Oh My, How Things Have Changed…
April 15, 2014. Tax Day. Easy to remember. So today is the day my new album is officially released on Concord Records, a division of Universal. Billy’s Back On Broadway arrives in stores and is available online today!!!
It’s an interesting sensation, a feeling that’s peaceful yet complex. Joyful yet cautious as to not put too much power into the outcome. I back away from the adjective trepidatious because I don’t want to seem pessimistic. I am not agitated or fearful, I’m just grown. Advancing in age is a powerful thing. It can be the most comforting and grounding aspect of this journey we call life – if you let it.
I had a record deal on a major label back in the 90’s. My album dropped on my birthday in 1997. “Do you remember the 21st night of September…?” I remember being called to jury duty on my birthday and begging the judge to not put me on the case I was called for because I had celebrating to do! This was a once in a lifetime, life altering experience. My dreams were coming true, and I wanted to experience the change unfolding in real time. The idea of being confined to a court room listening to the case of a man who robbed a corner deli at gunpoint was of no significance to me. The judge asked the group of us who were begging to opt out of our civic duty to approach the bench, one-by-one, and plead our case. She was African-American and regal, stern and side-eyed chastising in that way that black women have the lock on.
“Next!” she barked. Not looking up from whatever she was reading.
I tip-toed as I approached the bench, trying not to make a peep with my hard- soled shoes as they clickity-clacked through the echo chamber that was the courtroom.
“Yes!,” she snarled.
I took a beat. Leaned in or… up…and whispered, “Your honor…? I…I…my album was released today and I need to – ”
“Your who?” she growled.
I cleared my throat and tried to whisper in the stillest and smallest voice I could muster. “I have an new album that was released today.”
“Speak up, young man,” she bellowed. “I can’t hear THAT!”
“My new album was released today and I have a copy for you!” as I dug around in my murse.
She looked up and side-eyed me. She grabbed the CD out of my hands, inspected the jewel case. Then took a breath…
“You’re that young man I’ve seen on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, aren’t you?” as a smile crept into the corners of her mouth.
“I love that show. I love that woman. And you’re quite the talent.” “Thank you, Your Honor.”
“Get out of here and go enjoy your day.”
Ask and you shall receive. If only everything in life followed that turn of phrase. I mean really. From the moment my first album was released, or from the moment I signed the contract with DV8 Record/A&M back in the mid-90’s, I was thrust into a world of hetero-normative misogyny and homophobia that, in retrospect, could have and probably should have killed me. But I managed to survive. Thinking back to the myriad meetings I had with record executives with the not so “coded” rhetoric in relation to my sexuality and how it was being received by the public: “He shouldn’t talk like that…He shouldn’t wear that outfit…He’s to bubbly…He’s too funny….He’s too fat…He’s to soft…He should be careful what he says out loud. People will know…”
This is my favorite and possibly most scarring story of all…
I was at a big promotional release party for my single “Love Is On The Way” from The First Wives Club. The room was filled with big mucky-muck radio DJ types from all around the country. Black Radio. Some really popular radio personality out of Chicago named Roland, I think it was…? It was his 50th birthday and my label was hosting the party with a roomful of “tastemakers, ” the kind of people known to spin your single in different markets. Schmoozing, if you will. Or simply, modern- day payola. I was scheduled to sing my big single at the height of the evening, with simple piano accompaniment. That was the part they got right. They knew I could wrangle an unwieldy crowd with just the simplicity of my voice. Never mind I cultivated that skill singing in crowded, smoky piano bars till 4 o’clock in the morning everyday from the time I was 19. But we couldn’t talk about that. Cabaret was corny. Musical Theatre was even cornier. And the association with either genre when one was trying to be a “real” recording artist was the kiss of death. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Broadway = Gay. Period. The end. There was no mention of the four Broadway shows I had appeared in prior to my record contract in any of the roll out press materials. I was most definitely never to speak of my life or credits prior to signing a record deal. The marketing people thought it would be better if it looked like I was “discovered,” appearing magically out of thin air, rather than be associated with anything remotely “theatrical.” God forbid! But I digress. Back to “My Big Fat Black Radio Coming Out Party,” so to speak. So I sing my song. I blow the roof off the joint, as per usual, and I bounce. On the way out, in the elevator (the kind that opens up directly into the apartment), I ran into two sassy black ladies who were escaping the sweaty, swarming schmooze-fest as well. You know the type: high-powered, high-end, edgy, taebo- bodied fifty somethings. Breast augmentation…? Probably. Nose job…? Most assuredly. One sporting an asymmetrical weave. The other opting for a more natural, shoulder-lengthed, merlot infused locked look (we dropped the dread years ago as to not be associated with the etymological association with dreadFUL.) The exchange in the elevator went a little something like this:
Sassy Lady 1: You were great tonight.
Me: Thank you so much.
Sassy Lady 2: You’re leaving so early. The party is just getting started.
Me: Yeah, I’ve just been working really hard. We just finished the record this week. I have time off from Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which I’ve been appearing in this year while I’ve been making my album.
Sassy Lady 1: Oh, I love that show. I had no idea you were in it. !
Me: Yes, ma’am. It’s a great day job to have. But this weekend I’m taking off and am headed out to my agent’s house in The Hamptons to sit by the pool and read a book.
(Referring to agent)
Me: Oh, this is my agent Bill.
(They shake hands and exchange pleasantries.)
Sassy Lady 2: That sounds like a great weekend. Have fun.
(Ding! We reach the ground floor.)
Me: Nice meeting you. Have a great holiday.
Sassy Ladies: You too.
Fast forward to the following Tuesday morning when my phone rang. I let the machine pick up. You remember The Machine…? You know, the landline phone, plugged into the jack in the wall, attached to a machine that had a micro- tape, an actual tape with ribbon,that you had to manually rewind by pressing buttons…? The machine picked up and my soon to be fired “manager” barked:
Manager: What did you say?
Me: What did I say when?
Manager: What did you say to those women at the party?
Me: I need more information.
Manager: The women you spoke with.
Me: I…I…nothing – I have no idea what you’re referring to… Manager: The women you spoke with in the elevator.
It took me a minute to reach back into the recesses of my post-vacay mind to even remember the innocuous exchange with the women in question.
Manager: One of those women is a big mucky-muck at (insert high-level African-American publication here…) and she called to inform (insert name of my label CEO here…) that you would want to “Watch what you say to in public. People will KNOW.”
Me: People will know what, exactly?
This sort of exchange encapsulates my entire experience in the pre- millennium record industry; When Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Puffy- Diddy-Daddy or whatever he goes by these days hangs out in The Hamptons…he’s considered a creative genius and an entrepreneur. When I hang out in The Hamptons, I’m just a faggot!
Yes, I said that shit. Faggot! And I’m not talking about the version we gays use on each other to reclaim the power from our oppressors. I’m talking about the Faggot that was used as a slur by every bully in my childhood that thought they could break my spirit and crush my dreams. I’m talking about the Faggot that was replaced with the more politically correct Abomination out of the mouths of every single solitary clergyman I came in contact with who spouted their homophobic rhetoric from the bully pulpit under the guise of “love the sinner/not the sin.” They would actually preach that AIDS was God’s punishment –weekly! Love the sinner, indeed. Religious and government sanctioned discrimination and homophobia that seeps into every fiber of our culture. Nobody cared that I was talented. Nobody cared that I could sing bitches under the ground, and did–on the regular! Nobody was interested in the fact that I was a trained, edu-ma-ca-ted diva who came into the game with honed skills and craft. But most importantly nobody cared that I was a human being, first and foremost, whose existence on this planet need not be explained or silenced away because of the love that dare not speak its name. I found myself approaching a crossroads. One that would beg the question:
Is it worth it?
Is this worth my sanity?
Is this worth my life?
Those are the questions that kept coming up as I tried to navigate the treacherous terrain that was the 90’s music scene. And then that call came. The call that changed everything…
A dear friend of mine was working as a temp in the executive offices of Sony Music Group when the new Celine Dion record Let’s Talk About Love was delivered. Her album was set to drop in the 4th quarter. The year was 1997. For context, I remind you that my debut album project dropped on or around my birthday, September 21, 1997. It was now October of that same year and my friend calmly warned me that there was a title on this new Celine Dion project that may be of suspect interest to me. “Love Is On The Way” was slowly gathering steam and becoming my signature, power ballad anthem. In the interest of full disclosure, I initially sang a demo for the song for the production company that I was signed to in order for them to pitch this very song to other artists and get it placed. Here’s the kicker: “Love Is On The Way” was originally written for Ms. Dion and pitched to her for the Falling In You project that was release to great acclaim a couple of years prior. She passed on the song. Or should I say, her ‘people’ passed. Fast forward to The First Wives Club. Here’s my timeline:
- I sang the demo for “Love Is On The Way” in the attempt to try and get it place with another artist.
- I fell in love with the song.
- I fought with the label to let me have it (they thought it
wasn’t the right fit for me).
- I defied them and sang it anyway! I slayed The Children at
my annual Christmas concert to a sold-out audience at Town Hall and received a rapturous, simultaneous standing ovation. The Children were gagging…
- I sang the song at a birthday party for actress Jennifer Lewis where Bette Midler was in attendance.
- Ms. Midler also gagged. All over the song – and me! She fell in love with the inspired idea to have it placed in a little movie she was filming at the time called, The First Wives Club.
- The rest is history.
So as legend has it, Ms. Dion was in a darkened movie theater enjoying The First Wives Club and lo and behold there’s this incredible song that she took a shining to. “I want to sing that song,” she allegedly requested. And so it was…like God and the whole LET THERE BE LIGHT situation. And not only did my production company/label/producer/songwriters jump at the opportunity to give my shit away, they also all thought it would be beneficial if they just went on ahead and produced the track on her album. Same key (with the exception of a modulation in the final chorus). Same production. Voice interpretation copped note-for-note from my recording. So essentially I became a glorified demo singer for Celine Dion. And the worst part was that no one even had the decency to tell me any of this was going down. I had to find out by accident through an unlikely spy whom I didn’t even know I had planted. The truth is, my pain wasn’t based on Ms. Dion actually recording the song. That shit happens all the time. She’s a superstar. Having a song placed on any of her albums means millions of dollars in revenue for the creative entities behind the scenes. Mortgages need to be paid. Children need to be fed, clothed, and sent to college. Qualities of lives need to be maintained. I understand all of this and would have never begrudged anyone that opportunity. But they lied to me!!! And just so we’re clear, withholding information… is a lie! “I hate a thief, and I hate a liar – and you’re both of them!!!” my mother howled through tears as she beat the black off of my ass after I stole five dollars from my grandmother and lied about it when I was 8- years-old. And as I felt my soul being sucked out of my throat through the corpuscles of vocal chords, I thought once again: Is this worth my sanity? Is this worth my life?
Weeks later, I came home after a business trip to the stink of rotting flowers and fruit decomposing on my dining room table. The card read, “Thank you for your inspiration. Love, Celine Dion.” Was this supposed to make it all better? Heal the wound of abandonment and betrayal that festered? How ironic that the well intentioned gift brimming with living things upon delivery had begun to decay. Disintegrate. Die, wrapped up in a basket before ever having the chance to breathe life. That was the moment I chose life. I actively decided to choose my sanity over my fame. Period. The end. I walked away. I washed my hands of it. I purged my soul of that which was literally killing me and became a seeker. I surrendered all – but not before a marched into label CEO’s office, and with as much Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter Ford ghetto drama I could muster intoned, “I hate a thief, and I hate a liar – and you’re both of them!!!”
Now listen here, I know this sounds all spiritual and fierce and empowering and fabulous, but I’ma let you know – the journey was complicated and terrifying. Getting comfortable with the unknown, leaving the ego behind and stepping into grace is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life thus far. There was a lot of ‘journey/seekery’ stuff that happen in the years between 1997 and “The Boots That Are Kinky.” I covered a lot of it in my one-man show back in 2005 at The Public Theatre (NY)/City Theatre (Pittsburgh) – blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada, LA,acid-relfux disease, losing my voice, screenwriting school, directress-izing, getting my voice back, my self- produced album At The Corner Of Broadway & Soul, failed relationships, bankruptcy, no place to live, losing my voice again, no Broadway gig for 13- years, life changing medical diagnosis’s , getting my voice back – again! Whateves – I’m sick of hearing myself write at this point, and you’ll get all the fill-in chapters in my book (yes, she’s writing a memoir, but give me a minute, she’s got a lot goin’ on). How-some-ever, In the interest of time, let’s just cut to rehearsals for Kinky Boots.
There I am, minding my own black business when Lisa Barbaris (Cyndi Lauper’s manager) approaches me with that look in her eyes. “Can I talk to you for a sec?” I knew exactly what she was going to ask. I had seen that look of inquisition and pity before. That why on earth is this man not a superstar look. That what happened to your career look. Which was always inevitably followed up with some lunch meeting and conversation in which this new person would think they had all the answers to the questions that I had been living with ALL MY LIFE! “I don’t know why I’m not a star! I don’t know why my record career never took off! I don’t know why I haven’t been on Broadway in 13-years! I don’t know why I’m bankrupt and haven’t had a place to live for a decade. I don’t have the answers to any of your questions and I’m finally all right with that! And NO – I’d rather chew glass than meet you for lunch to discuss and wallow in my failures anymore!” I didn’t want to hurt the nice lady’s feelings so I took the fucking meeting! I smiled politely when she, true to form, told me how the record business of days of old is no more, how free digital downloading had decimated the industry. How the business has changed, and how major labels are looking for fully developed artists like myself with an infrastructure in place to move units in a nontraditional way. I guess starring in a Broadway show hasn’t turned out to be that corny after all. I smiled and nodded and told Ms. Lisa that I was willing to try again but only under one condition, “I don’t want no shit! And I mean it!” The following months were filled with record executives coming to the show and meeting me in my dressing room afterwards. Hypnotized and mesmerized were the looks on their faces. Independent labels, Major labels, hip-hop labels. I mean, wha…wha…what?!? There was actually a hip-hop label interested in signing my faggoty, drag queen ass to a deal? I play a DRAG QUEEN for a living, y’all know this right…? I took some meetings. And in a staggering turn of events I was presented with a label that wanted to give me bags of money to make a Broadway album. A BROADWAY ALBUM…?!?! With a full orchestra. The kind of music I fell in love with in my youth, checking out cast albums from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. The kind of Barbra Streisand-ish/Judy Garland-y album I dreamed of making back in the day when dreams were encouraged. The kind of album I suggested I make way back in the 90’s and was laughed off the premises. Could this really be happening? Have we circled back to the Original Dream? Could I, in fact, take all that I have been through in the last desperate 20-something years of my career and funnel all the energy into the music that I wanted to make. How is this possible? Is this really happening? And to top it all off, the Broadway idea actually came internally from the label. Could Ms. Lisa have been telling the truth. Are things changing…
The process was not without hiccups. That’s the nature of the beast. Compromise is the way of the world (unless, of course, you’re a member of the 113th United States Congress.) Okurr…? But I’ve learned after years and years of therapy that it’s not what’s happening to me – it’s my response to what I perceive to be the issue that’s important. Set a goal. Work to achieve set goal with as few deaths as possible. The good news is I didn’t have to murder nobody. I came real, real close, but ultimately choose life! I chose to make sure that whatever needed to happen to make the album that was uniquely my voice was what was going to happen. There were absolutes and there was give and take. And at the end of the day Billy’s Back On Broadway is a piece of work that I can stand behind. The roll out efforts have been hopeful and encouraging. I’ve felt nothing but love and support for the work from friends, fans and haters alike. Questions about my career on Broadway are some of the first things that The Label wants to promote and journalist want to know about. Everybody wants to talk about “the gay thing” too. I have to admit it’s somewhat surreal–if not down right weird. I’ve found myself having to check myself in terms of my reaction to particular questions that arise. My knee jerk reaction based on the trauma of my past experience is to shut down and clam-up when it comes to speaking candidly and truthfully about my work in relation to my sexuality and humanity. I suppose with the proliferation of The Glee’s and the American Idol’s, Dancing With The Stars, Nashville, Smash, So You Think You Can Dance, The Voice, etc. into the zeitgeist, coupled with how quickly the LGBT Civil Rights movement has progressed in recent years, the conversation is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. My sexuality is out in the open and is a huge part of what informs my work. And while I know that there are still “Pray The Gay Away” enthusiasts who wish I and my compatriots would just fade into obscurity, the tides are shifting. And the right side of history, justice and humanity is where the majority of society is leaning. We teach people how to treat us and it wasn’t until I learned how to embrace and love myself for who I am exactly as I am that I could then require the rest of the world to follow suit. I’m Black. I’m Gay. I’m Christian. And I’m fierce! Learn it. Live it. Love it. Let it use you. I suppose the Tony and Grammy ain’t neva hurt nobody neither. WERK!!!!
“Oh, my (clutching imaginary pearls…) how things have changed…”