written by Mark Allan Davis
I was asked to write about the early music of the Gay Rights Movement. You know, Stonewall 1969 and perhaps beyond. As soon as I found the page for the Stonewall Veterans Organization and saw they actually have an original list of the songs on the Stonewall Inn’s Jukebox, I screeched to a halt. I mean, I literally screeched and then halted. Why? I vividly remember the songs of the time. My older sister and I had almost all those 45’s. Despite her arguing that SHE had them, she would, at times, share them with me. I now have them here with me in San Francisco! I also did not know that I have a photographic music memory. This is a great blessing and can be a horrible curse when driving with someone who does not want to hear me sing the entire libretto of Sweeney Todd, Mack & Mabel, or The Wiz.
So this little musical journey compels me in this year of “Holy Jesus, what happened?” to reminisce. How, at seven years old, was I aware of the times because of the music. I was seven, but I still knew the words to a lot of music. Also, I now know that songs like Grazing in the Grass and Everybody Talkin’ (At Me) are songs engraved, embedded in my DNA. Diana Ross & The Supremes’ No Matter What Sign You Are was a single in the Vault; Berry Gordy was preparing Ross’ solo debut the next year. The Supremes were idolized at the time. While No Matter What Sign You Are was not a hit in the juggernaut sense like Love Child or Reflections, they had astonishing glamour. Who doesn’t love glamour? I’m sure the patrons of Stonewall Inn, when this song came on, gave a show with beer bottles representing microphones and dancing to the grooves. There was great love in that bar. To be in a place where you can just shout out lyrics and not care. To have a PLACE just to be your most authentic self. You’d get there at any cost.
“Twenty five miles from home girl, my feet are hurtin’ might bad. Now I’ve been walking for three days and two lonely nights, You know that I’m mighty mad!” – Edwin Starr, Twenty Five Miles
That last weekend in June, the jukebox at Stonewall Inn had music that was a wide array of eclectic songs. Songs that one can listen to. The performers, composers, and songwriters’ individuality vary so beautifully that you can understand how all the patrons of the bar could melt into the environment and be safe to skip the light. The songs on the jukebox could be romantic like Stevie Wonder singing My Cherie Amor, or even Henry Mancini’s Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet. At Stonewall, you could coo over drinks and belt out Shirley Bassey’s This is My Life!, The Beatles’ Get Back (JoJo), and the Edwin Hawkins’ Singers Oh, Happy Day. What? Gospel at a gay bar? If it was on the charts, and Oh Happy Day was, it was played.
There were forty songs on the Stonewall Inn’s Jukebox fifty-one-years ago. With my savant gift, I can sense the times, the moment, the emotions, the creativity coming through this music I was growing up with. Even the song Build Me Up, Buttercup, with one of the best call and response choruses ever written, evokes camaraderie effortlessly in a bar!
I must give a shout out to the great Marsha P. Johnson, the gender non-conforming citizen, or denizen, of the West Village who was always at the Stonewall Inn. Accounts differ as to whether or not she threw the “shot glass that was heard around the world,” but she was there. Boy was she there for the entire weeks of the riots and protests and also striving for Gay Rights until 1992 when she was murdered. I like listening to these songs and think of her with that megawatt smile and handbag walking into the bar that evening. Gladys Knight & The Pips were setting their groove to The Nitty Gritty:
Do you know that some folks know about it, some don’t
Some will learn to shout it, some won’t
But sooner or later baby, here’s a ditty
Say you’re gonna have to get right down to the real nitty gritty.
Marsha was impatient and was heard protesting and screaming, “I want my Gay Rights now!” As a gender non-conforming woman of color, she was killed for being who she was. The night the riots began had been the funeral for the great Judy Garland, an icon for perseverance. The police started messing with the patrons – perhaps while they were in mid-song singing Only the Strong Can Survive by Jerry Butler:
There’s gonna be, there’s gonna be
A whole lot of trouble in your life
So listen to me get up off of your knees
‘Cause only the strong survive
There really does come a time when enough is enough. It’s not hard to understand that sometimes you might find yourself standing up, surprised what we all possess, courage tenacity, and the love a great song to make you get up.
Mark Allan Davis is a Rochester native and currently resides in San Francisco, California, where he is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies in Black Performance, Dramatic Literature, and Black Theatre History. He is a Broadway veteran, and a good cook.