Author of ‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’ Darryl W. Bullock Talks About 5 LGBTQ+ Artists That Inspire Him

For more than a century, pop music has provided the soundtrack to the struggle for LGBTQ civil rights. Back in the early years of the 20th century, when the record industry was in its infancy, LGBTQ songwriters, singers and performers were embracing this new medium, using it to reach a wider audience than they could ever have hoped previously.

Today many LGBTQ artists enjoy a level of fame (and freedom) their forebears could only dream of, but for every Freddie Mercury or George Michael (or every Sia or Sam Smith for that matter), there are dozens of other fascinating LGBTQ artists who slip under the radar. Here are five of my favourites.



Charlie and Ray

A vocal duo from New York, Charlie and Ray first came to prominence at the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem.

The duo’s breakneck delivery, high camp falsetto and onstage presence won them a huge local following, and although it was no secret that the pair were gay, their audience either ignored the fact or simply did not care.

In late 1954 the pair signed with the Broadway-based Herald Records; their first single, ‘I Love You Madly’, was issued that October.


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Source: Doo – Wop – Blog


Within 10 days the initial pressing had completely sold out, and other acts were scurrying to get cover versions out: white vocal act The Four Coins scored a hit with the song in early 1955, but although the original sold well, Herald did not have the distribution necessary to make Charlie and Ray’s version a national hit.

Charlie and Ray would issue seven singles during their career, sadly none of them would trouble the charts.

Like many other songwriters, Charles Jones often fell foul to unscrupulous people within the music industry: in March 1955 he registered the copyright of four songs, yet when one of those, ‘Certainly Baby’, was issued as the duo’s third single, the label credit claimed that the song had been penned by Frank Slay Jr. and Bob Crewe, the producers of the track, who were given the credit in lieu of payment for their services.

It was a neat trick that would not have cost Herald and publishers Angel Music a cent but meant that Charles Jones would never see any royalty payments for his composition.

Music historian C.J. Marion saw them play at the Rockland Palace in Harlem, in early 1955.

‘I was a bit taken aback by the hip rolling, pocketbook swinging entrance (being all of 14 years old at the time), but once the music started and the crowd got into it, what a show! I remember writing a letter to Alan Freed and asking a gender-oriented question about Charlie and Ray but never receiving an answer…’

Over the next few years, they would continue to be a popular live draw, although their discs failed to break nationally, and after a brief resurgence in their careers around 1964, the pair vanished from the scene.

Charlie and Ray are all but forgotten these days, but they deserve our attention not only for making some truly great vocal sides but for being that rarest of things, an openly LGBTQ act at a time when few performers dared to be so honest.


Jackie Shane

Born in Nashville in the early 1940s, Jackie Shane knew from the age of five that she was different, but said that growing up in Nashville she never had a problem with people struggling to accept her sexuality.

Shane always knew she was a woman, though others didn’t always identify her as such.

‘At five years old, I would dress in a dress, hat, purse and high heels and go up and down the block – and enjoy it.’

Her mother and grandparents accepted her, and her schoolmates and even her church seem to have had a little problem with someone whose birth certificate said ‘male’ but who knew better.

It was racism, not transphobia that drove her north, to Canada, where she became a star, working the clubs, appearing on TV, and making a series of classic soul records.


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Source: I-D Magazine


Jackie was a talented performer who sang like James Brown or Otis Redding but whose look would put both Little Richard and Esquerita to shame.

She covered the William Bell song ‘Any Other Way’, and when she sang the line ‘Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay/Tell her that I wouldn’t have it any other way’, the inference was clear.

She performed with Little Richard’s backing band, the Upsetters, and was friends with Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton. The Varsity, in a piece on Toronto’s nightclub scene, wrote that at the city’s Brass Rail club on Younge Street ‘upstairs Frank Motley and his crew perform, with little Jackie Shane doing the vocal.

Is he or isn’t she? Only its mother knows for sure…’

Although ‘Any Other Way’ reached number two on Toronto’s radio charts it failed to score nationally.

Shane recorded just six 45s and one album before she left the city for good.

Unusually, the sleeve notes to Jackie Shane Live made knowing reference to her sexuality: ‘the only problem is when Jackie suggests “let’s go out and get some chicken after the show”, you can’t be sure what he has in mind’.

She did not record again after 1969. Leaving the showbiz life behind, she moved back to Nashville, where she shared a home with her aunt and lived openly, albeit reclusively, as a woman.

Then, in 2018, Numero collected the majority of her recordings together on a double LP and she resurfaced.

At 77 years old Jackie started talking about going out on the road again, saying: ‘People have come up to me and said, “Jackie thank you. You made it possible for me to have a life.” That’s why I was there.’

Sadly, the pioneering transgender singer died last year, but at least her talents – and her bravery – had finally been recognised.


Jayne County


To label Jayne County an icon is to do her a massive disservice: she’s been part of the fabric of LGBTQ life in the United States since the late 1960s, but it’s for her outrageous stage antics and her punk anthem ‘F**k O*f’ that she will be forever venerated by music fans.

Born in a small rural community in Georgia with parents from a strict religious background, in 1967 she moved to New York City.

Two years later she found herself in the middle of the Stonewall Riots. ‘I was there for all three nights of rioting,’ she told me.

‘The first night was the worst – or the best, whichever way you look at it – and the second night was very good because that’s the night we all marched down Cristopher Street screaming ‘Gay power! Gay power!’

When I got there the doors were locked and there were burn marks all over the door.

People had already tried to set fire to the door, I don’t know why because there were still gay people and drag queens and the like inside, so setting fire to the door wasn’t a very good idea! People were already rioting in the street and I gleefully joined in.’

Jayne shared a home with various members of Andy Warhol’s factory and appeared on stage in Warhol’s Pork, played at legendary punk haunts CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City and shared a management company with David Bowie.

She later claimed that Bowie appropriated her image: ‘MainMan gave me money so I could create ideas so Bowie could steal them, whitewash them, and use them for himself to create a fake version of what I was trying to create,’ she told Gus Bernadicou of Punk Globe magazine in 2012.

She spent much of the 70s living in London.

It was while there that the single ‘Fuck Off’, credited to Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, catapulted her to punk superstardom.

Although Jayne has taken female hormones and had some minor plastic surgery, according to her 1996 autobiography Man Enough To Be A Woman, she has never had a total sex change:

‘I’m used to my little friend by now, and quite honestly I’d rather save up the money for a facelift,’ she says.

Jayne is the embodiment of the whole punk ethos and, as such, is the godmother of Queercore.


Oli Spleen


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Source: Oli Spleen, Bandcamp

You have probably never heard of Oli Spleen, yet he’s one of the most creative, and industrious, queer musicians working in Britain today.

Oli’s first releases were spoken word performances but, as he explains: ‘while I would write poems and songs as a child and then it was a near-death brush with AIDS on the millennium that drove me to feel compelled to express my pain and frustration through music.’

His first band, hardcore punk act the Flesh Happening, formed in the summer of 2003 and split five years later; soon after Oli formed a new group, Pink Narcissus, named after the 1971 film about the erotic fantasies of a gay male prostitute.

Drawing on influences from David Bowie, Jane’s Addiction, Iggy and the Stooges and the like, Pink Narcissus issued their most recent album, Pig Miracle Day, in October 2017.

Alongside his work with the band, Oli has continued to work on solo projects, including the 2013 album Fag Machine and an atmospheric cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Oli’s sexuality is central to his work. ‘I don’t think I would be making music at all if I wasn’t queer,’ he tells me. ‘If I were straight I wouldn’t have had to question my existence so fundamentally or gone through everything that leads me toward music in the first place. I’d imagine I would have had a far more conventional path.’

Identifying as non-binary, he adds that ‘whilst the definition fits how I perceive myself I don’t enforce non-binary pronouns, it is simply how I feel inside. I have felt far more welcomed and understood by the trans community than I ever did in the more mainstream gay scene.’

His most recent solo album demonstrated another side of the multi-faceted artist. ‘I think it’s the album I always wanted to make,’ Oli says of the brilliant Gaslight Illuminations, recorded with current collaborator Mishkin Fitzgerald of Brighton-based indie rock band Birdeatsbaby.

Influenced by Jacques Brel, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, ‘the title references a theme that runs through many of the tracks. My ex was addicted to crystal meth and would do that gaslighting thing where he would accuse me of things which he himself was doing, and make me question my own sanity.’ never one to rest on his laurels, just last month he issued a new digital-only album, Spleen, featuring new material as well as rocked-up versions of three songs from Gaslight Illuminations.


John Grant


Darryl Bullock with John Grant


Once the leader of the critically acclaimed Czars, John Grant is one of the busiest openly gay stars of his generation, with four hit solo albums, collaborations with Elton John, Blancmange and Sinead O’Connor and a slew of awards to his name.

But that fame has come with a price, not the least of which was, in 2012, discovering that he was HIV positive.

Add that to dealing with what he himself terms ‘decades of brainwashing’ from a traumatic childhood (his parents were convinced he needed to be ‘fixed’ because of his sexual orientation, and their religious beliefs lead to years of what he terms ‘spiritual abuse’), an anxiety disorder plus a self-destructive streak with its roots in the homophobia and bullying he faced during his youth in Michigan and it’s a wonder he’s producing music at all.

‘At home and at church I was told: “you’re going to spend an eternity being punished for this behaviour, which you have brought on yourself”. If I had been able to express myself I would have found that there were some places and some people who would accept me, even back then and I find it sad that I was never able to access that, because for me it was just hostility wherever I went.’

His third solo album, 2015’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, features an eyeless Grant on the front cover; promotional shots included a blood-spattered Grant wielding a croquet mallet. ‘It’s what I feel like doing every time someone calls me a faggot,’ he admits.

Now living in Reykjavik, his lyrics can be as dark as an Icelandic winter (‘grey tickles’ is the Icelandic for ‘mid-life crisis’; ‘black pressure’ comes from the Turkish for ‘nightmare’), and he doesn’t shy away from singing about his own sexual experiences, as he did with excruciating honesty on the song ‘Jesus Hates Faggots’ (from his debut solo album Queen of Denmark). Tom Robinson, author of LGBT anthem ‘Glad to be Gay’ is a huge fan: ‘If I had heard a song like “Snug Slacks” [from Grey Tickles, Black Pressure] when I was a gay teenager I think he could have saved me 10 or 15 years of heartache and pain’, he says. ‘It’s great to hear somebody making music this unashamed and irresistible.’

He told me recently that for years he struggled with the notion of Gay Pride.

‘Pride has always been a difficult issue for me because it was deeply ingrained I me that “pride comes before a fall”, you know? Nobody ever explained to me what they meant when they said “pride”.

Because there are different types of pride… prideful behaviour usually means arrogance, right?

But when we talk about having “pride” it’s about having self-confidence and believing in yourself. It’s about thinking of yourself as a human being, and all I’ve ever wanted was to be a human being that was no better and no worse than anyone else.’


By Darryl W. Bullock

Click here to borrow his book ‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’ from the Hallam Library via the Shu Library Gateway.

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