you've been very thorough.
JD: Usually by the time I ask that, people are so ready to get off the phone, and they say, "no, no, you've asked everything."
GB: Yeah, it's definitely been very in depth, I'm impressed.
JD: But not surprised.
GB: No, not at all (laughs). You know, in many ways I feel like this compilation's been collaboration between you and I, so it's really nice to have a dialogue about it.
Again, this is JD Doyle and I was delighted on this edition of Queer Music Heritage to talk with Guy Blackman of Melbourne, Australia, about his new compilation CD, "Strong Love." You can find it at his website, via a link on my site, or on CD or digital files at the usual places, like Amazon and iTunes.
And I think you could tell, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him about the project. I think we were in perfect agreement about every song on the CD, including the one I am using to close this segment. We both much admire the song "Gay Spirit."
GB: I mean, "Gay Spirit" by Charlie Murphy is probably the one that touches me the most. It's got this plaintiveness .
JD: I used that song to introduce my show for about the first year and a half that it was on.
Yeah, I'm aware of that, and I can see why.
Jose Sarria Intro (1962)
This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage and on this segment of the show I'm taking you back to the San Francisco of the 1960's. And I'm bringing you interviews and recordings by two of that city's most colorful personalities, both female impersonators. But just calling them female impersonators doesn't begin to explain their contributions. In the intro you heard Jose Sarria starting a show at a club called the Black Cat, in 1962. By that time Jose had already been an entertainer and early community activist for many years. I credit him with recognizing the need for organizing the gay community, and for helping to found several organizations that did exactly that, such as the League for Civil Education, the Tavern Guild and the Society for Individual Rights. In 1961 he was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States, and one of the reasons for running was to get gay people out to vote and therefore become aware of the need to organize politically. A further step was in 1965 when he founded the Imperial Court System. That grew to over 70 chapters across North America, which over the decades have raised millions of dollars for charity.
One of Jose's counterparts, and close friends, is a larger-than-life performer going by the name Michelle. She and Jose often performed together, and Michelle was particularly known for starring in many of the shows organized by the Society for Individual Rights, also called S.I.R. These theatre-like productions were another way to bring together a community in San Francisco, and of course he emceed countless benefit fundraisers during those years. One unique accomplishment was that a vinyl LP was released of one of the shows. This was musical written especially for Michelle, and it was a double-disc recording. As far as I can tell, this was a first. I am so, so pleased to bring you interviews with both Jose and Michelle. That's been a dream of mine for years. I'm starting with Jose and, this was a treat, I even got him to sing a little bit. I began the interview by asking him to talk about when he began performing in drag in the gay clubs.
JS: I started performing when I came back out of the service, in '47, '47-'48.
JD: Where was this, what clubs?
JS: Well, first I performed at the Beige Room. I worked for Lynne Carter. He was in San Francisco and he needed a...while he was changing clothes, what do you call that...he needed a...I would sing a song or two, then he would come out and do his act.
JD: Kind of like an intermission act?
JS: That's exactly what it was. I was the intermission, Lynne Carter.
JD: I read somewhere that the female impersonator Michelle gave you early encouragement.
JS: Yes, she's the one that encourage me to try out for the amateur hour, which was in Oakland, and I won, I won the contest.
JD: Was the prize an engagement at the Beige Room?
JS: Yes, $50 a week and three shows a night, three songs a night.
JD: How long before you started performing at the Black Cat?
JS: Then I began at the Cat, after his run was over, which was closer to '47-'48. And I didn't really perform. I'd get up and sing, when I greeted people.
JD: I understand you were a customer and you did on-the-spot entertaining and they decided to hire you.
JS: Yeah, that's what everybody did then, yeah.
JD: What was the clientele at the Black Cat like, was it a mixture of men and women, races, ages?
JS: It was what you would call a Bohemian bar. There was no such thing as a gay bar. It was a mixed crowd, Bohemian.
JD: What was your typical show like?
JS: I developed a routine. I'd go around and greet people and sing a song, tell a story, read the newspapers...in my way. Then I became the spokesperson for the Police Department and pretty soon I was the leading queen of the city.
JD: And you did operas. Which one was your most popular?
JS: I began with "Carmen." I sang "Carmen" in fifteen minutes, the whole songs, and "(Madame) Butterfly) became very popular. I had a repertoire of, well, you name them, I did them...every week a new opera, and they were written like in Esperanto.
JD: And you did this until the bar closed, in I think, '62 or '63.
JS: Yeah, '63, and then I did it afterwards. But then the crowd changed. You know what I mean? That's a long time to run a show. Then I went to work at Finocchio's.
JD: How long did you work there?
JS: I worked there two stints, twice...a year, and then I would go off to the World's Fairs, and then I'd go again. [ New York City, 1964-65; Montreal, 1967; San Antonio, 1968]
were cardboard cut-outs, about 8"x 8"
I want to interject that I spent a lot of time at the GLBT Historical Society when I was in San Francisco in June, and since for me it is THE Historical Society, during my interview with Jose I did not use the full title, but we both knew what I meant. So I'm correcting that before I go further. There is a San Francisco Historical Society, but it is not the same as the GLBT Historical Society. There, that settles that.
JD: I went to the San Francisco (GLBT) Historical Society a couple months ago, and did some research on you, and in one of your files I found cut-outs in the shape of a cat that said "I'm a boy." What was that about?
JS: Yes, well, in the early days Halloween you could be arrested after midnight, because the law reads "with the intent to deceive," and those silly bitches, they thought they were real. So at midnight on Halloween the paddy wagons would hit the road and arrest you, because you looked too much like a woman. It was plain harassment. So the law reads for a man to put on clothes of the opposite sex with the intent to deceive is against the law. And so if you let them know what you are, you're not deceiving them. You know, the police would stop you. So I figured out the police officer would stop a queen at five minutes after twelve, and if you said "I am a boy," they wouldn't dare arrest you, because they would be open for a lawsuit. So that ended that harassment.
JD: And did you hand those out at the Black Cat.
JD: Tell me about the song "God Save Us Nelly Queens."
JS: Well, music unites people. Music always unites people. We had to have a theme song, so I changed the words of "Got Save the Queen" to "Nelly Queens" and that was it.
JD: They sang that at the bars at closing?
JS: At the closing of my show and at the closing of my cabaret. I wanted people to stand up and acknowledge who they were and why.
JD: I don't suppose you could sing a line of that for me, could you?
JS: Yes, "God save us nelly queens, God save us nelly queens, God save the queens, and lesbians, too." I had to add that in because they got upset. "From every mountain high long may they live and thrive, God save the nelly queens, God save the queens." That is the national anthem of England, you know. And when the Sheriff of London Town came, he sang it with us. It wasn't showing disrespect, I just changed the words.
I'm going to interject that if you've seen the 1978 documentary "Word Is Out" you may recall one of the men named George telling about the singing of that song, and how it became a song of pride against the police harassment and oppression of that time. From the film, here is George's memory of it.
"Word Is Out" clip (1978)
JD: I want to talk about your record album, because I've had that a long time, and have played it on my show. How did the recording come about?
JS: Well, it was a group of Black people that needed to promote and raise money for their church. And they came to me. At that time I was a very big star, and they said, "if we can record you, can we then have the rights to the record?" I said yes, anything to promote, so they came and they recorded at the (Black) Cat, and they had the rights for twenty years. We sold quite a few records, close to a thousand records, and after twenty years then I have the rights.
JD: I understand there was discussion with the record company about doing a second album.
JS: Well, a lot of talk, no action.
JD: When I was at the (San Francisco GLBT) Historical Society, in your files there must have been twelve or fifteen letters between you and that company...
JS: It was called the Ball Company
JD: Yes, that was it, interesting reading. To kind of sum up some of the research I did on you were amazingly political [oh, yes, yes, yes] and you were a co-founder of the League for Civil Education, the Society for Individual Rights (S.I.R.) and the Tavern Guild. To me what these all have in common is that they were important in uniting the community.
JS: That's right, my purpose was that I wanted the community, not just to raise money, I wanted the gay community...number one, there's no such thing as gay, it's human rights. And the community, they were trying to separate themselves, and I said, no, you are gay, you are going to be part of the community, and you have to work together. There's no such thing as a gay community, there's a human...human rights, and that's what I fought for. Now, they're human rights, long before Martin Luther King (Jr) started.
JD: You also made history by running for public office. What prompted that decision?
JS: Well, I figured the only way to get people out there to vote...you're only going to change the laws if you vote. The queens at that time didn't vote, stupid idiots. So the only way to make them vote was to run and get people to vote.
JD: So if they were voting for you they would be voting for other things.
JS: Yeah, the laws of the land.
JD: And you used the Black Cat as your campaign headquarters?
JS: Yeah, that was it.
JD: Also, one of your major accomplishments was founding the Imperial Court System.
JS: That came later, in '65.
JD: It must be amazing for you now to look back at how much it's grown and what it has accomplished.
JS: Yeah, that was another try to unite the community.
JD: What would you like to be known as your legacy?
JS: Well, that I did a lot more than run for public office, and that I did change the atmosphere of the people, that I was a human rights fighter.
JD: Uniting the community where there really wasn't one.
JS: No, there was none. They were going around saying they were gay. What's "gay."Gay is ha ha hee hee. I want to be remembered for some of the good things that I've done....letters that I've written to parents, and parents writing to me.
I'm going to let you hear an entire side of Jose's LP, but I'm saving that for the end of the show, as I want to get to my interview with Michelle. And I very much thank Jose for providing to me Michelle's contact information, so I could request an interview. I began the same way as I did with Jose, by asking Michelle how he got started doing female impersonation.
Michelle: I got to San Francisco in 1954, and I was an aspiring...I thought I had the talent to be a stand-up comedian, and I wasn't really fully...I knew I was gay but I wasn't fully out yet. Anyway, there were different amateur hours at different gay bars and I signed up for a bar called Pearls, in Oakland, California. And that was my first appearance. It was almost like a speakeasy, they ran the bell if the cops were coming. It was even in those days called gay yet. There was no such thing as a gay bar. That came after Stonewall. Anyway, there was a contest there and I won it, and it was just a very little tiny club. And from there I just got interested and I found out if it was just very easy to perform in drag, and that's really just how it started.
JD: What other clubs did you perform at?
Michelle: Well, after Pearls I went back into the city and I worked at a place called Ann's 440, and then I got a job at a female impersonating club on Broadway called the Beige Room, and I worked there.
JD: I'm curious what the customers were like at the Beige Room. Was it a mixed club?
Michelle: The Beige Room was mostly tourists, mostly tourists.
JD: Like Finocchio's.
Michelle: Exactly, but on a much smaller scale.
JD: So it wasn't really a so-called gay community hang out.
Michelle: No, no, definitely not. Finocchio's wasn't either. Finocchio's was 99% tourists, and gay people would bring like their parents there or someone. Finocchio's was never a gay hangout or a gay place, it was strictly tourists. And in its heyday it just packed them in, three or four shows a night.
JD: You mentioned Ann's 440...
Michelle: Ann's 440 was a little teeny club in North Beach off Broadway, where later on some really big stars got their starts there. Johnny Mathis worked there. Barbra Streisand did a little shot there. It was a very little teeny place, run by a woman named Ann. It was Ann's 440, again straight. As far as the drag part, I was a little fill-in, just like a little fill-in thing.
JD: So drag was not really a big part of Ann's 440.
Michelle: No, not at all, not at all. Those were just a few of the things very, very early. What happened later was the creation of S.I.R. (Society for Individual Rights), is when gay theatre really started. That's when full productions of legitimate theatre started, and the first big show that I was in, full male cast, was "The Women," and that was put on by S.I.R.
JD: I have a program from one of your shows called Michelle International
Michelle: Okay, does that have a date?
Michelle: Oh, wow, is it that long ago. That's before "The Women."
JD: It was sponsored by the League for Civil Education, which I think may have become S.I.R.
Michelle: Right. You've got that right. Did Jose ever say anything to you about me working with him in the Black Cat?
Michelle: Okay, I did that. I did parodies with him there. I did shows on Sunday afternoon the same time as Jose worked the Cat, and we were friendly competitors. We had a lot of fun. We'd be like Jack Benny and Bob Hope, that kind of thing. People thought we were enemies but we were very, very dear friends. And people would go from one show to the other. It was a lot of fun.
JD: Was he performing before you got to San Francisco?
Michelle: Yes, I think the answer to that is yes. He was performing at the Black Cat. I got to San Francisco in '54, in the Fall of '54, and I met Jose I would say within the first year, and all that I can recall that he was doing was Sundays at the Black Cat. I was with him in the Sirlebrity Capades (1965 was the first one) but that was just a review, you know, Jose would do a number, I did a number, Franklin did a number, there was a chorus...they were great shows, were just great shows. I guess those things I did first. I did the bar shows. I did Michelle International (1962), and then we started with the legitimate theatre...well, not legitimate, you know what I'm saying, full scale productions...full, not little crappy things, full costume shows. I would say the first one was "The Women." That would be the first book show I did, legitimate book show. The other shows that I did were my own, stand-up comedian and stuff like that.
JD: How often did you perform?
Michelle: I performed almost every Sunday somewhere.
JD: One of the things I noticed, looking at the Michelle International program from 1962 is that they never mentioned the words gay or homosexual.
Michelle: Because the word gay, honest to God, was not out yet. To my knowledge, no one was gay till after Stonewall. We were queer. We were never gay. We were homosexuals.
JD: Well, the program didn't use the word homosexual either.
Michelle: No, that might have been because of me because I hated that word. I hated that and I hated queer and I hated Mary and I hated fag, I hated all of that. Michelle International was a great show. That was just me on stage, no script, no nothing. I'd just come back from Europe and I just sat there and talked. It was a great show.
JD: Did you personally experience any police harassment?
Michelle: Yes, definitely, definitely, yeah, I was arrested three times. They called it impersonating a woman, but it was Halloween. It wasn't like I was using a public restroom. It was Halloween, it was allowed to a degree, but then there were a couple of years where they really, really, really cracked down. There was one Halloween, if you believe...I don't know if anyone ever told you this...but we had to wear a button that said "I Am a Boy."
JD: I've heard about that.
Michelle: Yeah, you could be dressed like Queen Elizabeth but you had to have a button on. The first arrest, yeah, the first arrest, very important, I was doing a big benefit in a gay bar called the Jumpin' Frog on Polk Street, and it was a huge benefit...the police came in and busted the bar and took me to jail. That was my first time. And then I got busted twice after that on Halloween.
JD: Do you know what years those would have been?
Michelle: Oh, boy oh boy oh boy...I would say early 60's, mid-60's, and they hauled me off three times.
Next I'm going to ask Michelle about her album, but I want to share with you a bit of it first. It was a show from 1967 of production number and stand-up comedy called "Ready or Not, It's Me." I've got the LP and program for the show, which you can see on my website, and they show lots of photos of Michelle and the cast, including a quite good-looking group of twenty singers and dancers called The Escorts.
Michelle - excerpt from "Ready or Not, It's Me (1967)
JD: I want to talk about your record albums.
Michelle: Okay, the record album was made. I can give you their names because they're dead and buried, and no one will ever mind. The records were produced by Ron Morano and Gordon Bealer. They wrote "Ready or Not, It's Me," an original musical, for me. And it opened at The Village, a nightclub on Columbus Street. Do you have that program?
JD: Yes, I do.
Michelle: You do? Oh, well that's got a lot of pictures in it and everything. That's a wonderful program. Well, that's self-explanatory. That will tell you everything.
JD: Were Ron and Gordon gay?
Michelle: Oh, yeah.
JD: And were they a couple?
Michelle: No, collaborators together, you know, like partners. Ron wrote the music and Gordon did the lyrics. It was just fabulous. Do you have that record?
Michelle: Oh, my God, that's like ancient. 
JD: The comedy on your album, especially since considering it's forty-something years old, is not really dated..
Michelle: All the humor...this is the part people don't believe...everything I did in that record, everything, is adlib. I never had a script. The show had a format, but it would alter each night depending on my audience. I fed off my audience. The musical numbers were rehearsed, backwards and forwards, the costumes, the choreography, that was all rehearsed. But all the talking, everything, I would just stand up there and do it. And that's what all my shows were like. I never had a script; I would just walk out there.
JD: How many times did you do that show, "Ready or Not, It's Me"?
Michelle: Oh, I would say total twenty, but we packed them in. That was unheard of. This was a straight nightclub. We rented it; we had to beg them for that, beautiful nightclub on Columbus Street, big stage and round tables and a balcony.
JD: And they recorded one of the shows?
Michelle: Oh, they recorded a lot, and the record you have, the reason the quality isn't, you know, you can almost hear the splicing...we took tons and tons and tons of reel to reel tape, and edited it to make the record. So it could be the highlights of various shows.
JD: And the music was written for the show?
Michelle: The music was written absolutely 100% for me and Michelle.
JD: And David Kelsey did the arrangements.
Michelle: And David Kelsey did the musical arrangements, exactly.
JD: He was pretty prominent, could you talk about him?
Michelle: Oh, David was a big star. He played the piano and the organ in a lot of the gay bars. He got a very big following; usually on Sundays were the big ones, down at Jack's Waterfront, places like that. He also played during the week at the piano bars, and he always had a big crowd, he was very popular.
JD: He released an album.
Michelle: Yes, I think he did, right, he was a great guy, super guy.
JD: Now, I've seen ads for another show called "It's Me, Again."
Michelle: Exactly, that's the second..."Ready or Not, It's Me"...I guess a year or two later Ron and Gordon again wrote another show, starring me again, and called "it's Me, Again," at the same place, back at the Village, the whole samage. Do you have that program?
JD: I have the program, I understand the album was never released as such.
Michelle: Exactly, you've got that 100% correct. We never got an album out on that one.
JD: Did you know that some of the material was released though?
Michelle: some of...from "It's Me Again"?
JD: Yes, they put out an album called "Here's To Us," and it had songs from "Ready or Not, It's Me." It had six songs from "It's Me, Again," and it had five songs from their musical called "Affair Exchange."
Michelle: Wow, well, they wrote "Affair Exchange," but who did they write that for?
JD: It was not a gay musical. This was kind of their greatest hits album.
Michelle: Oh, I don't remember that at all. And did they put it out?
JD: I have a copy.
Michelle: You're kidding me. What's on the cover?
JD: A picture of them on a beach.
Michelle: Gordon and Ron?
Michelle: My God. You know I absolutely, absolutely do not remember that. Okay, so the songs from the first show, "Ready or Not, It's Me"...
JD: Well, whoever in the cast did those numbers, that's who it was.
Michelle: Well, then it would have been me, cause ninety percent of the numbers I did. My goodness.
JD: So it has essentially half of the "It's Me, Again" show is on that album, just the music, not comedy.
Michelle: Just the music. Can you name one of the songs that's on it?
JD: In just a second I can get it up on my screen, cause I've got it on my website.
Michelle: I can't believe I never heard of this.
JD: Okay, from "It's Me Again" are the numbers "Tell It Like It Is," "Here's To Us,"...
Michelle: Alright, let me stop you immediately. "Here's To Us" is me and that 20-boy chorus.
JD: Right, the Escorts.
Michelle: Yeah, there you go, you know a lot. Oh, isn't that interesting.
Michelle & the Escorts - Here's to Us (1969)
JD: And there was a song called "Lovely Me," one called "Op'ning Night," "Oscar Time," and "Night People."
Michelle: Oh, my goodness. "It's Me, Again" was good, but it wasn't as good as "Ready or Not, It's Me." "Ready or Not, It's Me" was just magical. It was so, so far ahead of its time. It was so far ahead of its time. It wasn't a gay show. It had gay undertones, but straight people loved it, loved it.
JD: The "Here's To Us" album was 1970. "It's Me, Again," my information says 1969, and "Ready or Not" is '67.
Michelle: Wow, you're right then, wow, wow wow. Isn't that interesting. Well, you cleared up that for me. That long ago, my God.
JD: And so the album didn't get released, but they released this their own greatest production hits, sort of. Tell me about the "Hello, Dolly" show. [May 1972]
Michelle: Alright, the "Hello, Dolly" show, that was produced by...yeah, S.I.R. did that, Society for Individual Rights, S.I.R produced that. That opened up at the...we did a very small but complete, complete version...the Broadway show, the Broadway book, the Broadway music...we opened it at the S.I.R. Center, and then we went to the Village, and then we went to the Kabuki Theatre. We did "Hello, Dolly" three times. You know, looking back it was so unbelievable, because we had such cooperation from the talent in the community. The sets were unbelievable, costumes were gorgeous, just drop-dead gorgeous, and huge casts, huge casts. And we followed the book to the T; we didn't cut out a thing. If we did anything, we exaggerated it because, you know, men were doing all the female roles, so it was probably exaggerated; more colorful...you know what I'm trying to say. It wasn't just a little tacky revue. Costumes were gorgeous. People just couldn't get over that show.
JD: When did you stop performing?
Michelle: When did I stop performing? Let's see, I came back here [New York State] in 1985. After that I didn't do any more book shows, but I emceed a lot of events in San Francisco, a lot of gay events, put it that way.
JD: A lot of benefits.
Michelle: A lot of benefits and gay stuff. I'm positive I came back to emcee the Beaux Art Ball, for Halloween, and I also think I came and emcees the Closet Ball. You've heard of both of those?
JD: I've heard of the first one for sure.
Michelle: You didn't hear of the Closet Ball? God, that used to be fabulous. That's one of the best things they ever did. They would take, you know, regular guys, like a bartender, just a plain old guy, the more masculine the better...
JD: And do turnabout.
Michelle: Exactly, they would come out in the first half, as a guy, and then I think there was an hour intermission. And they had a sponsor, like a make-up artist and they had one hour, and then they came back as the female...version. It was honest to God fabulous. Those were great, great shows. I know I came back for a Beaux Arts Ball and I remember coming back for a Closet Ball, and I think that's really the end. You know, I had done "Dolly," I had done all the Michelle shows; all of that was done. I did a couple of emcees. Finocchio's was honest to God the last thing I did. Finocchio's, wow, wow, when the hell did I work at Finocchios. Oh, I know one way if you have computers and google and all that garbage (laughs), if you can find out when Queen Elizabeth visited San Francisco.
Michelle: Alright, but if you can google Queen Elizabeth's visit, I remember that I did a little stint on that, so that would determine the year I was there. I don't know how else to tell you when the hell I was there.
JD: Okay, I can probably find that.
Michelle: I had already sold my beauty shop, I was done, and I did a stint there. That's probably the last thing I did in San Francisco, then I came back, probably '86, '87, to do those two shows we just talked about.
JD: And Queen Elizabeth visited in 1983.
Michelle: How did you find that so fast?
Alright, I remember...I remember working in Finocchio's and
saying that Queen Elizabeth came into the harbor and waved from
the bow of the ship and five million queens waved back. It was
a very funny line. I worked there as an emcee. That was the
last thing that I did.
JD: How would you like to be remembered, for your performing as Michelle?
Michelle: How would I like to be remembered...well, I would certainly like to be remembered as a...there's a word I'm looking for here, not a pioneer, an innovator, my friend just said. I was never afraid to put myself on the front line, let me put it that way. I feel that I was a history maker.
This is JD Doyle and it has been a thrill for me to interview both Jose and Michelle for Queer Music Heritage, and I'm so pleased that it worked out that I could present the interviews both on the same show. I thank them both for putting up with my questions about their lives from 40-50 years ago. Now, as promised is more of Jose's album from 1962. The LP is called "No Camping," and he shares it with a couple other artists, kind of an odd combination. He had two segments and on the other two were a fortune teller and a person interviewing "women of the night" in Tijuana. Well, I'm just pleased some of Jose's entertaining was captured. His banter with the audience was always a large part of the act, and early on you'll hear him sing a little opera, along with a bit of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," with quite different lyrics.
Jose Sarria - No Camping, Side 2 (1962)