The Original Nightclub Act
The Story of
Singer Adrian Christian, in 1984
I was still in high school when I began singing in New York nightclubs. It was a double life! I was a quiet, jean-wearing schoolboy by day, with my Puma schoolbag loaded with books - and this towering, glittering figure at night. I had the usual insecurities most kids had; as a student I sported braces on my teeth and struggled to clear my acne. At a mere 105 pounds, what was I to do with myself? It didn't take me very long to find out.
I began singing in school and church at the age of seven, but by the time I was thirteen, I had grown restless. When my family moved from Midtown Manhattan to Jersey City, New Jersey, my dream of entering the High School of Performing Arts was crushed. Although I was only three minutes away over the Hudson River by train ride, regulations for zoning disqualified me. I had to be a New York City resident, which meant even living in Staten Island - one hour away - was okay, but not in New Jersey.
As a result, I landed at Ferris High School in Jersey City, and it was a blessing in disguise, looking back. I was able to benefit from growing up in a more sensible surrounding, while at the same time, pursue my dreams as a performer outside the school, so I had the best of both worlds. More than that, the experience forced me to seek out my career. I attended high school during the day, and studied acting and music at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre in New York at night.
It was at age fifteen that the nightclub act was born - somewhat by default - when I performed at a statewide music fair at our local college, representing my high school, and wearing a white and golden-spangled costume that I had locked myself in the bathroom for a week to make. I didn't want my family to know what I was wearing, as I wanted to surprise them. They were, and my performance there became the template for my nightclub act. In the act, I appeared from the audience as a homeless man, crashing the show, and I opened my segment with Sheena Easton's "For Your Eyes Only", followed by a bit of banter with the audience from the stage. I then tore off my homeless garbs and broke into "Must Be The Music", a discofied club song, complete with choreography, to a throng of screaming girls! That was just the opening, and the act was a hit.
When I brought it to New York, I retooled the numbers, replacing "For Your Eyes Only" with Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You". I just turned sixteen.
The official nightclub debut came at the Rose Saigon on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. The PRTT's Show Director Manuel Yesckas was responsible for placing me there. A mutual friend, Freddy Santos, caught the act, and encouraged me to take it to dance clubs. He brought me to the owner of probably the first gay disco in the Bronx, called The Apartment, which was a precursor to The Loft. This club was part of an underground scene in the gay community where Black and Latino gay men frequented. Others like it were The Garage and Better Days in Manhattan. At the time, I wasn't completely aware of the social and political impact it would have, but Freddy thought my act was a smash. So, he arranged for me to meet the owner and told him I was 18. After a brief audition wearing my costume, he hired me. Yes, he paid me something like a hundred dollars. He took me on a little reluctantly - I mean after all, I looked like I was twelve. However, he went with his gut, and he trusted Freddy. I made sure not to let them down.
This was the Summer of 1982. To give you perspective, Making Love, the first major motion picture with a coming out story featuring two men kissing had just come out in movie theaters, and I heard people saw that and walked out because they thought that was unbearable. But as usual, Hollywood was behind, because I already knew about about an illness that was killing gay men, and several people in my circles had already died. These were several from the first 200 in the world. So that's where we really were: the club, even on shaky ground, had become the place for men to commune during a vulnerable time.
I didn't know much about the disco scene except that I loved the music. I entered right when, not all, but many Disco music makers were fleeing the nest. It was by no coincidence that the music's undisputed queen, Donna Summer, just released an R&B album. Ultimately, her musical relationship with the gays reconciled later in the decade, but it's true that at this moment, music makers were impacted by what was happening in the community. The famous disco backlash of 1979 was underlined with racism and homophobia, but the yet unnamed AIDS crisis is what sent artists away, a few of them re-emerging as producers of the newly-vamped "Dance music" the following year, for the likes of David Bowie, in his comeback, and, a woman who became initiated as the new queen: Madonna.
Even though Disco music faded from the mainstream, it was still very much alive in places like this. The truth is, gays and blacks built it, and gays and blacks still embrace it, perhaps because it represented freedom.
When I got to the club, my headshot photo was right out front with my name on the marquee. The club had a large dance floor, lights, and great sound. There was an excitement in the air. It's ironic for me as a young gay teenager, because I was born in the Bronx, and the Bronx was definitely not known as a place where gays could gather. Latinos and Black men in general were more on the down low. Back then, the only places gays could go to be themselves were the clubs in Manhattan.
I never drank, nor did drugs. They asked if I wanted something to drink; I had a soda. The people there were really sweet. And sure enough, an employee I knew from the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre was there that night, and yes, he was in awe that I was booked there, and yes, he came backstage and tried to get a date with me. He must have been about 29 or 30, and I wasn't going to go there. I mean, what was I gonna do at sixteen? Still, at sixteen, it was a validation I appreciated. It took me years of work and therapy to figure out that validation from the outside doesn't change anything about how you feel on the inside.
The DJ's assistant took me to my dressing room, which I shared with the other performer going on that night, a tall black drag queen. It was my first time seeing that transformation happen right up close. Sitting by the mirror next to mine, he dished with me about everything. He was wondering what I was there to do. I mean, they all were. No one had ever booked a young male performer to sing live, ever. Seriously. Certainly not an out-of-the-closet gay one. No. The only young male performers like me around that time were male strippers and go-go boys. So there I was, in my 105-pound-boy-self, living a Las Vegas stage fantasy, feeling kind of like Gypsy Rose Lee. And that was before I ever saw the movie!
Double Vision: Adrian, a school misfit by day, a showbiz clubber at night.
The crowd was heard from the dressing room, and it was loud. It was a full house. I didn't even peek. The music was going while I was living in another world in this dressing room, listening to the thump of the beat through the walls. I was set to go on first during the music break. Soon enough, someone said, "You're on!" and then I heard my name introduced. The person introducing said something about me being an actor from the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. He called my name, and off I went to applause.
Keep in mind, the drag queen after me was the main act, and I opened - and as you may know, drag queens lip sync! So for her performance, the mic was off. As I took the stage while hearing strains of I Honestly Love You, I turned on the mic, and out came a LOUD static noise through the speakers of the place. Man!
A shudder went through the crowd. I'd hear, "Give him a mic!" and, "That mic doesn't work!"
I was slightly thrown off, but soon realized the best thing to do was place the mic on the stand, and not move it, not hold it, as there appeared to be a short in the wire of the microphone. Once I did that, there was no static sound, and I could be heard. It was difficult for me to dance with a mic on the stand since I needed to work the room, but I managed!
So I just continued to sing I Honestly Love You, and then broke into the Disco number. With that, I ripped off my jacket to reveal my outfit, dancing and singing - and the crowd went wild, and everything was forgotten! From there on, the crowd was with me, and I sang another number. Think early Madonna in Danceteria, her first club in New York. It was like that.
With every show I've ever done, I always walk away learning something. From this I learned, have your own mic, arrive early for a sound check. To this day, some people might think I'm a bit much with details, but trust me, it pays off for everyone. I also learned, you can be as prepared as you are, and something else may still come up, and you have to be okay with that. That's how it is. You roll. If you can give the heart of the thing to the people, they will feel it, and they will appreciate it.
It was a grand start. It wasn't brilliant, nor was I great, but I was good, and that was good for a first time out. I kept working at it. Still do.
The drag queen that followed performed And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going from Dreamgirls by Jennifer Holliday. Of course the people went nuts for her. She didn't have to sing, so there were no sound problems! But I watched from the wing, and took quick note, and learned from her, and saw why she was great. She had that connection with her audience. They loved her.
It was the beginning of a long association I've had with the concert stage. From there, I played a lot of small clubs, working my way to headliner, with bigger shows in places like The Copacabana, The Red Zone and The West End Gate. I did Pride marches, beauty pageants, Fire Island, The Puerto Rican Day Parade, local TV. I did the cabaret circuit in places like The Duplex, Rose's Turn and Don't Tell Mama. And I released a dance record that got picked up in clubs by DJs.
I've been around and back, and I have many people to thank for that, but I have a special place in my heart for Freddy Santos, who believed in me so early in the game. I somehow suspect he's not around today, but wish he was. He could have been my manager.
Speaking of which, when the AIDS epidemic came, disco died right along with its casualties. Disco music then morphed into Dance music, House, Freestyle, Trance and NRG, and the people who attended clubs then were reflective of those trends. And the male performers that I knew who were gay (some with big hit records), were in the closet.
With the epidemic, we lost a wealth of creative people. Brilliant minds were gone; they were the most passionate people, too. Ways of living changed in the Reagan 80's. It was almost like gay people were in style for a moment, then hidden again from the scene. People were afraid and stayed home. New York nightlife seemed somewhat homogenized until a revival reignited the scene in the late 90's, as AIDS became less of a death sentence and the disease became controllable. Then the boys could party again.
But as the social scene remains in cities across America, it's more integrated today, with people from all walks of life. Just look at the TV show, What Happens At The Abbey, and you'll see what I mean. But where will you find the pulse of what's hot in dance music first? Often in the LGBT, Black and Latin communities. We've always been influencers.
With all that, it isn't lost on me that I, an openly gay singer, was a first. Why? Because, no male singers wanted to do it back then. They all feared performing in a gay disco was an admission of their sexuality, and it was. Male singers, like male actors, did not want the public to know, nor did they want the industry to know. I can remember vividly, people telling me it would be bad for my career. Only now, is the industry easing up, even if there's still a stigma. However, I was out wherever I performed, for everyone at any venue. I choose to remain uncensored and honest, and that’s what has kept me going.
If you listen on the radio, we only have two in the mainstream today: Sam Smith and Adam Lambert. There are some others like me, and we continue on. Being openly gay today is somewhat of an afterthought, and I think that's a good thing. My goal was never to make it about being gay, it was about the music. I just wanted to be myself. With the support I'm enjoying right now from so many people all over the world, it makes all the work it took to get here worth it, and makes me proud to be an entertainer. I'm fortunate to be here.
Adrian Christian, in 1984
Photographed exclusively for the nightclub show by John Hart
© Gothiah Records and Pictures