Love Is A Drag
by James Mann
I had my suspicions about my father’s sexuality during my high school years, his long absences from the house culminating in his leaving for good in my junior year. We didn’t speak about it. In fact, we never did. My mother knew, I suppose, but between her pride – and unwarranted shame – we never really addressed why he left. It was something unsaid. As a teenager, I was more focused on learning guitar so I could be the next Keith Richards or Mick Jones. After high school, and having dropped out of college after five weeks, I became a roadie. To supplement my infrequent income I would work at my father’s house for cash, helping renovate the older two bedroom home in Atlanta’s East Atlanta area- long before the area was gentrified. One Tuesday morning I arrived at 7 AM to be greeted by my father and his roommate, clad in boxer shorts and kimonos, drinking Mimosas and singing “California Dreaming”.
My father was a talented actor and writer, gifted with a magnificent voice. He joined the local church primarily to sing in the choir, for I really don’t think the actual message behind the songs ever meant much to him. He directed plays and would recruit me to assist – I can still recite much of Inherit the Wind to this day. Looking back I realize his intent – in addition to spending time with his only child, he was also introducing me to his other world, a world where whatever prejudices existed among “regular people” had no sway. Here were people united in talent. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, gay or straight- only if you could produce.
After the kimono episode, I would join my father at piano bars. There, in the dim light and after a few Harvey’s Bristol Cremes, he would use that wonderful voice to sing love songs- to men. He had found a place that he felt safe, sheltered, and his talent (and attractions) would be recognized and appreciated. Thankfully he had raised me right to feel completely comfortable in this environment -save for the come-ons from women older than my mother, that is. So when this reissue of the 1962 Love Is A Drag caught my attention, I listened not as a 54 year old man, but rather a 20-something child, and it felt good. Love Is A Drag consists of standards such as “Lover Man”, “He’s Funny That Way” and “The Man I Love” sung by “an unusual vocalist” (actually Gene Howard, singer for Stan Keaton) without changing the pronouns.
Just like my dad.
This release, with great liner notes from JD Doyle, the curator of queermusicheritage.com, revisits the history of the release, which in 1962 was released on the Lace Records label, and became an underground hit. And it had to be underground, because one wasn’t openly gay in the ’60s, at least not in Georgia, where my father and I were born and raised. The ice had broken somewhat in the ’80s, when my father and I would get tipsy around a piano and he would be able to express openly what he had to keep under wraps the rest of the day. My father died of AIDS in the early ’90s, and we never spoke of his sexuality. He had his reasons, of course- growing up in south Georgia most likely showed him the wisdom of keeping things to oneself, and sadly that extended to his son.
So this isn’t so much a review as a thank you. A thank you to Gene Howard and Lace Records all those years ago, and to Modern Harmonic for re-releasing Love Is A Drag. Because you gave me a little bit of my dad back. You’ll never know how deeply it moved me.
And thank you dad. For everything.