No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog

HARLEM, BILLY STRAYHORN, ETHEL WATERS, HALL JOHNSON, ALBERTA HUNTER, AND ME

 |  Steven Blier
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Program notes for Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem
Thursday, December 12 at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center

My first awareness of Harlem’s gay subculture came from an unlikely source: a Cole Porter song I heard decades ago called “The Happy Heaven of Harlem.” In it, Porter extols the pleasures of a place where “all you do is eat, sleep, and make love.” Of course, in the final lyric Porter reveals that this paradise of sexual abandon is Paris, not Lenox Avenue. Porter’s 1929 song has recently come under criticism for its wealthy, white Upper East Sider’s vision of Harlem as a place to indulge in erotic fantasies that had to be hidden at home. But while “Happy Heaven” may not be P.C., it remains a heartfelt love song to two of Porter’s gay meccas: Harlem and Paris, equated as twin pleasure domes.

As the years have rolled by I have learned more and more about Harlem’s hearty gay subculture. In the early 20th century, Greenwich Village became a hub for men and women “in the life,” but the scene in Harlem grew even livelier and more audacious. At its height, it was home to more night clubs and speakeasies than Broadway. To the world at large, the Village was known for its same-sex denizens, while Harlem was most famous as an enclave for African-Americans. For insiders, it was a different story. There the gay clubs stayed open all night, and all comers were welcome. Some of the chi-chi nightclubs featured black performers and white-only audiences, but many of the neighborhood places played to mixed or exclusively black audiences.

For the gay people who lived there, Harlem was not always a “happy heaven.” They were threatened by the Irish cops who patrolled the streets and regularly hauled in the legions of drag queens who frequented the neighborhood. And gays also came under period attack from their neighborhood churches. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. (1865-1953), the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church on West 138th Street (and father to the famous civil rights advocate), led a powerful campaign against Harlem’s gays and lesbians—even against unmarried women. All were seen as disrupting the unifying force of the family.

Yet gay men and women flocked to Harlem during the Great Migration. The percentage of unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45 was three times higher than the national average. Some gay people were flamboyant, some were quietly out, some led double lives with straight spouses and semi-secret gay lovers, and some kept their sexual preferences a secret for their entire lives. Life could be volatile in Harlem. But it was active, and daring, and aspirational. One example: for many years there was an annual drag ball at Hamilton Lodge in Harlem where both black and white performers vied for First Prize. It was a huge social event, covered by most of the neighborhood’s newspapers. Suffice it to say that it had no counterpart on Park Avenue. Harlem bestowed an odd combination of persecution and celebration on its gay men and women, whose reactions ran the expected gamut from fear to defiance and pride.

Many of the composers and performers we’re honoring tonight were familiar to me, but the only one I knew as a gay artist was Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). He lived an extraordinary life, and a courageous one—it took guts to be an uncloseted black jazz musician in mid-century America. As a child, his mother protected him from his abusive father, encouraging his artistic and intellectual nature to flourish. Strayhorn’s grandmother taught him to play the piano when he was a boy, and he then continued his extensive musical education on his own. He first rose to fame in high school when he wrote a musical revue (Fantastic Rhythm) of near-professional quality. It became so successful that the troupe toured for several years in black theaters as far as western Pennsylvania. They were sometimes joined by big-name performers like Billy Eckstine and Errol Garner—heady stuff for a self-taught youngster.

When Strayhorn was 23, he attended a Duke Ellington concert in Pittsburgh and managed to go backstage to meet his idol. Ellington was intrigued and asked Strayhorn to play a little something for him. The rest is history. That dazzling impromptu audition led to a 29-year association with Ellington as composer, arranger, and sometime orchestra manager. He ushered in Ellington’s greatest years of creativity, co-writing the musical Jump for Joy and the jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige, as well as the Shakespeare compendium Such Sweet Thunder.

Strayhorn demonstrated his unique value to Ellington early on in their association. In 1940, there was a royalties dispute between ASCAP and the broadcast industry. ASCAP led a strike, barring all of its members’ songs from the radio. It would have been ruinous for Ellington to lose the crucial income from broadcasts, especially with a live radio show in Los Angeles just a few days away. Strayhorn came to the rescue on two fronts: he was not an ASCAP member, which exempted his songs from the ban. And he worked day and night on the train to California writing new songs and arrangements for the upcoming performance. Among them was the iconic “Take the A Train,” soon to become a theme song for Ellington. Though he saved the day, Strayhorn’s name was not listed on the sheet music of the songs he’d written and co-written—just Ellington’s. It is only now that Billy Strayhorn is receiving the recognition he longed for during his life.

Ellington always expressed gratitude to Strayhorn, but he remained the front man, the star. And perhaps Strayhorn was somewhat conflicted about the limelight—he was a man warring with many inner demons. By the 1950s Strayhorn began to chafe, and he started to look for ways to strike out on his own. Last April, NYFOS featured a song from one of those projects, the 1953 off-Broadway production of Lorca’s The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden. Lorca’s story of an impossible love gave Strayhorn a chance to make what he called “a black-gay statement” at a time when Lorca’s shocking death at the hands of Spanish Fascists made him a gay martyr for many people.

Strayhorn had a unique musical thumbprint. He brought a long-lined bel canto spirit to mid-century jazz, which was so often built on nervous, darting rhythms—the ants in your pants that make you dance. Strayhorn is the Vincenzo Bellini of the Big Band era, with arching melodies that suspend themselves over opulent and surprising harmonies like a long sigh. “Day Dream” gets my nomination for Most Beautiful Chord Progression in an American Popular Song. It’s as opulent and dappled as a Fauré song. As for “Lotus Blossom,” the pianist Don Shirley said, “Of all the things that Billy wrote, ‘Lotus Blossom’ was such an enigma for Duke. It got to a point that I began to realize that it bothered him—in the good sense—trying to figure, how did he do that? It’s that kind of thing. But Billy had that kind of genius.”

Does Billy Strayhorn’s music “sound gay” to me, with its yearning languor? Yeah, it does. But you don’t have to believe me—I am biased. God knows we don’t have a monopoly on unrequited love.

Ethel Waters (1896-1977) belongs in the category of “married with not-entirely-secret same-sex lover.” It was only one of the many dramas in her long life. She was conceived when her mother was raped by a family friend at age 15. Waters grew up in poverty, working at jobs that paid $4.75 a week. She married at age 13 and divorced at 17 (the first of her three short-lived marriages). After her divorce, she sang a couple of songs at a party in Philadelphia where she so charmed the crowd that she landed a professional engagement at a theater in Baltimore. She made her way through vaudeville (where she shared billing with Bessie Smith), to Harlem’s night clubs, and then to Broadway where she was the first black woman to receive star billing on the Great White Way. Ultimately she broke into television and movies—Cabin in the Sky, Member of the Wedding, and Pinky (directed by Elia Kazan).

All of this sounds like a golden staircase to success. But every step along the way was fraught with reversals. Some of them may have been of her own making. Ethel Waters was not an easy personality, and strong black women with a contrarian streak were likely to meet the kind of resistance that only increased their orneriness. Ethel’s stage persona was ingratiating, but she had dimples of iron. Despite many ups and downs, she survived in show business into her 60s, and one of her last gigs, an appearance on the TV show Route 66, earned her an Emmy nomination. It was the first ever awarded to an African-American woman.

In the mid-1920s, as her career in New York was beginning, Ethel Waters was a prominent habituée of Harlem’s lesbian circles. She lived with her girlfriend, a dancer named Ethel Williams, and they were known as “The Two Ethels.” They often appeared onstage together. But as she ascended, she learned to keep her sexuality private. Being out would have relegated her to the sidelines, and Ethel Waters had no intention of being on the sidelines. By the end of her life, when she’d become a disciple of Billy Graham, she probably would have bridled at being included in tonight’s concert. But her twenty-five year old self might have rejoiced at the opportunity. We’ll hear one of the iconic hits from the early years of Ethel Waters’ career, “Dinah”—a love song to a woman.

I have decades-old ties to two more composers on today’s program: Alberta Hunter and Hall Johnson. I didn’t know Hall Johnson (1888-1970) was gay when I first encountered his music; on the other hand I didn’t know I was gay either. When I was a bar mitzvah bocher I bought a copy of Shirley Verrett—Carnegie Hall Recital, an RCA record commemorating her New York recital debut. I was fascinated by the three spirituals on Side 2, delivered with an irresistible combination of sass and fervor. The arrangements were by a guy named Hall Johnson.

Johnson had an illustrious musical resumé. He trained at Juilliard and was in the original orchestra for the 1921 musical Shuffle Along. He played under James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook, two black superstars of early 20th century music. But Johnson grew increasingly interested in choral writing and formed the Hall Johnson Choir. The group became tremendously successful, appearing on over 30 Hollywood soundtracks including the original Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They also appeared on Broadway in the Pulitzer Prize-winning show Green Pastures.

Johnson made himself available as a voice coach and worked with an impressive roster of colleagues, including both Marian Anderson and Verrett. It was no doubt at the instigation of the singers in his studio that he turned his hand to piano-and-voice arrangements of Negro spirituals. He was building on the legacy of Harry T. Burleigh, the first to write down and publish these songs. Burleigh’s arrangements, written in the late 1890s, are austere and straightforward, like clerical vestments. Hall Johnson took the spiritual from black-and-white to color, adding sexy jazz harmonies and gospel drive into the mix. They are tremendously effective realizations.

Hall Johnson’s music is filled with nobility, but his life was plagued with frequent falls from grace. He was an alcoholic, capable of showing up drunk at official functions. His marriage didn’t seem to stop him from gay (and straight) dalliances. He was easily exploited—a few of Johnson’s male paramours made serious inroads on his bank account. He attempted to keep his LGBTQ exploits on the down-low, which only seems to have made his amorous attachments all the more agonizing. In spite of all his emotional and physical tangles, he survived to live a long life, leaving behind an array of art songs and sacred music that continue to stir the soul.

I knew about Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) because of her celebrated late-career stint at a Village club called The Cookery. Alas, I didn’t have the wit to go hear her at the time, fearing that her raucous blues belting would violate my tender sensibilities. (I gravitated to Mabel Mercer’s lady-like restraint in those years.) Thank God for the videos from those appearances—Hunter was a pistol, as vibrant in her eighties, I imagine, as she was in her twenties when her career began.

Her story parallels that of Ethel Waters: very humble beginnings, a menial job at a boardinghouse, and then a very early start as a singer. By 15 she was singing in a bordello, and from there she moved up quickly—to bars, then restaurants, then upscale clubs, and finally the exclusive Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago. She was not only a fine singer. Hunter could tailor her improvised blues lyrics to the proclivities of her audiences, and she had an uncanny instinct for comic timing. By the age of 22 she was touring in Europe, where she was treated like a star. In 1928, she played opposite Paul Robeson in the London production of Showboat. Her recording career cemented her fame, and she counted Bricktop and Louis Armstrong among her colleagues.

When her mother died, Alberta Hunter retired from singing. She was 62, and rock ‘n roll was taking over the world. “I figured I’d gone to the top,” she said—and that the rest would be downhill. Looking for something meaningful to do, she decided on a degree in nursing. Hunter forged a high school diploma and got into a grad program. She landed a job at a hospital on Roosevelt Island and worked there until the management forced her to retire at 70. They’d already extended their usual deadline by five years since she was a valued member of their team. It was probably time. She’d lied about her age: she was actually 82. At that ripe age, she relaunched her singing career. Her bold contralto with its fast vibrato had morphed into a diseuse’s rasp, but her life-force was unabated. The public was delighted to rediscover her. So were her longtime co-workers at the hospital—they had no idea she’d been a world-renowned singer.

Alberta Hunter was molested as a child, and she was mistrustful of men for most of her life. She had a long-term affair with a woman named Lotte Tyler, the niece of the famous comedian Bert Williams. But she kept her sexuality under wraps. Hunter was appalled by the love-spats Ethel Waters had in public with her girlfriend. Still, Hunter’s Sapphic nature was not a secret to those in the know. And we’ve been chuckling all week at the lyrics to her theme song, “My Castle’s Rockin’.” Heard in the cold light of 2019, it sounds like a lesbian anthem.

There are many other voices on tonight’s program, including the magisterial (and bisexual) Bessie Smith, her pianist Porter Grainger, and Gladys Bentley, the cross-dressing blues singer with a voice of Wagnerian force. Delving into their repertoire and taking ownership of their songs has been a profound experience for all of us involved. I’ll let Elliott Hurwitt tell their stories in his own essay, after I express my thanks to him for guiding us through the research and preparation for tonight’s performance. Tain’t Nobody’s Business was his brainchild, and his decades of involvement with early blues and jazz gave birth to our concert. Some of our “music” is nothing but a few scribbles on a piece of yellow paper Elliott unearthed in a library, along with a faint copy of some typed lyrics. But what a genie lies hidden in that improbable, magical bottle!

Special thanks to George Chauncey, whose book Gay New York provided an invaluable foundation of historical information and insight. His portrait of Harlem in the 20s and 30s brings the era indelibly to life, and helped place the songs within their cultural milieu.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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