Meet the 72-Year-Old Preacher Behind One of the Greatest Gay Club Anthems of All Time

Carl Bean's 1977 Motown classic "I Was Born This Way" is just as empowering today as it was 40 years ago—just ask Lady Gaga.
October 11, 2016, 10:20pm

Carl Bean is a Los Angeles-based gospel singer, AIDS activist, and Archbishop of the Unity Fellowship Church who sang the powerful vocals on the 1977 Motown classic, "I Was Born This Way." The song—where Bean triumphantly proclaims in the chorus, "I'm happy, I'm carefree and I'm gay/I was born this way"—became one of the first club hits of the gay liberation movement, popularized by disco DJs around the country throughout the 80s. The song has lived on through remixes like Shep Pettibone and Bruce Forest's "Better Days" mix (named after the since-shuttered gay nightclub in New York City); it even inspired Lady Gaga's 2011 chart-topper, "Born This Way." To mark National Coming Out Day (October 11), Carl Bean told me about how he turned the hardships in his life into one of the most enduring gay anthems of all time.—Michelle Lhooq

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I moved to New York because I knew I wanted to sing and make a living from that. That's all I knew. My mother had died from a bad abortion, which was illegal at the time. At 14, I had what you'd call experimental sex with a young boy on my block. His parents went to my godparents, who were raising me, saying, "Carl did this to my son." My father went on to ask, "Where did this come from?" And I told him, his brother! My uncle had molested me from the age of about 3 up until about 11 or 12. Of course, it was our deep dark secret. So that came out and there was unrest in the family. Being basically a foster child, I felt like, now I'ma be kicked out because I'm a queer.I attempted suicide and landed in the mental health ward of a big hospital. There was a doctor there, a female exchange student from Europe. She said, "There are many people like you. I can't do what your parents want— make you a heterosexual—but I can help you accept who you are and go for your dreams." That gave me enlightenment and the chance to accept myself. If I had another doctor, I might have been a different animal.

Growing up in Baltimore, I was ushered into a rich environment of social justice and the civil rights movement in a very real way. Baltimore during my youth probably had the largest branch of the NAACP. My pastor, Reverend Wood, had a real mind for civil rights and social justice. So I was one of the kids from that church that was being trained to do sit-ins at lunch counters, be in the marches, integrate the public school system, and what-have-you.Still, my mother's death, harassment for being different, and my suicide attempt were too much for me to bear. So at 16, I went on a Greyhound bus from Baltimore to New York.

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My first thing was to join a church in Harlem. Other male singers that were gay would come from various parts of the country, and we formed a gospel group and started singing around the city. One day, we opened for a professional group in Harlem called The Gospel Wonders. Afterwards the manager of the Wonders came up to me and said, "Would you like to join a recording group?" His name was Calvin White and he had come from the Bradford Singers. From time to time, if they wanted a male voice for something, they would say, "Come on, Carl!" and I would go downtown to the Brill building, where there were these little rooms of pianos that you'd hear different tunes coming out of. I met all the young writers—Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Hal David—and that's when I began to get excited about really trying to be a secular artist.

One day I was in a supper club near the Apollo during the day. [Gospel singer and composer] Alex Bradford was there eating lunch and having a drink, and I was laid back over by the jukebox because I was afraid they would card me and know I was too young to be there. I was singing along to something from Motown, it might have been Martha & The Vandellas' "Dancing in The Street." He said, "Who's that boy? Bring him over here." I went over and he said, "I'm Alex Bradford, I like your voice, are you interested in singing with me?" He gave me money to carry me to the hotel where all the black acts stayed that played the Apollo, and said, "Tomorrow I'm going to audition you for a role." I became a Bradford singer and my life took off! The vehicle out of the ghetto for me was black gospel.

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I left the Bradford Singers to see what life held for me under my name, Carl Bean. I started to write little ditties and sent them out to all the labels out in Los Angeles. I got a call from ABC-Paramount, where Ray Charles and BB King were, and they had purchased one of the labels from the south that used to do gospel and blues. The man was Lee Young Sr.—the brother of Lester Young, the great horn player of the 30s and 40s. He said, "I got your tape, I love your voice." So I went to ABC and got signed for the first time under my own name, Carl Bean.

It was the first time people could hear coming through the speakers something that reflected their own lives.

At the time, what the disc jockeys coined as "message music" was pretty big, and that's what I wanted to do. Message music came out in the late 60s, and it caught on with the young folk at the time. We were in the middle of the civil rights movement, women were staging sit-ins, and there was a huge dislike for the war in Vietnam. You started to hear, little by little, messages that spoke to what people were dealing with everyday—what people were feeling. Songwriters began to deal with the times, as opposed to just [writing] love songs or the "boy meets girl" thing. Philadelphia International was probably the biggest proponent of message music. Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions out of Chicago put out "Move On Up" and "People Get Ready," James Brown had "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," and Aretha sang "Young, Gifted and Black." Everybody was having hits. Message music was in every jukebox. So whether you're in the club or wherever, you were hearing about the times.

When I heard what was going on, it really got to me, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. Lee Young signed me at the ABC-Paramount office, and he and I put out a song called "Something for Nothing." Then he left Paramount and went to Motown. One day, he was playing the album I had done at ABC with him, and [Motown founder] Berry Gordy Jr. asked, "Who is that? I want that boy." Motown was one of the biggest labels worldwide, I was excited. Lee called me over, and I signed with them.

Carl Bean in the April 1978 issue of LA Movin' (Photo via QueerMusicHeritage.com)Carl Bean (Image courtesy of Carl Bean)