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The Straight Men Who Made America's First Gay Record

In the early 1960s, the record label Edison International was looking for unusual ideas for record albums. Photographer Murray Garrett recalled unknowingly being in a gay bar and hearing male performers sing songs with lyrics written for women. An idea was born. Love is a Drag was filled with soft jazz versions of standard love songs by an unnamed male vocalist. It was the first record album specifically produced for gay men, but it took 50 years for the origin of the album to surface.    

“When Murray asked Gene Howard about recording the vocals for the album, he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, my wife would have a fit,’” Doyle says. Howard’s wife eventually approved, but insisted that the recording had to be done with dignity, and she wanted to be in the studio when it was made. To back Howard’s vocals, Ames’ team at Edison put together a group of established studio musicians for the various instrumentals: Dick Shanahan on drums, Heinie Beau on flute, Bobby Hammack on piano, Morty Corb on bass guitar, and Al Viola on guitar.

Garrett supposedly also came up with the record’s title, “Love Is a Drag,” whose meaning is explained in fine print on the back of the album as “Drag: (in music vernacular, a bore, a headache).” It’s unclear if he ever acknowledged the more coded definition of the word “drag,” long used in the queer community to describe someone flamboyantly dressed as the opposite gender.

The album’s limited pressing was finished in 1962, making it the first complete album of gay subject matter in American music history. Despite its groundbreaking substance, the record received zero media coverage, partly because the producers agreed to keep all the musicians anonymous. “The mystery was supposed to sell the album in the first place,” Doyle explains. “Famous people like Frank Sinatra were trying to guess who the vocalist was, wondering, ‘Do I know this person?’ If they had credited Gene Howard originally, it would’ve been totally different."

Love is a Drag was a hit among gay men who knew about it (Liberace even stole a copy), but the record label didn't know how to market it, and then they went out of business. The album became a footnote in history until DJ and music archivist J.D. Doyle began playing it just a few years ago, and then learned the album's story from Garrett. Doyle explains how Love is a Drag came about at Collectors Weekly

(Image courtesy of J.D. Doyle)

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