LGBTQ music history is so much more than a timeline of who came out when and which songs became gay anthems. It’s also about the artists who weren’t afraid to be themselves in eras when doing so often had personal and professional risks attached — eras when we didn’t even have the language to talk about gender and sexuality the way we do now.
As Adam Lambert said in Billboard’s first Pride Roundtable, “A lot of people I meet in this generation coming up aren’t necessarily aware of everything that has come before them.” For Billboard’s 2019 Pride Issue, we look back on and celebrate the artists and movements that paved the way for countless other LGBTQ artists today.
1923: Ma Rainey makes her first recordings.
The pioneering blues musician created much of the musical template that is associated with the genre, and her lyrics frankly addressed same-sex attraction and her sometimes androgynous appearance long before such topics were commonly discussed aspects of American culture. (As she sang on 1928’s “Prove It On Me Blues”: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men/ It’s true I wear a collar and a tie…”) Throughout her career, Rainey — along with peers like Bessie Smith, another bisexual blues singer whom she is believed to have heavily influenced — also challenged the limited roles that were availabile to women in the performing arts.
1959: Esquerita releases his debut album.
With a towering pompadour and far-out sunglasses, Esquerita (born Eskew Reeder Jr.) resembled a rock’n’roll Liberace with his wild take on New Orleans boogie. Though he didn’t start recording until late in his career, his music and appearance likely influenced stars such as Little Richard, who saw Esquerita perform early on in his career, and Dr. John, who worked with him as a session musician. Late in his life, Esquerita sometimes performed in gay clubs under the name Fabulash before dying from AIDS-related causes in 1986 at the age of 51.
1973: Olivia Records launches.
Founded in Washington, D.C., by a collective of women including singer-songwriters Cris Williamson and Meg Christian, the groundbreaking feminist label put out over 40 albums during its roughly two-decade run and fostered an entire scene of lesbian musicians, artists and activists. Along with Holly Near’s Redwood Records (formed slightly earlier), Olivia Records expanded on the second-wave feminism of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millet, helping young women — both straight and queer — express their political awareness, joy, and rage through music.
1973: Jobriath releases his debut album.
By the early 1970s, many rock stars had flirted with androgyny and sexual fluidity. But in 1973, a singer and actor named Bruce Wayne Campbell became what is believed to be the first openly gay rock musician signed to a major label when he debuted as the outrageously flashy Jobriath. Jobriath declared, loudly and proudly, that he intended to be the biggest and gayest rock star of all time. Though it didn’t quite work out that way — he announced his retirement in 1975, and he died from AIDS in 1983 — his short career left a lasting impression: Morrissey and Def Leppard covered his glam-rock tunes decades later.
1978: Big Boys form in Austin.
Although cities like New York and London are considered the epicenters of punk rock, some of the movement’s powerful exponents were coming out of Austin, Texas. Starting in 1978, the Big Boys not only pioneered a frantic, punk-funk sound that influenced everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sonic Youth, they also featured an out and proud lead singer, Randy “Biscuit” Turner. Remarkably, another out gay man, Gary Floyd, also fronted another of Austin’s first-rank punk bands, the Dicks, who would go on to be covered by the likes of The Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard and Mudhoney. Both the Big Boys and the Dicks are considered to be major influences on the noise-rock, grunge and queercore scenes of the 1980s and beyond.
1978: Tom Robinson declares he’s “Glad to Be Gay.”
In 1978, artists like Elton John and Rob Halford were still decidedly in the closet. Yet Tom Robinson, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter whose melodic punk rock tunes landed somewhere between the smarter side of The Kinks and the dumber side of Sham 69, was happy to celebrate his sexuality — so much so that he made a song out of it. In February of that year, the Rising Free EP by the Tom Robinson Band, featuring the song “Glad to Be Gay,” cracked the top 20 of the U.K. singles chart and became a fan favorite, despite some broadcasters’ refusal to play it on air.
1979: San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein proclaims “Sylvester Day.”
The now-senator dedicated March 11 to disco star Sylvester, whose powerful countertenor voice — falling somewhere between Donna Summer and Klaus Nomi — and flamboyant, gender-bending style were unlike anything else in the American mainstream in the late 1970s and ‘80s. With dancefloor hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” Sylvester, who passed nine days before Christmas of 1988, also paved the way for the likes of Boy George, Pete Burns and RuPaul.
1984: Bronski Beat hit MTV with “Smalltown Boy.”
During the first half of the 1980s, many artists found commercial success with songs and videos that openly depicted or referenced queer life, particularly gay nightlife — as seen in work of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell and others. But perhaps the most moving track of this era is one that explored a more intimate and personal aspect of LGBTQ life: “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. The bittersweet track told an all-too common story of a lonely young man coming to terms with his identity and the harassment he endures in his small town as he pines to find his tribe in the big city. In addition to becoming an MTV staple at the time, the song reached No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart and cracked the top half of the Hot 100 in the U.S.