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Life-long ‘Fan’

Gay writer explores, Aretha, gays in black gospel and more

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Aretha Franklin, Columbia Records, gay news, Washington Blade

‘The Fan Who Knew Too Much’
By Anthony Heilbut
Knopf
$30
354 pages
anthonyheilbut.com

Aretha Franklin concert
Saturday, Nov. 17
7:30 p.m.
DAR Constitution Hall
1776 D Street, NW
$59.50-115.50
ticketmaster.com

Aretha Franklin, Columbia Records, gay news, Washington Blade

Vintage early ’60s promo still of Aretha Franklin during her Columbia Records years. (Photo courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment)

In a roundabout way, there’d be no rock music without gays and lesbians.

That’s the assertion of gay New York-based writer/historian Anthony Heilbut. In a sprawling, juicy tome that’s as gossipy and anecdotal as it is academic, he writes in “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” that there would have been no golden age of black gospel music (roughly1945-1960) without gays. He, and other rock historians also assert there’d be no mainstream rock and roll without classic black gospel influence.

Anthony Heilbut, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay author Anthony Heilbut says Franklin’s underrated work at Columbia Records is her best, contrary to popular opinion, which venerates her later Atlantic Records period. (Photo by Stephen Ladner)

“It means a lot to me that gay people know about this,” Heilbut says during a lengthy phone chat last week. “Gospel is really the most essential American music. Everyone sort of understands that black church singing, it’s really been the center of American singing since the 19th century. It follows through in jazz as well. It’s a great gay contribution.”

Though white and an atheist, as a teen, Heilbut went to hear the great R&B and soul acts of the day at the Apollo in New York. He was often the only white person in the room. He got a heads up from the ushers.

“I think they kind of took pity on this lone white boy,” he says. “They said, if you dig this, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, the gospel shows are so much better. The showmanship, the vocalism. I came to know almost all the singers and became absolutely enthralled. They were so much more dynamic than their secular counterparts. You just cannot imagine rock and roll and R&B without the influence of these singers.”

Aretha in concert at Wolf Trap, summer 2011, the last time she played the D.C. market. (Blade file photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Heilbut’s book, out earlier this year, is a collection of lengthy essays. Subtitled “Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church and Other Meditations,” it includes a lengthy essay on how many black gospel legends — figures like James Cleveland, Clara Ward and others were either gay, lesbian or bi. In the essay “Aretha: How She Got Over” he explores how the soul legend — in town this weekend for a concert at DAR Constitution Hall — integrated the styles of the gospel legends she admired as a teen into the hit secular records she later recorded at Columbia and Atlantic. Though Franklin’s gospel roots are well known, Heilbut extrapolates the richness of those influences in unprecedented ways.

Other essays explore writer Thomas Mann (“The Magic Mountain”), the phenomenon of the male soprano and late soap opera maven Irna Phillips.

One senses, however, that despite Heilbut’s many interests and decades — he’s 71 — of following the careers of many, his heart is most deeply rooted in the gospel music of his youth. He eventually produced records for some of his favorites and writes and shares movingly of not only their great talent, but the hypocrisy with which the church has dealt with — often with scorn and outright condemnation — the contributions of its gay musicians.

Typical of many of the “old school” black gospel establishment, Heilbut quotes the legendary Shirley Caesar as “beseeching the ‘sissies and bull daggers’ to ‘come up and be saved,’ and warning that homosexuals were ‘stealing our children.’”

More analysis than biography, though, Heilbut illustrates how a lifetime of following a singer or musical phenomenon can result in an uncanny insight that the subjects themselves are often loathe to discuss — Franklin, as journalists and long-time fans know, is famously prickly and evasive on many topics.

For the record, Heilbut says Franklin and her legendary father, Rev. C.L. Franklin who became a mid-century legend as pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church — were way more accepting of gays than many others in the era.

The Fan Who Knew Too Much, Anthony Heilbut, Aretha Franklin, gay news, Washington Blade

Cover art of Anthony Heilbut’s new book. (Cover image courtesy of Knopf)

Heilbut says Franklin, though not as vocal as some, has made her gay support known in several ways — from singing at a recent same-sex wedding to inviting gay-welcoming clergy (Bishop Carlton Pearson) to comment during a Whitney Houston tribute she hosted during a concert at Radio City Music Hall while Houston’s mother, Cissy, stuck with old school, anti-gay leaders (TD Jakes, Donnie McClurkin) at her daughter’s funeral.

“Aretha does these little things without really saying a word,” Heilbut says.

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Photos

PHOTOS: International LGBTQ Leaders Conference opening reception

Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott

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Politicians and activists from around the world met and mingled at the JW Marriott. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The LGBTQ Victory Institute held an opening reception for the 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference at the JW Marriott on Thursday.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Meet the husbands and creative partners behind ‘Christmas Angel’

A funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast

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Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner with pugs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron.

The Christmas Angel
Dec. 9-19
Creative Cauldron
410 South Maple Avenue
Falls Church, VA 22046
Tickets:  $35. Students $20.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required
creativecauldron.org

“Ours is like a lava lamp,” says composer Matt Conner describing the collaborative creative process he shares with musical writing partner and husband Stephen Gregory Smith. “We move together in motion in a continual ebb and flow.” 

A couple for 23 years, married for eight, and making musicals together for 11, the talented pair’s current offering is “The Christmas Angel,” opening on Dec. 9 at Creative Cauldron in Fairfax. 

A musical adaptation of the same-named 1910 novel by Abbie Farwell Brown, it’s the story of Angelina Terry (Kanysha Williams), a wealthy embittered recluse who learns the lessons of Christmas from a box of old toys that she casts into the street. Also featured in the hour-long one-act are Ryan Sellers as Horton, Angelina’s butler, and Carl Williams who plays her brother. The angel and toys are brought to life by an ensemble of a dozen teens plucked from the company’s musical theater training program. 

Via phone from their home in Arlington, Smith and Conner shared thoughts on their new show and working style. In attendance are pug dogs Edgar Allan Pug and Lord Byron, whom they call Eddie and Byron in public – otherwise “it’s just too much,” says Conner whose ultimate fantasy involves living on a pug farm where he’d write music and present the occasional show.

Rather than finish each other’s sentences, the duo (both Helen Hayes Award winners – Smith for acting and Conner for directing) expound on one another’s thoughts.

While Conner composes the music, Smith writes the book and lyrics, and together they co-direct. “But there’s no end and beginning where my job ends and his begins,” says Smith. “What we do complements each other’s work.”

Still, there are differences. Smith’s approach is focused. He writes pages at night and edits in the morning. Conner’s method is more relaxed, preferring to sit at the keyboard and talk rather than writing things down. But throughout the creative process, there’s never a moment when the project isn’t on their mind. They can be watching TV or buying milk when an exciting idea pops up, says Conner. 

A clever nod to Dickens, the novel is more than just a female “Christmas Carol,” says Smith. And in some spots, he’s beefed up the 55-page book, fleshing out both storyline and characters including the toys whose shabby appearance belies a youthful confidence. 

He adds, “Every holiday season you go to the attic and pull down the box, or boxes in my case, of holiday decorations and it’s all old but it’s new. That’s the nostalgic feeling of toys from the attic that we’re trying to find through the show.”

The music is a combination of traditional carols performed by a hand bell chorus, and original Christmas songs that intentionally sound very familiar. The score includes songs “Don’t Hide Your Light,” “The Sweetest Gift,” and “Yestermore” – the moment when the past, present, and future come together. 

Also, there’s Angelina’s Bah! Humbug! number “Fiddlesticks,” her great renunciation of the holidays. She believes the world a disappointing place to be, and the sooner realized the better. 

Conner and Smith aren’t new to Creative Cauldron. Through the company’s Bold New Works project, the team was commissioned to write five world premiere musicals in just five years. The result was “The Turn of the Screw,” “Monsters of the Villa Diodati,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Witch” and “On Air.”

Judging from some of the titles and their slightly macabre content, it seems the duo was better poised to write for Halloween than Christmas, but nonetheless, they were commissioned. Creative Cauldron’s producing director Laura Connors Hull brought them the obscure yet charming book that surprisingly had never before been reworked for stage or celluloid, and the pair got to work last spring. 

Conner and Smith agree, “The show is a lot of things rolled up into one.”

Not only is it a funny, redemptive world premiere with a diverse cast, but it’s also a story largely unknown to today’s audiences. Additionally, the show boasts intergenerational appeal while holding messages about Christmas, family, and finding light when you’re in a darker place. 

More information about Conner and Smith, including links to their music and popular podcast “The Conner & Smith Show,” can be found on their terrific website at connersmithmusicals.com.   

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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