Buena Vista - He's a Rebel (from "Word Is Out," 1978)
This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage and that was the San Francisco band Buena Vista singing "He's a Rebel." I came out in 1978 and so did the documentary "Word Is Out," which included that music clip. So that was one of the very first images I saw of an act singing songs male to male. That song also made a big impression on me because I was a hardcore fan of the Girl Group sound of the 1960's, and that song by The Crystals was one of the best.
I just mentioned the film "Word Is Out," and it was one of the very first full-length lesbian & gay documentaries. Its full title was "Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives," and it was just that. It was made up of interviews with more than twenty lesbians and gay men, telling of their lives. It was produced by a team led by Peter and Nancy Adair, who were brother and sister filmmakers, and while it included some more known people, like Harry Hay and Pat Bond, I think the more powerful stories were by just the ordinary folks. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend you track it down. It's not just good history; it's good filmmaking.
And of course I loved that the film included some music interludes, my first chance to see lesbian and gay musicians on film. Trish Nugent sang a very poignant song called "Were You There," but the act that really captured my attention was Buena Vista.
Buena Vista was a very popular band in San Francisco in the late 1970's, and I'm pleased that I have Andrew Brown, one of the founding members to tell us about the band.
JD: The story I want to capture is how the band Buena Vista got started and how they evolved.
Andrew Brown: We all...I originally started singing in a...you been to San Francisco?
AB: You know Glide Church?
JD: I've heard of it. I don't know where it is.
AB: We all sang at Glide, it was 1975. So I went there and some other people were going there at the time, and we liked the church but the choir wasn't getting respect...let's put it that way. So I decided that a group of us should get a band together and start playing. This is before I ever got the job on the film. So I helped get this band together, we didn't have a name. there were four of us at the time and the piano player. So we were all singing at Glide and we decided to start singing apart from the choir.
JD: So who were the first members of the group?
AB: Terry Hutchison, Gomer (Michael Gomes), me, Joe Nathan...Joe was the piano player, Joe, and then we used Freddy (Gray) as a bass player...it was this Joe Nathan, who was the piano player and Freddy, who was my boyfriend, in the film...Freddy Gray, he was the bass player.
JD: So about when was the band formed, do you know?
AB: About 1975.
JD: Who would you say were the band's musical influences?
AB: Oh, they liked all the women singing, especially Labelle, and they sort of patterned themselves after Labelle.
JD: Of the first members of the group, who did what?
AB: Terry had the big voice and did the lead, did most of the leads. Gomer saw himself as Sarah Dash of Patti Labelle...
JD: That's Michael Gomes.
AB: Michael Gomes. So it was basically Terry and Gomer. And then there was Kenny Ross was one of the first members also.
JD: So did you do much of the singing?
AB: I did some of the singing but what happened I got the job making the film and had to go move to New York for a while, so I kind of left them.
JD: Kind of phased out of it.
AB: Well, I still managed the band. I was managing the band and helping them get gigs, and then what happened during the film the needed music and Peter (Adair) saw them sing somewhere and came to me and said, "I want to use them in the movie."
I read one review describing the band's live show as, and this
is a quote, "something like the Supremes strained through
a male sensibility and then spewed out with a lot of lust."
Buena Vista - He's Okay (1978)
AB: And then he, Jerry, had done a lot of arranging for Sylvester, too, and was one of his background singers with somebody now is a transsexual who lives in Texas, Arnold Elzy (now LZ Love).
They had a group, their own group, Jerry and Arnold but at the time they sang with Sylvester, it was Jerry and Arnold Lady Bianca. They were the three background singers for Sylvester before Sylvester got the Two Tons of Fun. And Jerry Kirby still lives in the Tenderloin and I know he's transitioned also.
Another important piece of the band story is their drummer, Richard Dworkin, or as he was called then, Dickie. Here is him telling about how he got into the band Buena Vista.
Richard Dworkin: Buena Vista was a group in San Francisco that when I joined it was composed entirely of gay men, and it was based around three Caucasian singers, Terry Hutchison, Michael Gomes, or Gomer, as he was known to his friends, and Kenny Ross, who were inspired by the music of Labelle, and rhythm and blues singers like them. I believe they had met around the choir at Glide Church, and they were somehow brought together by a man named Andrew Brown. And Joe (Johnson), whose name I can't remember, was the piano player at Glide and he played piano for them. And Andrew was the boyfriend of a bass player named Freddy Gray. And I was in New York in 1976, in the summer of 1976, with a dance music theatre troupe on a three-month tour, and one day in June several of us were busking at Christopher and Seventh Avenue, in Sheridan Square. And Andrew saw us playing and talked to me afterwards, and when I got back to San Francisco he invited me to audition for this band, Buena Vista. And at the time they didn't have a trap drummer, they had a conga player, which was a little odd for the kind of music they were making. So I started playing with them, from 1976 to November 1978.
I want to interject that Richard Dworkin is not just someone I pulled out of the blue, he's an old friend to Queer Music Heritage, as I've interviewed him extensively in the past about Michael Callen, Stephen Grossman and others. He's touched an amazing amount of our music history.
Andrew and I are going to next talk about the film "Word Is Out," but I wanted to bring in a expert to set that up. Greg Youmans is a friend of mine in San Francisco and a couple years ago he published an entertaining book about the film. Greg also arranged for me to get some very exclusive music to use on this show. This music did not appear in the film but was recorded for it and is from the Peter Adair archives at the San Francisco Public Library, and I greatly thank Greg for that.
JD: Greg, could you tell me briefly about the film "Word Is Out," and what you feel is its importance in our culture.
Greg Youmans: "Word Is Out" was a breakthrough film that appeared at a very important time in gay and lesbian politics. It has been longer in the making but it appeared at the end of 1977, so just between Anita Bryant launching her campaign at the beginning of that year in Florida, and then as the battle against Senator Briggs in California was shaping up, so a key moment in gay rights struggle. And the film was very ambitious in terms of production values and scope and reach. So this was a film that brought together more than twenty gays and lesbians to talk about their lives. And it's deceptively simple, they're just there on screen telling about their experiences. So then it's all cut together and it presents a composite portrait of gay and lesbian people in the U.S.
And the film from the beginning was designed to get onto television as well as into theatres, so it had a PBS release to a very broad audience, and it really played a key role in shaping hearts and minds of Americans as they were facing this issue.
JD: Was it the first full-length gay documentary?
Greg: I don't think technically you could say that, because for instance there was a lesbian-produced film about lesbian custody struggles, called "In the Best Interest of the Children" [1977, film by Frances Reid, 53 minutes] which premiered slightly earlier that same year. You know, it was in this moment, it was the first in which lesbians and gay men were co-making the film. There were six filmmakers, three women, three men, and it presented gay and lesbian people on the screen. And then certainly in terms of scope and reach and all those other things, it was a breakthrough.
JD: What was the importance of the use of music in the film?
Greg: That's a really interesting question. Thinking about the music when I wrote my book about "Word Is Out," the music is something I didn't address sufficiently, I didn't talk about, because I think it was hard for me to think about the music really. The music is wonderful in the film but it's actually maybe the aspect of the film that, depends on how you look at it, dates it most...or makes it most dated, cause it doesn't feel as universal. It's very specific in terms of genre and it's very seventies-ish...folky lesbian music, storytelling music, and then the more disco sound of Buena Vista. But it plays a huge role in the warmth of the film, the energy of the film. And it's there as a framing device throughout, so at the very beginning right after a few snippets from interviews you get that in the opening credits and you hear both Buena Vista and Trish Nugent. And in between each of the parts of the film it returns. So it's very important I would say to the film.
JD: I would add that I think this film was among the first times that gay and lesbian people got to see gay and lesbian performers on screen.
Greg: That's a great point, that's true.
JD: Anything you want to add?
Greg: No, just cause I'm very excited to hear your show, actually, I'm excited that you're interviewing Andrew Brown, one of the makers of the film and that you've done so much research on Buena Vista. Because I love the music, and I want to hear more about that scene and its importance.
Here's one of the unreleased tracks from the library archives. It's the Ruby and the Romantics song "Our Day Will Come," only they sing it mostly as "Our Day Has Come."
Buena Vista - Our Day Will Come (1977, unreleased)
Now, let's get back to Andrew Brown, as I wanted to hear his perspective on "Word Is Out."
JD: Alright, let's get to "Word Is Out." Some people may not be familiar with it, so give a little brief description of "Word Is Out," the film.
AB: Well, "Word Is Out" came out around the time of the Briggs Initiative in California, which tried to stop gay people from teaching. And that was coupled with Anita Bryant, who was representing the orange juice industry in Florida, she had come out also against gay people. So there was all this negative experiences and Peter (Adair) had the working idea of interviewing gay people from across the country, just ordinary gay people, to give a sense that people were their brothers, sisters, you know, like family members. By the time I became aware of it they had put an ad in the paper looking for other people to work on this film, and I applied, you had to make a video tape. And I was here with my boyfriend from Philadelphia and we all submitted tapes. And Peter and his sister Nancy Adair, who is also a lesbian, held interviews and I was picked. I was picked because I was a minority as much as anything else. So that's how I got the job working on "Word Is Out," and they had already made a short version by the time I came on board. When we were sent to New York we were sent with video tapes to interview people we knew to do interviews with them. On the way back across country we filmed them, and when we got back to San Francisco we edited it and put it together.
JD: Were you already in a relationship with Freddy Gray at the time?
AB: Yeah, by the time I started doing the film I was in a relationship with Freddy.
JD: And he was already in the band?
AB: And he was already in the band.
JD: So was it your influence that got the band into the film?
AB: It was my influence only because Peter had heard about the band. They were playing at a club in San Francisco and he came by, got a look at their act, and you know, what band in their mind wanted to be in a gay film, this was the 70's, but they were already out and this was San Francisco so that wasn't an issue. So he didn't have to deal with that. But he's the one that suggested it to me, but it was my connection more than my influence.
JD: Well, you were in the film also.
AB: Well, I was in the film, but I had lobbied not to be in the film. And by the time they did the first half before they went to the second half, where there was this gay liberation theme. They picked my boyfriend because he was a father. He had a daughter, and they wanted a gay man with a child. So Freddy was very easy cause he was my lover, and then they wanted to show that he was in a relationship and I was very glad that I didn't want to be in the film...I wanted, even before this, I wanted to make it. I didn't want to be in it, but of course I sort of had to be with him, and that's how that scene got in there.
JD: Okay, you kind of got corralled.
AB: I got corralled.
JD: Richard Dworkin said I should ask you about the special concert held at The City.
AB: Right, we filmed at The City. The City was a big club where Sylvester played, and other acts. They had a night club, they had a dance disco. It was down the street from the Playboy Club. It was in North Beach. It was a big gay population historically, from the 60's and 70's. so we did the film there, the show that ended up in the film.
And this is the perfect time to let you hear some of the music recorded at that special concert at The City. And again I thank Greg Youmans for obtaining this music for me. This one's titled "Make Your Way."
Vista - Make Your Way (1977, unreleased)
AB: Well, I think that's one component. I think they were more in the film because they represented San Francisco, too. I mean, here the Castro was just starting. There was this new influx of gay energy, that really was at the end of the hippy free love era that was moving into gay liberation. And they sort of represented it by singing these wildly popular old songs, but basically singing them to men...."He's a Rebel," other, you know, the Ronettes' songs. So they sang these oldies song with a gay twist. And they also sang those songs, like by Patti Labelle that all the young gay people were relating to, "Lady Marmalade," all those female groups, black female groups.
JD: Did they sing mostly cover songs?
AB: They sang mostly cover songs but started writing their own songs after I left.
JD: So the cover songs, they were a lot of female songs, but they did it male to male and therefore gay.
AB: Yes, and that's what turned people on.
JD: Yes, that would have been new at that time.
AB: Yes, definitely and with all these young gay men, in that whole denim era of...you know, that whole clone look from the Castro denim jacket, denim pants, hoodie underneath. That was really that crowd that they represented
JD: Well, to be a gay man there and to be able to hear at those early stages of liberation a band singing songs to them must have been exciting.
AB: Well, thrilling to men, they were really turned on by it, really turned on by it. But then the disco era was coming into its own too, and we weren't really disco but it was kind of forced that way. Cause to play at clubs they wanted you to play dance music. So they started doing things like "I can't get no love, hanging at the discotheque," that one. That was one of their big songs. So they sang songs like that also. So it was that sort of transition period from oldies to the Sound of Philadelphia, with the Three Degrees, to disco.
On Youtube there's a rare clip of Buena Vista singing the song we were just talking about, a huge hit by the band Brainstorm, called "Lovin' Is Really My Game." I wish it were not such an amateur recording, but I guess we are grateful to be able to see this 36-year old clip at all. The sound is not great but I wanted to give you a thirty second taste of it.
Buena Vista - Lovin' Is Really My Game (1978)
JD: Let's talk a little bit about the 45. I know Scott Davey produced it, you and Scott Davey produced it. How did you pick those two songs?
AB: Well, Peter and I had a big fight about the songs. He thought we should do "He's a Rebel," cause it had more connection to the film. I felt I owed it to the band to do something original. Even though "He's a Rebel" had more of a connection, I thought "Hot Magazine" talked about the whole sex scene with gay men, and I thought that was more important than "He's a Rebel." And "He's Okay," I think we did, and that was an original by Blackberri and I wanted an original by somebody we knew. So I wanted to do two original songs as opposed to having to pay royalties for a song that we really had no connection with.
JD: I'm looking at the cover of the 45, the label of the 45. It says it was written by Jerry Kirby and Horus Jack Tolson.
AB: Yes, I know Jerry. Horus Jack Tolson I really don't know that well. I think he probably did the musical part of it, and it was probably someone he played with in his band, that he had at the time. But Jerry had his own wild band, he and Arnold (Elzy) that went on for three or four years.
JD: How did the 45 go over?
AB: Well, I took it to New York, I had it pressed, I took it to New York, the whole press kit with the film. You know, it was in the middle of the whole disco period.
JD: Right, this was '78.
AB: Right, disco was coming into its own, and because it didn't have a heavy disco beat, it didn't get much play, in the end, because it didn't have that pumping beat behind it.
JD: Time had already changed musically.
AB: Right, right.
As you heard discussed, the song "Hot Magazine" was one side of the 45 they released, and I'm going to give you instead a live version. Imagine, here was a song talking about gay porn magazines.
Buena Vista - Hot Magazine (1977, live, unreleased)
A bit of trivia, yes, the band Buena Vista was named after the, at least then, very cruisy San Francisco park by that name. And here's an extra, I have two jingles that Buena Vista recorded in 1978 for a benefit called "Join Hands," a gay prisoner support group. It aired on the Berkeley FM station KPFA, and is courtesy of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society.
Buena Vista - Join Hands jingles (1978)
JD: What venues did the band typically play and where were it best received?
AB: Well, they were best received I would say at any gay event, definitely...The Stud, of course, in San Francisco that was a big place for them. It was a gay hippy bar where everything could play.
JD: Richard says those are his favorite memories, at The Stud.
AB: Yeah, The Stud, I mean, even Robert Deniro's dad used to show his...he was an artist, he used to have his pictures up around The Stud. But The Stud was the bar, especially the hippy bar which we sort of represented in some ways, and they loved that to death.
Richard Dworkin, their drummer, has similar memories of The Stud.
Richard Dworkin: I don't how many gigs I played in my life, certainly over a thousand, or two thousand or maybe more, but I think maybe the most fun I ever had playing with Buena Vista at The Stud in 1976 or 1977. And The Stud was a gay bar on Folsom Street, in San Francisco, and it was the bar that all the hippie fags hung out in, through the 70's. And for a while there they would have live music occasionally. They had Etta James play there many times, which was quite exciting. I can't remember who else played there, I'm sure Sylvester played there, I don't know, but we played there three times. And what was exciting about Buena Vista was that in San Francisco at least there hadn't been any instance of gay men making a pop band, or a rock band, or a rhythm and blues band, and singing love songs to other men. So there were two things about it. One, that the lyrics were overtly gay, and two, that gay men were actually playing drums and electric bass and other tools of the trade. It was really wonderful to play at The Stud and feel that we were sort of the voice of a community. That was really quite wonderful, and something that none of us had ever experienced.
JD: I think the band played at both the 1977 and 1978 Gay Freedom Day celebrations, correct?
AB: Right, and I was around for that time. Well, you know, it was really in the middle of a big movement, and the band ended up representing a lot of those feelings, so they had a big following because of that. They would do all the street fairs, they played around, they travelled around and played places.
JD: I spotted them in the film "Gay U.S.A.," and unfortunately it doesn't have them audio, it just shows them briefly, which was irritating.
AB: Right. They really embodied a feeling for people from that era because they were so out on stage, and you know, they acted like mad little queens, and camped it up, and people really related to that.
JD: How long did the band last and why did it break up?
AB: Well, it lasted up until '78...'80, 1980 at least. I think it really broke up because Terry realized he needed more exposure, and he was the lead singer, and he ended up going to New York for a couple of years. I mean that's the main reason...without a lead singer you're not going to have a band. And he felt he had a need to go to New York, which he ended up doing.
JD: Do you have any special memories of the band you could share?
AB: My memories of the band are really fun. When I first met Terry he and I hung out a lot, so we went to Golden Gate Park to hear Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. That's my connection to Terry. We became very good friends. Gomer, me and Terry were all Libras, so we all clicked really well. So they were my closest friends and I loved them to death, and I just remember having such a good time during that period. And we really sort of left the church to have our own group because we weren't being recognized. Now that Glide is such a big church, with gay marriages, but back then it was sort of unspoken. We got support but it wasn't really talked about, but my memory is really hanging out in the choir with them cause we all...well, it was like a party choir. We did a lot of gospel concerts, with all the black gospel groups so we would hang out on Sunday evenings and do gospel. And then we would get together and sing gospel music. And then it drifted into popular music, and R&B.
JD: I was on the trail of trying to interview Terry a couple of years ago, and someone had given me and email address and I sent that off. I had questions all ready. And I didn't hear anything, and I don't know if he didn't get it or the email was wrong or he just didn't reply, but then three weeks later he had died.
AB: Yeah, that was sad. Yeah, it was hard to track Terry down. I used to see him around the city, but not much. He and I ended up hanging out a couple months before he died, a lot. He managed a club here for years, and then stopped doing that and sort of like retired.
JD: He had done several recordings, too.
AB: Oh, yeah, on his own. That's when he was in New York. He had done a lot of recording in New York, some things I'm not even aware of. then he came back here and started managing a club, a big club here south of Market.
JD: What do you think is the legacy of Buena Vista?
AB: Interesting question...I'm just aware that people became aware that you could be gay and out and popular...Sylvester was the first I really think, but even before Sylvester...of that kind of genre. Sylvester for some reason felt a little...not pressure, but all of a sudden Sylvester wasn't the only option out there and all of us of course respected him, because I think it represented more than a black singing group. Here as a white singing group that was doing campy stuff and popular music, who was good and people liked, and that you could be out and sing. Now, it didn't happen right away but I really think they presented an image of having a good time and not being brought down by the pressures of being out and gay. That's what I would say the legacy is.
JD: Very good. Are there questions about the band I should ask that I perhaps would not know to ask?
AB: Well, it's interesting because I think the band represented an era of gay liberation in San Francisco, for no other reason than that they were in the film. But music is meant to bring back memories and good times, and I think music for everybody is an escape, in spite of what you're singing about. It's there to offer relief, to offer good memories, and I think that's what music is about, having people forget all their problems for a minute and just enjoy themselves. And in the end I think that's what the band was about, and its legacy is about that, in spite of the pressures of the time of people coming down on gay people and their image, and Harvey Milk being murdered. We wanted to have a good time and forget the sort of issues around gay liberation because the big argument in the film during the time or about the film was, if you're saying that you're gay, is that a political statement. And that was a big fight, even when making the film. The fact that you're saying you're gay ends up being a political statement in the 70's, even now. Once you say you're gay you sort of have to defend yourself. So it's not an innocent, neutral statement, let's put it that way. And I think back then even more so to be on the stage and say that you're gay all at once it brings along a lot of other issues that you can't ignore. And I think that we made it easier for people to say, hey, part of being gay is having a good time.
This is JD Doyle and I want to thank Andrew Brown, Richard Dworkin and Greg Youmans for their comments, and I thank you for listening to Queer Music Heritage.
I'm closing with another live unreleased track by Buena Vista, and I think it's a very cool one, as it's some of the material the crowds really loved. It's a medley of 60s female hits, including "Be My Baby," "Hello Stranger," and the song that started the show, "He's a Rebel."
Buena Vista - Medley: "Be My Baby," "Hello, Stranger," "He's a Rebel" (1977, unreleased)
Most group photos and flyers courtesy of Richard Dworkin's flickr pages