Back In The Day: Gay Singing Stars From The Golden Age Of R&B

If you’re a fan of classic pop and R&B from the 1950s and ’60s, you know there’s a lot of lyrics about wooing girls and waiting for boys to call. But some of those singers were actually wooing boys and waiting for girls to call. (You know what we mean.) As we wait with baited breath for the release of retro-fabulous musical Sparkle next week, we decided to take a look at some queer artists from the golden age of pop.


Johnny Mathis

John Royce Mathis made his big splash with “It’s Not for Me to Say,” in 1957. He followed with dozens of gold and platinum records and hits like “Chances Are,” “Misty” and “The Very Thought of You” (above)—making him one of the most successful adult-contemporary artists ever.

Mathis was coy about his sexuality for much of his career but came out in 1982, telling US magazine, “Homosexuality is a way of life that I’ve grown accustomed to.” Decades later he admitted he had received death threats after the article was published, and said his general reticence about the topic was “generational.”


Lesley Gore

Gore’s signature song, “It’s My Party,” catapulted her to the top of the pop and R&B charts in 1963, thanks to the able assistance of a young record producer named Quincy Jones. She followed it up with other Top Ten hits like “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” “You Don’t Own Me,” “I Will Follow Him,” and “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows.” With her brother Michael, Gore  also composed several songs for the soundtrack to the 1980 film version of Fame, including the Oscar-nominated “Out Here on My Own.”

In 2005, she released her first new album in nearly 30 years, Ever Since, and revealed that she was a lesbian and had a longtime partner.


Little Richard

Often referred to a “the architect of rock and roll,”  Richard Wayne Penniman ushered in the evolution of R&B into rock in the 1950s with songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly, and heavily influenced both funk and soul music. His flashy appearance, primal vocalizations and rhythmic thrusts also sexualized popular music in a way America hadn’t experienced before.

His sexuality has long been the subject of rumors, some of which were started by Richard himself: He admitted to same-sex trysts as a young man, but later denied being gay. (After being born again, he called homosexuality “contagious.”) Penniman later claimed to be omnisexual,  and then finally, in 1995, told Penthouse he was gay.  Always leave ’em guessing, huh?


Tony Washington of The Dynamic Superiors

Hailing from Washington, DC, the Dynamic Superiors formed in 1963 but didn’t get a major-studio recording contract for more than a decade. Their breakout song, 1975’s “Shoe Shoe Shine,” was followed by more modest hits like “Here Comes That Feeling Again” and “Happy Song.” Years before Sylvester ruled the disco scene, lead singer Tony Washington was openly gay and sometimes wore drag on stage. After years apart, the group reformed in 2006 but sadly, by then, Washington had died of AIDS-related illness.


Dusty Springfield

Born Mary O’Brien, this West London chanteuse started out as part of the Lana Sisters and then formed The Springfields with her brother Tom. But it was as a solo star, with 1963’s “I Only Want to be with You,” that she got her big break. Springfield followed it with classics like “Wishin’ and Hopin'” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and 1968’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Dusty in Memphis saw her reaching for a more soulful sound and garnering the greatest critical acclaim of her career. In the late 1980s, Dusty went electronica with the Pet Shop Boys on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”

Though she never openly described herself as a lesbian, Springfield had numerous relationships with women and told the Evening Standard in 1970, “I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

Sadly the world lost Dusty Springfield to breast cancer in 1999. She was 59.