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The True, Boundary-Pushing Story of Gene Howard and Love Is a Drag

An album featuring a man singing love songs to other men was revolutionary in 1960—and belatedly it's become a gay cultural treasure

Gene Howard in 1942
Gene Howard in 1942 (photo: Photofest)

Around late 1959, he, Phyllis, Ames, and Garrett gathered in a Hollywood recording studio. They were joined by four impressive musicians who, like Howard, were working under the cloak of anonymity. Al Viola’s résumé included not just Sinatra but London and June Christy. Bobby Hammack had played piano with a recent incarnation of a pioneering jazz band, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. Bassist Morty Corb had accompanied Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole. On alto sax and flute was Heinie Beau, who had arranged for Peggy Lee and Sinatra. The quartet created a bluesy, 2-a.m. saloon vibe, perfect for intimate songs of love.

Howard’s hiatus from singing had served him well; he had blossomed into a suave, velvet-voiced crooner with subtle jazz feeling and phrasing that approached Sinatra’s. Now he had to take on the stance that countless male lyricists had assigned to women: that of a lonely, fragile soul who would suffer through anything in exchange for a man’s love. Howard sang of pining for a “Prince Charming” who was “big and strong,” one who would make him feel whole. “Jim doesn’t ever bring me pretty flowers,” he lamented; then he mooned over the boy in the next house who wouldn’t throw him a glance. Howard even borrowed Billie Holiday’s plea for a “lover man” who would smother him with kisses. Coming from him, the line “I long to try something I’ve never had” took on unimagined meaning. Somehow he made those sentiments sound completely natural as expressed by a man. Good-natured joking defused whatever tension was in the air. Each time he finished a take the musicians would applaud or even grab him and kiss him.

Several weeks later, he and Garrett were shooting a Liberace album cover. Garrett put on an advance copy of Love Is a Drag. Howard seemed to feel a twinge of regret; he turned to his partner and murmured, “Oh, no.” Liberace didn’t comment on the music. When his work was done, however, he picked up the LP, said, “Ta-ta!”—and left with it. Later he confessed to Garrett and Howard: “You guys produced my favorite album.”

Like Howard, Jack Ames showed some misgivings. He had signed a few promising singers, among them Jackie DeShannon, who years later would reach the Top Five with “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” Afraid that Edison might become known as a gay label, he released Love Is a Drag on what he called Lace Records. Starting in early 1960, bemused announcements appeared in a few columns. Music Vendor, the trade magazine that was later renamed Record World, noted “a frilly album called ‘Love Is a Drag’ … Vocalist is a fellow who chirps, among other things, ‘Lover MAN,’ ‘HE’S Funny That Way,’ ‘My MAN,’ ‘BILL,’ ‘The BOY Next Door,’ ‘JIM,’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That MAN.’ Record is fluttering off to a fair start in L.A.”

The disc had found its way to Mike Connolly, the Hollywood Reporter’s star gossip columnist who, although closeted, loved printing gay tidbits. Connolly shared the record with actress Shirley MacLaine; she went on to play it at a party she threw with her husband, film producer Steve Parker. Connolly quoted her report: “It’s crazy, I know, but Steve and I looked around at the reactions of our friends as they listened to that record, and y’know something—we learned that those who didn’t dig it were squares!”

Garrett gave the album to Bob Hope, whose occasional homophobic jokes had revealed him as no friend of the gays. Hope told Garrett he loved it. With reactions like these, the photographer loftily hoped that his brainchild would catch on and make a difference. But it never crept out of the underground—in part, Garrett felt, because Ames had stopped trying to promote it.

Edison was already floundering, and it folded that year. In the mid-’60s, a tiny, surreptitious label, Camp Records, released Mad About the Boy, an inferior knockoff of Love Is a Drag. But Garrett didn’t abandon the original. He gave a copy to Lee Hazlewood, the producer who made Nancy Sinatra a star with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” According to Garrett, Hazlewood passed it on to Nancy, who gave it to her father; Frank, in turn, requested several copies.

From there, Love Is a Drag became one of the rarest of gay cult oddities. Howard died in 1993; in 2012, eight years before his own death, Garrett contacted JD Doyle so that the backstory would not be lost. The 2018 reissue, available on CD, vinyl, and streaming, garnered considerable press, which brought Love Is a Drag into the light at last.

 

Howard had to take on the stance that countless male lyricists had assigned to women: that of a lonely, fragile soul who would suffer through anything in exchange for a man’s love. … Each time he finished a take the musicians would applaud or even grab him and kiss him.

 

In the liner notes of AC/DC Blues, Chris Albertson had written: “Perhaps someday, lesbian singers will no longer have to sing about the men they never desired, and gay male vocalists will be able to choose or write material they truly can identify with.” Alas, there are still precious few examples of that in any genre, especially jazz, which contains more gay and lesbian singers than most fans realize.

But a half-century after Love Is a Drag came a postscript worth noting. In 2010, the Dutch jazz singer Wouter Hamel, then 33, flew to the States to film an interview with his hero and former teacher, Mark Murphy, for a documentary to be released as a bonus feature on Hamel’s first DVD. At 78, Murphy was living at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Professionally closeted, he had spent the whole of his 55-year career singing love songs to females—something Hamel, who is gay, had occasionally done as well. “I remember asking Mark, ‘Was it awkward, painful, to have to sing she, woman, girl?’ He said, ‘I hated it.’”

Now Murphy was finally ready to come out, thanks in part to his enrapturement with Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 film about a secret and ultimately tragic affair between two cowboys. Murphy saw in Hamel a conduit to breaking free. He gave the young man a handwritten sheet of lyrics for a song from his early years, “Come and Get Me,” that he had rewritten as a gay duet: “Come and get me, my man.” Shyly he asked if they could record it together.

Hamel booked time at Nola Studios in New York. During the session, he sensed how life-changing it was for Murphy to sing the truth. “It made me completely rethink my career, the way I write, the way I sing,” Hamel says. “I thought, if I don’t watch out I’m gonna be 70-plus and I still will not have taken a stand. I tweeted something quite radical like, ‘My music isn’t for bigots. I’m gay and I’m never gonna shut up about that again.’ Jazz has always been a bit stuck in the past. It’s time that that changes.”

Patricia Barber, the Chicago-based singer/songwriter and former Blue Note recording artist, has long advanced the cause. Through the years she has covered numerous love songs to women, including “My Girl” (the Temptations) and “She’s a Lady” (Tom Jones), with her trademark detached cool. Meanwhile, in Germany, a rising young jazz singer is doing his part to help. Erik Leuthäuser, born in 1996, has been openly gay from the start and is unafraid to sing about it. He has a connoisseur’s taste in American cabaret-jazz—his albums include tributes to Irene Kral, Susannah McCorkle, and Ronny Whyte—but only in 2021 did he hear Love Is a Drag. “This record blows my mind!” he says. “The fact that it still seems new and revolutionary for a jazz singer to sing in a heartfelt manner about gay relationships shows that, to this day, there is not much representation of queerness within jazz. There is so much emotion in the singing, playing, and arrangements. I cried a lot, having been reminded of how things were for gay men at that time. Hearing this album warms my heart and makes me feel hopeful.”

James Gavin on homophobia in jazz

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.