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Faye, Frances (1912-1991)  
 
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In a long career that spanned much of the twentieth century, openly bisexual entertainer Frances Faye recorded more than a dozen albums for major record companies, including Verve, Capitol, Bethlehem, and Imperial. She was a gravel-voiced vocalist and pianist whose style and sound evolved over the years to include jazz, pop, Latin, and rock influences; but her unique sense of rhythm and timing remained a strong constant.

In addition to her recording career, Faye was a bright star on New York's 52nd Street during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s and a fixture in major nightclubs around the world for 45 years. Her on-stage persona was as much a comedienne as it was a musician.

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Faye earned a reputation in the press as a social revolutionary because she did not shy away from warmly including references to homosexuals (or "gay kids") in her act and for being publicly known as bisexual at a time when few other performers dared to do the same. "Frances Faye, gay, gay, is there another way?" she would burst out singing in every show.

Faye was born in Brooklyn on November 4, 1912, "a Scorpio and Reform Jew . . . Jewess," as she would proudly tell her audiences. Onstage, she referred to astrology as often as she did to her Jewish heritage.

Faye left school at the age of 15 after suddenly finding herself in show business. At the last minute she was asked to fill in for an ailing piano player. She did so well that an agent offered her an astounding $120 a week salary.

By the mid-1930s Faye was a fixture in 52nd Street jazz clubs, and that is when stardom came. The plump young woman was nicknamed "Zazz Zu Zazz" after her trademark scat phrase, and gained notoriety for her enthusiastic piano banging and her screaming vocals.

During the late 1930s and the 1940s, the entertainer toured constantly, lost weight, decreased the volume of her singing and playing, but grew more risqué in her onstage banter. She appeared on Broadway, filmed musical shorts, wrote the hit Andrews Sisters song "Well, All Right," and had two brief marriages.

Faye's first album was issued in 1946 and included the daring song "Drunk with Love," which had previously been recorded for a small under-the-counter "party" label by gay performer Bruz Fletcher, who committed suicide at age 35 in 1941 after police crackdowns on "pansy" performers and gay clubs made it virtually impossible for him to find work. The cover became one of Faye's signature songs and it functioned as a kind of code for her own sexual orientation. Faye's rendition of "Drunk with Love" was especially popular in lesbian bars in the 1950s, as Marijane Meaker attests in her memoir Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950's (2003).

The 1950s were the period of greatest artistic achievement and productivity for Faye. For most of the decade she sported a parakeet-style crewcut that still has shock value. Her first audience after the severe haircut greeted her in stunned silence, prompting the quick-witted, matronly Faye to joke, "When you're pretty, it doesn't matter how you wear your hair." That line would become one of her signature statements.

Faye's masculine appearance in dress and coiffure was so different from the norm and ideal of the day that most articles and reviews mentioned it before her music. Her first two record companies did not feature her photograph on her album covers, but instead opted for cartoons and caricatures.

An increasingly raspy but lively Faye recorded for four different record companies in the 1950s. By the middle of the decade, her unconventional live act had become known for its outrageousness. Songs, hairstyles, and musicians would change, but Faye had found the successful sound, style, and format of jazz comedy, self-deprecating humor, fresh banter, and saucy double-entendre that would be her gold mine. She had sold-out performances on the Hollywood Strip and played the major venues in Las Vegas and Miami, earning about $4,000 a week.

At a time when such topics were taboo, Faye parodied her bisexuality onstage. Occasionally, she chose to use same-sex pronouns in her love songs.

In the late 1950s Faye met a glamorous 22-year-old, Teri Shepherd, who became her lifelong companion and manager. In Shepherd's recollection, "Fran was one big girl, and I was the husband . . . . Once Fran's conservative mother exclaimed, 'Teri is the best son-in-law I ever had.' Offstage Fran was out there and didn't care what people thought. But backstage, I often overheard people saying the most hateful things out of Fran's earshot; especially from straight men."

Shepherd thought Faye was at her best performing live, so she organized the recording of the Caught in the Act album in 1958. It became Faye's biggest-selling record. That electric album was amazing in Eisenhower-era America for its frank embrace of gay people. Faye can be heard joking that she refused to sing "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" because the "gay kids" do not like the lyric "...with those beautiful queens." Her comic song "Frances and Her Friends" boldly glorified same-sex coupling. She wove Teri Shepherd's name into the lyrics of classic songs, and as she always did onstage, Faye musically proclaimed, "Frances Faye, gay, gay, is there another way?"

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Frances Faye performing on the Mike Walsh television show in Sydney Australia in 1978.
  
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