This has been getting a lot of attention lately; has anyone heard it…?
The album’s limited pressing was finished in 1962, making it the first complete album of gay subject matter in American music history. Despite its groundbreaking substance, the record received zero media coverage, partly because the producers agreed to keep all the musicians anonymous. “The mystery was supposed to sell the album in the first place,” Doyle explains. “Famous people like Frank Sinatra were trying to guess who the vocalist was, wondering, ‘Do I know this person?’ If they had credited Gene Howard originally, it would’ve been totally different.
“Part of their marketing angle was that they wanted the music to stand alone—they didn’t want to focus on the singer,” Doyle continues. “For one thing, the singer wasn’t gay.” In fact, no one connected with the album’s production was gay, including the two Garrett-Howard studio employees who modeled for the cover.
Up until a few years ago no one knew who the singer on Love Is A Drag was. From a professional standpoint singing gay-themed love songs was probably not a great career move in 1962. Though the record sold well in certain circles and had admirers like Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope (!), anonymity was essential for the guy doing the vocals, particularly if he was heterosexual and married. Finally, the mystery was solved when the identity of the man behind the songs surfaced when J.D Doyle of the Queer Music Heritage project was contacted by a friend of the singer and shared what he knew. Vocalist Gene Howard who fronted Stan Kenton’s big band was the voice that sang so convincingly of the love that dare not speak its name. Gene died in 1993 so sadly doesn’t know that his legacy lives on thanks to Sundazed.
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 didn’t appear in greater numbers until the “women’s music” movement of the 70s, with artists including Holly Near, Meg Christian and Chris Williamson. “Women were always better organized,” said Doyle. “They had women’s bookstores and coffee shops to market this music.”