In 1932, “Mad About the Boy,” a tender ballad about unrequited love written by Noël Coward, was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London, England. It was covered over the years by female vocal greats such as Julie London, Eartha Kitt and perhaps most famously, Dinah Washington. Those fine ladies may have been surprised to learn that Coward wrote that song about his own not-so-secret love, one he held for another man.
Singer Steven Gallavin wants that love to be known and celebrated. Inspired by Coward and his contemporary, Cole Porter, Gallavin has recorded an album of songs especially for gay men. The result is Mad About the Boy.
“I originally wanted only songs by gay authors, but I quickly realized that some other songs match perfectly, though their authors were straight, so I opened the field to gay stories.”
Those stories include covers of jazz standards like Porter’s “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top,” as well as torch songs like George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”
When he’s not singing, Gallavin works on HIV prevention programs in his native Switzerland. He points out that his artistic choices are somewhat influenced by his work as an activist. When asked about singing songs traditionally performed by women, he explains the album is a way for him to break the borders between the typical male jazz crooner figure and the diva female singer.
“I simply wanted to come out as a gay male jazz singer so I could be free to sing the songs that mean a lot to me.”
He created a video for the title track in which drag performers from Chez Maman, a bar in Brussels, lip-synch to the lyrics. It’s a queer tip of the hat to George Michael’s video for “Freedom.”
“The female singers in my video are, in fact, men singing for other men,” he says. “It’s a meta-approach, and we just loved the idea of playing with gender and social expectations.”
Gallavin says he wants also to raise the profile of jazz among his peers.
“I have been talking lately to young gay men who know so little about jazz,” he says. “They were surprised to learn that homosexuals have also had some influence on jazz history. We shouldn’t hide the fact that Cole Porter, Noël Coward and many others were gay men.”
Social constructs and history aside, for Gallavin, it’s mostly about telling stories through song. Still, he adds, it is somewhat daunting to sing songs that have been performed by some of the greats, like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
“I found it mostly intimidating to cover songs that have been more-than perfectly sung by great vocalists, male or female
. . . Hopefully I can run away from that kind of pressure as I sing jazz as myself: Steven Gallavin.”