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
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.
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.
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.
Once Motown gave me the lyric for "I Was Born This Way," written by Bunny Jones and Chris Spierer, I felt spiritually that's what was calling me. [The original version of "I Was Born This Way"] by Bunny and Valentino was very different—it sounded pretty Broadway-ish. Everyone knew disco was a gay phenomenon. That became the thing for gay men, who carried their straight girlfriends with them [to the club], who then started bringing their straight boyfriends, and disco just kind of spread like wildfire. I guess Mr. Gordy felt, "Oh, this song will work in that environment." So when they signed me, they did it differently, riding that success in the dance market with black voices coming out of gospel and blues.
So Motown contracted the track out to MFSB in Philly. Philadelphia International's Norman Harris directed and arranged it, and sent the track back into LA. Then they sat me in the studio and told me to do my thing. So when I went into the booth and I just took it to church. They sent Ron Kersey, who had been a part of The Trammps and wrote a very big disco hit, to produce the session in the studio. While most people would try to tamper down voices like mine, he was able to open that mic and tell me, "Carl, don't even worry about loudness or any volume, you do your thing. I got the knob." And that's what gave me the freedom to just go for the gusto, as we say in blues and gospel. The inspiration was so natural to me because I had been a black men that had lived with all the injustice of being black—and on top of it, I was very openly gay. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I could sing about being homosexual.
I never thought in my wildest dreams that I could sing about being homosexual.
I decided that night in the studio that I was going to sing about social justice. When I went into my adlibs, I sang things like, "from a little bitty boy" and "love me like I love you and together ain't no telling what we'll we do." If you notice, I didn't do any reference to shaking your tail feather or any of that stuff. I just closed my eyes and sang out of my heart about the journey of being sexually different in our society. That's what came out on the track, and ideally what made people take to it.
When they played the track in the production department where they chose what was going to be released, they all went nuts and felt like this is gonna make it. The track was assigned to the disco division of Motown, and the disco guys took it to the disc jockeys. I would daresay that 85 to 90 percent of disc jockeys across the country were gay men, and when they heard it, it blew them away. Frankie Crocker in New York at the largest black station WLIB put it on the air, and of course it was controversial—it was new. The phones opened up, and it got a great reaction. So the disc jockeys really played it in those discos nightly, and it went straight up the Billboard chart because they had never had anything like it before. It was the first time people could hear coming through the speakers something that reflected their own lives.
Even now, I'm shocked that it was a lasting classic. I would hear things like, "I hope you don't mind that I'm heterosexual but 'Born this Way' is one of my favorite songs, and man when it used to come on in New York at Studio 54, I really used to get down because I felt like you were talking to me too!" People felt that they were born this way to maybe paint or dance or do something different from what their families wanted them to do. And they felt that my lyrics or the way I sang it encouraged them to go for their own dreams!
10 years later, the song had a renaissance in the 80s. This straight disc jockey from Newark—I don't even know his name—loved my song and began to put it back on the turntables. Robert Gordy called me and said, "Carl I'm looking for you because they're trying to find you in New Jersey and New York and Pennsylvania. This song is a smash again and they want you to come!" I said, "Did you tell them that I'm a clergy person now and I'm doing AIDS work?" I wanted to make it real plain that I was still openly gay, but I was doing social justice work and the bulk of my time was spent defending people with AIDS—advocating for funding and that kind of stuff. He said, "Yeah, but they still want you to come."
"I Was Born This Way" is about standing up to injustice.
So I got to New York and there was a large white stretch limousine waiting that said "Carl Bean." I was just amazed. They took me from club to club all over New York, and parts of Jersey and Pennsylvania. [Before these performances] I was totally broke—totally busted. I left New York with thousands of dollars from singing for three nights, because I earned a thousand dollars every time I did it at every club. That song came back again, and it provided money for me to continue to live and provide services for men of color, who were still dealing with the virus at the time. The song just continued to have this life of its own.
Somehow, the message that "I was born this way" kept being picked up by various communities. I started doing a lot of speeches that made it to colleges, and was even brought to London to address their health department on how I began work for people of color in America. Whether they considered themselves black, Indian, it didn't matter. "I Was Born This Way" was huge in causing these different communities to embrace me as a social justice agent and leader.
Lady Gaga was the last one that heard it. She went on Howard Stern and said, "I was at a point in my life of trying to get access to things, and there was so much I couldn't figure out. I heard about this preacher, Reverend Carl Bean in Los Angeles. Someone introduced me to his song and it just answered everything that I was trying to get an answer to." Later on, she went on to write her [own version of] "Born This Way." A lot of people were saying things like, "Oh she's a thief, she's just like Madonna, all they do is steal," but I didn't feel that at all. I was flattered and proud that someone would still today continue to address those social justice needs in our society—because at the time, there was a big fight about the marriage amendment and the continuation of the gay and lesbian struggle in the country. So I felt good about it and rejoiced.
Now that I've retired from ministry and I'm in my 70s, I'm actually considering doing music [again] because we're in another one of those historic times, like in the 60s and 70s, where the country is in turmoil, and major groups of our citizens are saying, "No more. We're tired of it, and we're not taking it anymore." It's reflecting every period in America's history that change was needed around civil rights, social justice, true democracy. An inordinate amount of black men have been killed and mostly found to have no weapons. The first ones to really say [talk about police brutality] through the music industry was NWA. Now, with Black Lives Matter, it's finally on the front page. The youth of today, just as we did in the 60s, stood up! They started hitting the streets, marching and saying, "I'm not willing to let you kill me and then say I had a gun, or some drugs, or I moved and you saw something flash. We're just not willing to do that."
In 2017, it'll be 40 years since I went in that studio. The fact that disc jockeys kept doing new mixes that has kept it relevant all these years? It all goes back to that song and what's bubbling under all of it. "I Was Born This Way" is about standing up to injustice. That's what's pushing me forward. If there's going to be a democracy, then let it truly be that—not just in words, but in deed, in actuality.
Read Carl Bean's autobiography I Was Born This Way: A Gay Preacher's Journey through Gospel Music, Disco Stardom, and a Ministry in Christ on Amazon
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