In 1971, Marc Bolen of T. Rex donned satin, sequins and glitter and Glam Rock was born. Later that same year, David Bowie took on his “Ziggy Stardust” persona and Glam Rock became main stream. Other acts would soon follow like Gary Glitter, Roxy Music and Sweet. Each had their own style of “over the top” costumes, makeup and hair, often taking a more feminine or androgynous flair. There was just one issue; none of these acts were from the United States. That would all change in 1973 with Jobriath.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1946 and learned to play the piano at an early age. In the 60’s, he was drafted into the Army but soon deserted, changing his name to “Jobriath Salisbury” and moving to California. It was there that he starred in the West Coast production of HAIR. In 1969, he left the production and started a band called “Pidgeon,” which released one album. The price of his public visibility was that the Military Police finally caught him and he was consigned to a military psychiatric facility for a period of time.
In 1972, a demo tape that had been floating around found its way to music promoter Jerry Brandt. Brandt was involved in many facets of the music industry and owned both the Ritz and the Palladium. He finally located Jobriath in California where he was supporting himself as a gay prostitute. Brandt was able to sign him for half million dollar contract for two albums with Elektra Records. At the time, it was largest bonus ever paid to sign an artist.
Jobriath was billed as America’s answer to David Bowie and many industry experts predicted he would be even bigger. Probably no other debut was as hyped up as much as Jobriath, with the exception of the Beatles coming to America. There was a giant four story billboard in Times Square depicting Jobriath and his upcoming album. There were full page ads in major publications, including Rolling Stone and the New York Times. His manager was fond of saying, "Elvis, the Beatles, and Jobriath.”
Jobriath was the biggest thing in music and he hadn’t even released his record yet. There were grandiose plans announced for a European tour to promote the new album opening at the Paris Opera. When the album finally hit the market, the critics praised it. Rolling Stone said he had “talent to burn.” So, why are most of you wondering why you have never heard of Jobriath until now? It’s because no one bought the record. Sales were so horrible that the shows in Europe were cancelled. It was one of the biggest failures ever in the industry, selling less than 50,000 copies. When the second album was released the following year, this time without any hype, Rolling Stone did even bother to write anything about it.
Why did this happen?
Some, including Jobriath himself, have blamed his manager, Jerry Brandt. Brandt was so focused on promoting his own ego in discovering the next Beatles or next Elvis that he failed to actually do what was best for his client, Jobriath, who he had signed to a ten year contract. Others have looked to his increased drug and alcohol use, which certainly would have contributed to future failure but couldn’t be blamed for his debut flop. The same can be said for his questionable mental health. Sometimes you hear that in the months leading up to the album’s release that Marc Bolen declared that “Glam Rock is dead.” Did that put sort of a whammy on things? While all of these may have been true and contributed, there is one reason that stands way out.
Jobriath was the first openly gay recording artist. Freddie Mercury was still in the closet. Elton John, who was proving that Glam Rock was not dead with his ever increasing flamboyance, wouldn’t admit to being bisexual for a few more years. And Liberace was “crying his way to the bank,” having successfully sued two major publications for libel because they insinuated that he was a homosexual. While today no one would think twice about an openly gay recording artist, it was a different world in 1973. It was a time when a major recording artist, Anita Bryant, when she wasn’t pushing orange juice on TV (“Come down to the Florida sunshine tree…”), was leading the Rally for Decency against the likes of Jim Morrison and the Doors for their onstage behavior. A few years later Bryant would lead an anti-gay movement to save our children from recruitment into the sinful life of homosexuality. In 1973, being gay was a dark, dirty, shameful secret. Reaching into a record bin and examining or purchasing such an openly gay item would fill most people with dread about guilt by association.
It wasn’t just the fact that he was gay. He seemed to take great satisfaction in sticking it in the public’s face. He described his plan for the Paris Opera debut show as him being dressed as "King Kong being projected upwards on a mini Empire State Building. This will turn into a giant spurting penis and I will have transformed into Marlene Dietrich." All of this ultimately led to him being booed off stage to the taunts of “faggot” when he played Nassau Coliseum in New York. The band cancelled shows in many cities because it was deemed too dangerous to perform. It appeared that people were buying tickets just to taunt him.
Only two years into his contract with Brandt, Jobriath announced that he was leaving the industry. He tried restarting his acting career but too much damage had been done. He finished out his days as a cabaret singer in a restaurant until his death in 1983. Along with being the first openly gay recording artist, he was one of the first recording artists to die of AIDS. His death came one week after his ten year contract with Brandt had expired, freeing him to pursue music again in a more accepting society that would buy albums by Boy George and the Village People.
Brandt went on to other things. He was the moving force behind the designer jean craze of the late 70’s. He never said much about Jobraith but in the 90’s he did say that “he was an alcoholic asshole.” In a rare interview after his musical downfall, Jobraith said about his manager, "Mr. P.T. Barnum Brandt was so busy getting his name on posters and buses, he neglected to get me on tour or my album played." There was obviously no love lost between the two.
Tonight I’ll play a mini set of tunes from both of his albums during my regular show from 7-9 PM.