In honor of the annual June celebrations of Gay Pride culminating this weekend, here are some albums that "came out" in recent times with gay performers not fudging the pronouns.
Originally born out of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, Uptown Express has a bright, bursting-with-energy sound, splendid harmonies and the kind of polish that is sleek without being slick. When they blend, it often feels joyful and natural rather than calculatingly assembled. These days, it's a five-member group: The singers are Aldrin Arche, Chris Caswell, Alex Goro, Brad Parks and John DePalma. John has done solo cabaret shows and has a solo CD on the market on the LML Music label. The others have musical theatre acting experience in addition to their work concertizing, and the performances here reflect a sense of eagerness to entertain and assert personality rather than being content to be just anonymous pretty sounds.
The material is mostly pop, but I guess with Jersey Boys bringing the song catalogue of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons to Broadway, the inclusion of the title song and others gives some honorary show tune quotient: The guys do the Seasons' "Who Loves You" (a real highlight that just builds and builds) and the Frankie Valli solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," but it's done in a medley with "Goin' Out of My Head" along the lines of that same combination that was a trademark hit of another group, The Lettermen. Nicely done very much in the Lettermen creamier, dreamier style, it's a nod to another kind of approach to group singing. The 60-year-old pop song "On a Slow Boat to China" by the musical theatre legend Frank Loesser is a welcome choice and is done with flair, borrowing the Alex Rybeck arrangement created for Liz Callaway's recording.
One set of four songs called the "icon medley" is not a medley of interweaving songs as might be guessed. It's just some favorites grouped together, and the four songs are tracked separately, each a full-length, self-contained performance. But the "icon" choices notably include salutes to role model "out" star performer-songwriters: Elton John's "I Want Love" (written with Bernie Taupin), Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" and k.d. lang's memorable "Constant Craving" which she co-wrote with Ben Mink. Though some dramatic immediacy and lonely yearning must naturally be sacrificed for multi-voiced renditions of more emotional lyrics, the group has a way of incorporating enough of a gutsy sound and wise choices are made as to what kind of material might require a solo voice lead. Especially affecting and heart-tugging is John's lead vocal on "I Want Love," and Brad's high voice gets a real showcase on "Never Can Say Goodbye" (noted for the gay-friendly agenda, after the title phrase, he addresses the lover as "boy" instead of "girl").
The lyrics of the love songs happen to be mostly gender-neutral, with the "you" pronoun rather than "he" or "she" being an issue for the gay sensibility. There are choices made indicating that men are singing about men. For example, in their zippy and exuberant rendition of the old song "Glow Worm" often sung by men (such as The Mills Brothers and the writer of the English words, Johnny Mercer), with the line, "I got a gal that I love so," they substitute "guy" for "gal."
Instrumental arrangements and playing are very satisfying on the album, while never distracting from the sense of the singers also serving as a bed of vocal accompaniment to each other when one sings lead. The band group consists of Dan Gross on percussion, Tony Ventura on bass, Ted Stafford on guitar and the valued longtime cabaret figure who has a history with the full New York City Gay Men's Chorus, James Followell (he's on piano and is their musical director). The CD, produced by Paul Rolnick, has an exciting, vibrant sound quality, with some tracks feeling live and all quite crisp and nicely balanced. (A tour de force bonus track here comes from another fine CD he produced, The Real Thing by Jamie deRoy & Friends, in 2005. It's Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" as sung by another incarnation of Uptown Express, with totally different singers and other musicians.)
Uptown Express will be performing live tonight in Manhattan at The Metropolitan Room on 22nd Street with a special guest, the exciting singer Lina Koutrakos who co-wrote (with the aforementioned Dan Gross and JP Perreaux) a positive, moving, empowering song included on this CD, "Love Grows Here." The album will only be sold through the website of Big Apple Performing Arts (BAPA) , a LGBT-identified non-profit organization formed for entertainment and education and to make a positive contribution to the entire community. The CD will also be sold at concerts like tonight's.
Gay sensibility and gay nonsense are front and center on Gay Friendly 2, a second such collection of songs with music and lyrics by Bill Solly. In his own singing, Bill has a daffy, impish persona that allows him to get away with delivering risqué lines, as in his eyebrow-raising tale of an "Unusual Autumn" with a male lover. It's nice to see some other familiar names from New York theatre and cabaret here, including two appearances from the late John Wallowitch who is heard delightfully on the sprightly title song of the musical Boy Meets Boy and with dry wit on "Billie." John provided his own piano accompaniment. Otherwise, the pianist is musical director (and also a musical theatre writer) Barbara Anselmi, with some percussion and bass. Both make singing appearances on the album, combining with chipper camaraderie for a very short song called "Very Short Song" and the cheeky, what-the-hell anthem "Gaily Forward." It's a shoulder-shrugging statement of willingness to carry on.
There's a different kind of carrying on elsewhere, with some audacious and silly clowning around. For example, Diane Findlay and Richard Skipper (he better known for his shows as Carol Channing) do a double act tossing about double entendres on "Isn't a Shame?" which, come to think of it, is rather shameless. Saucy Solly sprinkles some direct references to sex in his lyrics on a few numbers, but there's a romantically sweet side to some of his work. "Wouldn't Say No" is a charmer, especially as delivered with just the right amount of sugar by James Patterson and Michael Hunsaker.
Instantly likeable Robb Sapp makes a strong impression in his two appearances: a committed performance of the torchy but sensitive "Nobody Likes the Man" and a duet with Denise Nolin, the celebration of the legalization of gay marriage, "Married in Massachusetts." Her solo track, "Buzz," about gossip stays in the same musical plane and goes on too long and becomes rather grating.
The album is lamentably short, clocking in at under 25 minutes. But it's another example of the writer's spunky, solid, happily old-fashioned catchy melodies and swell way with words. It's gay in both senses of the word.
Now living in Hawaii, Pat Rocco, a longtime gay activist, filmmaker and entertainer, turned his attention to recording albums at the beginning of this century (in fact, he's listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having released the very first album of the millennium at the stroke of midnight). Since then, he's racked up several. His voice is assured and unpretentious, projecting a nice, sentimental guy who loves love and loves good songs. A wealth of standards and show tunes (the album lists 35, but there's also the unlisted couple of lines of "Singin' in the Rain") include his amiable He Touched Me, which is a special case in itself: He released another CD called She Touched Me, but in re-recording many of the same numbers for this edition, he's made the pronouns masculine.
Also included here are some songs very much about men, not just lyrics with a quick pronoun switch. For example, he sings "It's So Nice to Have a Man Around the House" and "The Man I Love" as well as two numbers from Show Boat, "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." In some cases, he rewrites a lyric line here and there that might not work for a male-male relationship. In "My Blue Heaven," original life partner Molly is recast as Jimmy and the line "and baby makes three" becomes "out, open and free" and he rhymes "cozy room" with "groom and groom." Some changes seem unnecessary, as in "Bill": Instead of just replacing that word "straight" in the line "he isn't tall or straight or slim," Pat rewrites the line and the next one. So be it, purists. All golden oldies, there are no songs whose original lyrics directly address being gay or same sex relationships.
Mostly easygoing and relaxed, many tracks are short and sweet, with no fuss or frills. Many are no-nonsense, straightforward renditions, often eschewing any kind of instrumental introduction, or maybe just a chord. Cutting to the chase, he doesn't belabor things either, usually just stopping after one time through the lyric rather than having an instrumental interlude and then repeating the chorus. So, some tracks last about a minute and then he unceremoniously moves on. The marathon songfest starts to feel feels like a casual "hey, remember this song?" night at a singing friend's house as he spins out one old favorite after another. The order seems rather haphazard without being actually jarring.
Crooning in an appealingly gentle way, the man seems to be singing right in your ear much of the time. Sincerity and serenity reign, with sadness or break-ups far offstage and only one lyric even approaching addressing the absence of a love ("Someone to Watch Over Me"). Especially gratifying are several numbers that are given more emotional investment and are done with particular care, like the infrequently recorded "Look to Your Heart" (Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn) and "He Touched Me" (from Drat! The Cat!), a dramatic turn with lovely, nuanced moments like lingering lovingly on the word "valentining." This, and others like "More Than You'll Know" and "When I Look in Your Eyes," become fully realized little dramas and are quite vulnerable. Others seem a bit tossed off and get lost in the shufflethough it's a cozy shuffle.
Pat co-arranged with conductor-keyboardist Clem Low, with three different guitarists listed plus reeds, bass and percussion. Sometimes the musicians seem far in the background; it bothered me at first, but then it seemed to add to the misty, floating-on-a-cloud feel.
Pat has wrapped his Christmas album, which I look forward to reviewing when these hot days inevitably give way to another winter. Meanwhile, this is a very, very warm album, making for smooth company for some enchanted evening. And, yes, "Some Enchanted Evening" gets the socko Rocco touch without becoming overbearing (in fact, he once played the lead in South Pacific), but this time, he's singing about the "stranger across a crowded room" who happens to be another man.
A toast to Pat Rocco, his love stories, and his own life partnerthey've been together since the year "Love Will Keep Us Together" came out. That pop hit is used as a vamp/countermelody for one of He Touched Me's cuddliest tracks, the Gershwins' last song, "Love Is Here to Stay."
UNDER THE RADAR
Coincidentally also living in Hawaii, and he's worked with the performer above ... and they both have albums presented as a gay man singing about love for men, both opening with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" ...
We end our gay day by way of Clay. Clay Callaway's first album, the self-released Darn It, Baby, That's Love! is out and proud and out-and-out enjoyable. Despite having a wide variety of genres and tones, it somehow hangs together through the singer's consistent comfort level, goodwill and seemingly effortless ease. Pop, Broadway, humor, country, chirpy upbeat number or ballad, he seems quite at home. Musically, his clear, flexible voice is ingratiating with a particularly sweet, round timbre that beams optimism. His phrasing is natural, saving a sense of drama for the lyrics that tell a story like "Come in From the Rain" (it even has rain sound effects, which may be a bit much, but I'm a sucker for the go-for-it/why-not choices) or "When Sunny Gets Blue" (Sunny, or maybe Sonny, is a guy this time out). And he's easygoing and more casual on the lighter fare.
Clay's open-hearted, refreshing sound is heard in some show tune choices that are refreshing, too. Witness the wistful, wide-eyed worship in "My Superman" from the musical Freeway Dreams by Wayne Moore. Another Moore, one Quack Moore, is the musician (AKA Cheryl Hardwick) whose sensitive piano accompaniment and arrangement enhance the still-fresh pain in "Sometimes a Day Goes By." This Kander & Ebb number from Woman of the Year unfolds as the struggle of recovery from a lost love by someone who might still be lost in love. Older, more frequently covered theatre songs make appearances, too. The gay man's journey takes an easy ride on the Show Boat with "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" done in a relaxed tempo, staying out of the angst and torch zones. The album's title song is from a 1950 revue called Tickets Please and is a jokey duet for a couple musing about what they'll be like as they stumble into latter years, through thick (midsections) and thin (hair). Joining Clay in the mutual teasing about being old and gray (and gay) is his real-life life partner (18 years and counting) Ty Lewis.
The My Fair Lady realization of fondness becomes "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," making it a direct statement to the missed party. Though avoiding saying over and over that it's a man's face, the in-denial, misogynist original line, "I'm very grateful she's a woman and so easy to forget" becomes "I'm very grateful you're that kind of man not easy to forget." A welcome choice is to do this with spare accompaniment – the guitar played by talented Andy Belling, who arranged and co-produced (with the singer) most of the CD and wrote the tender final track, "Somewhere, Sometime Ago." It's not gender-specific at all, but the other songs leave no question: "All the Man That I Need," "I Never Loved a Man Before," and some stomping around in his butch cowboy boots: "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" and "That's What I Like About You," the song that has a series of lines describing the ideal guy ("I like a man who ...").
Though this is his first CD, Clay's no newcomer to performing. He grew up in musical theatre, acts and directs, recently in a theatre in his home state of Arkansas named for his theatre-toiling mother Pat Callaway, and is currently directing South Pacific out there before heading back to Hawaii, and is working on a second album.
Until next time, Aloha!