Love Is a Drag: the story behind the groundbreaking secret 60s gay album

It was Liberaces favorite LP and gained a cult following, but the collection of love songs was released at a time when those behind it had to stay in the shadows

More than 50 years ago, an album appeared that let the love that dare not speak its name sing out loud. The man who voiced the male-to-male love songs contained on the album wasnt identified on the cover. Neither were the musicians who played on it, the man who produced the music, nor the two male figures who lurked in the dark shadows that enveloped the cover. The disc, titled Love Is a Drag in 1962, featured a sincere crooner interpreting American standards previously recorded only by women, like My Man, The Man I Love and Mad About The Boy.

At a time when gay people were deep in the closet, here was an album for them, said JD Doyle, a record archivist. There was nothing to compare with it.

There was also no information about it at least not until recently. For decades, Love Is a Drag was listed in various cult publications aimed at collectors. But those listings never gave credit to the singer or included an original release date for the disc. Doyle, a collector of records relevant to LGBT history, first saw mentions of the mysterious album back in the 90s and became intrigued. He believes its the first full-length recording of male-to-male love songs. In 2004, Doyle started playing cuts from the album on a monthly Public Radio segment he hosted in Houston titled Queer Music Heritage. His dream? To finally discover the odd discs backstory. A Eureka! moment arrived in 2012 when the albums producer, Murray Garrett, emailed him after discovering that Doyle had written about the music on his website. Murray was in his late 80s then and he was looking back at his life, Doyle said. To have him email me was like the Holy Grail knocking at my door.

Garrett agreed to an interview with Doyle, which the radio host then archived on his site. Several years later, the history-minded label Sundazed got wind of the interview and contacted Doyle, leading to this months rerelease of Love Is a Drag. Interestingly, it arrives just as a greater number of LGBT artists are doing more than simply announcing their identity in public or in their songs the norm of the last few decades. More recently, young artists such as Frank Ocean, John Grant, Olly Alexander, Mary Lambert and Troye Sivan have been singing love songs which use the proper pronoun for the object of their desire a rarity until now.

That this shift took over half a century to become common highlights the radical nature of the original Love album. To make the disc even more unusual, every person involved with it was actually straight.

The idea which led to the album dates back to a night in 1946 when Garrett a prominent celebrity photographer for Life magazine was taken by a friend to a bar in Greenwich Village. A handsome young man came out on the clubs stage and started to sing standards normally performed by a woman to a man. Garrett was confused until his friend informed him that they were in a gay bar. The naive, but unfazed, photographer later told Doyle he was so impressed by the quality of the music that the night stayed in his mind for years and years.

Flash forward to the early 60s: a friend of Garretts was starting a record company in Hollywood and asked the photographer if he had any ideas for projects that would make a splash. Garrett thought a man singing love songs to another man would more than fit the bill. To find a singer, Garrett turned to his photography partner, Gene Howard, who had earlier performed with Stan Kentons band. The singer told him he had two daughters and a wife to consider, not to mention a career. According to Doyle, Howards wife asked just one question about the project: Is it going to be done with dignity?

This isnt a comedy album, Garrett told her.

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In fact, the album featured some of the best LA session musicians of the day. Unfortunately, by the time of its release, the record company had little money for promotion. The albums reputation spread solely by word of mouth, mainly in the Hollywood community Garrett and Howard knew well. Gay waiters and car hops started buying copies, up to six at a time. When Garrett played it for his friend Frank Sinatra, Doyle said, the icon ordered a dozen copies. After the photographer gave a copy to Bob Hope, the comedian went crazy. He loved it, according to Garrett.

Likewise, when the photographer played it during an album cover shoot he had with Liberace, the flamboyant star picked it up off the record player and walked off with it. Later, he told Garrett that Love was his favorite recording. Over the years, the album became a cult item, selling for up to $200.

Three years after the album appeared, a company called Camp Records started releasing novelty songs featuring lisping vocalists on demeaning numbers like Homer the Happy Little Homo. But the same mysterious company also released an earnest, gay-oriented album titled Mad About The Boy.

As far back at the 1920s, blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had been singing about gay characters, though they were loathe to directly express their own desires. Sincere gay love songs didnt appear in greater numbers until the womens music movement of the 70s, with artists including Holly Near, Meg Christian and Chris Williamson. Women were always better organized, said Doyle. They had womens bookstores and coffee shops to market this music.

Even so, a man, Steven Grossman, became the first openly gay star on a major label when Mercury Records released Caravan Tonight in 1974. In the 80s, a few more stars came out, such as Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Far more did the same in the 90s, including kd lang, Melissa Etheridge, the Pet Shop Boys and Elton John. But until recently, even out stars rarely mentioned the gender of their lovers, preferring to address a vague you rather than the specific he or she. In his 2012 interview with Doyle, Garrett expressed pride in his pioneering effort in providing that kind of specificity. We figured we had the chance to do something we would be proud of, Garrett said. My gay friends said thank you for not giving into any temptations to do something that might have gotten some laughs. As I look back, Love Is a Drag was one of the highlights of my life.

Heres a look at the swelling wave of young stars who freely use the appropriate pronoun in their love songs:

Kevin Abstract: On the title track of his new album, singer/rapper Abstract offers an ode to his American boyfriend.

Frank Ocean: The R&B star sings of male-to-male love with lines such as: Forrest Gump, you run my mind, boy / Running on my mind, boy.

Tegan and Sara: In their 2016 song Boyfriend, the duo sing: You turn me on like you would your boyfriend / But I dont want to be your secret anymore.

Olly Alexander: The frontman of the hit group Years and Years delivered these lines in 2015s Real: Ill do what you like if youll stay the night / You tell me you dont think you should / You do it, boy.

John Grant: In a 2013 track, Grant included the lines: It doesnt matter to him / I could be anything / But I could never win his heart again.

A Great Big World: A straight man (Ian Axle) and a gay man (Chad King) bond in the hit group A Great Big World. To reflect their difference, in Hold Each Other, Axle uses the pronoun she while King uses he. It became a very powerful song for us, Axle has said.

Troye Sivan: In 2014s Gasoline, the YouTube sensation sang: I see your outline in my bed / In the same spot I watched him rest his head.

Mary Lambert: In the chorus of the 2013 smash by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Same Love, Lambert croons: My love, my love, she keeps me warm.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/05/love-is-a-drag-story-behind-groundbreaking-gay-album

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