Over the past couple of weeks, I've developed a rapport with Billy Newton-Davis following being introduced by Black Cap’s Executive Director, Shannon Ryan. I have been booking entertainment for my new monthly dance party, POZ-TO (which benefits local AIDS organizations) and I am happy to announce that Mr. Davis has agreed to be our special guest on the March 3rd event, along with Miss High Performance 2011-12, Lady G.
It’s the Saturday afternoon after the huge snow storm here in Toronto. I was supposed to meet up with Billy today, but we decided that it would be easier to do this interview over the phone. He called me around 1 PM to say that he had just got in the door and was in need of some lunch and that he would call me back in about 30 or 40 minutes. I thought to myself....this will work perfectly because I had just sat down and started watching a classic black and white film called “Pinky”. “Pinky” was a term used to describe a light-skinned black person who could pass for white. In 1949, Twentieth-Century Fox tackled this very controversial subject.
I had not actually seen this one, but had read about it. My only real reference to the film was a story that Lena Horne shared on her “The Lady & Her Music” album. She explained that she was up for the role and that Max Factor had even created a special make up for her called “Light Egyptian”. Well, to her disappointment she didn’t get the role. “Instead they rubbed my Light Egyptian all over some pretty little white gal named Jeanne Crain” she joked in her monologue before breaking into “I’’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”.
It was funny that I was concerned about finishing this movie, because so was Billy. When he called me back I happened to mention that I was enjoying “Pinky”. He explained that he had seen the movie four times before but had not made it to the courtroom. So, he didn’t care for the film before today and had often confused it with “Imitation Of Life”, another one of my favourites. Now...you are probably wondering why I am telling you all about us watching the same film on TV. It actually played a big part in starting our conversation.
Talking about the film led to talking about being African-American in Toronto. I was surprised to find that his experience here was very similar to mine. The first thing that you notice when you get here is that the Black Community is almost completely Caribbean. It is always interesting to me how Black People from other parts of the world interact with Black People from the U.S. In my opinion, it sometimes feels like we are blamed for our history in America. Billy pointed out that because of religious beliefs, we as Gay Black Men are really considered taboo to the Caribbean and African cultures.
Then we started talking about the struggles of being a light skinned Black Man and our childhoods. It probably sounds strange to some, but there is a prejudice that excists between blacks over skin shades and tones.
He also told me about his relationship with his mother. Describing her as having the beauty of Lena Horne and the sophistication of Eartha Kitt, he shared how he used to act as her personal stylist as a child. They were very close, he said, until he came out to her in 1973. He had grown up in almost every kind of church. His mother was very religious and did not accept him for being who he was. He explained “I fought every second of my life for freedom.” He believes that it is his destiny to still be here.
As the conversation went on I discovered that we had even more in common. Like myself, his grandmother was the one in his family who stood up for him and embraced him, no matter what his sexual orientation was. And with the support of his grandmother and aunt he was armed to take on the world. “They were my rock” Billy told me. Both of us too were the ones who as kids were always ready to put on a show for a room full of adults.
“My happiness was never gonna be in Cleveland. I was Black and gay. I was always fabulous and I loved entertaining people.” he said. So, he left for New York City to pursue his dreams.
When I asked what brought him to Toronto he explained that he came to town with the Broadway Show, “Eubie” in 1980. It was an eight- week run of a musical about ragtime piano player Eubie Blake that featured Terry Burrell, Winston Dewitt Hemsley and The Hines Brothers (Gregory & Maurice).
Billy told me “The show was ending and the next stop was San Francisco. There was a delay and then I got a call from my manager saying that the show was continuing without me. I was part of the ensemble, but I wasn’t a great dancer. I always wanted to sing and a friend here in Toronto convinced me to stay. I ended up doing a few more musicals until I eventually got a deal with Sony in 1984. I won my first three Junos for my work on my first and second albums and then in 2008 I won a Juno for a single with Deadmau5. I remember feeling really good because I won over all these young artists on the dance scene. And then some group called Chromeo wrote some blog complaining that I had no business winning over them at the awards that year. Sayin’ something about that they had headlined at Madison Square Garden and was on top of the charts. I wrote such a scathing rebuttal that I think they took notice. I wrote that I too had headlined at Madison Square Garden, performed in Paris and performed with disco diva Gloria Gaynor.”
When I went looking for the blog by Chromeo, I found that it had been taken down. I believe that they felt Billy didn’t deserve to win the Juno because he was too old and not a natural born Canadian. But I’m sure after he wrote his rebuttal they were advised that speaking against a legendary artist who not only had a solo career, won a Juno for his duet with Celine Dion and also was a member of The Nylons was not a good move if they wanted to continue in the industry. One thing that I do love about the music entertainment industry here in Canada is that they truly honor and respect their artists here.
And I have to say I agree with him that he was destined to be here doing the work that he is doing. Just living his life as an Out Black Gay Man who is HIV+ is important work.
“HIV does not rule my life. It’s an aspect of my life, but there is so much more to me” he said.
When I approached him about being a special guest for our event and mentioned that this particular month Black Cap was coming on as a beneficiary he immediately said yes.
“Although ACT has helped me back in the early 90’s back when my partner was a parishioner at MCC, Black Cap has always held a special place in my heart. I remember my first meeting with Juanita Hall. I just felt like I needed to do something for the Black Community. Being that the people who were clients at Black Cap were from Caribbean and African backgrounds where religion kept them in the closet, I felt that they needed an out positive person to step forward to set an example. Black Cap needed a person like me. People tend to listen to me” Billy explained.
Billy shared with me that he had recently watched the documentary about me and my alter-ego, Jade Elektra on YouTube called “Shades of Jade”. He expressed that he felt like we were kindred spirits. I felt honored. He asked if I knew Chris Edwards. I told him that she has been a great friend to me and was the first to book me when I arrived in Toronto. “I love that girl! You know, she is the reason that queens are allowed in The Eagle on Church Street. We had booked her as a host for an event there and they refused to let her in. We all stood by her and fought for her to get in.” Wow...so much history.
We bonded over the Pearl Box Revue. I told him about how Dorian Corey (a founding member of the Pearl Box Revue and personality in "Paris Is Burning") was the one who talked me into performing again after I moved to New York City. He couldn’t believe that I actually knew her. He remembered that his parents used to sneak him into their shows when they came to Cleveland. “I was afraid of these big women. As a small child, they were larger than life and seemed dangerous.”
And as we spoke of divas that shaped our lives, I shared my experience of performing with Beyonce in 2003. “I imagine she is the only diva!” he said. But I explained that she wasn’t when I met her. She was extremely humble and down to earth. I still have the autographed doll she gave me before she, Harmonica Sunbeam and myself took the stage at The Roxy. She was so down to earth backstage, but when she hit the stage she became the diva that we know from her performances. She totally left it on the stage. Billy seemed impressed from my description. And in an odd way it brought me to the idea that Beyonce sort of represents a modern day "Pinky". "When I watch her I see Tina Turner. I see Diana Ross and even Dorothy Dandridge." he said. We both agreed she evokes all of the divas from the past with her passionate stage presence.
So, I am looking forward to his performance on March 3rd. I chose Lady G. to open for him because she is a graduate from one of the many programs at Black Cap. In many aspects, she is a shining example of what Black Cap is about - creating a safe and open community where today’s LGBT Black Community in Toronto can grow and learn from each other.