The identities musicians assume onstage have been known to bleed into their real lives, and vice versa. It’s still hard to know where David Bowie stops and the cosmic androgyne Ziggy Stardust begins. Jazz pianist Billy Tipton wasn’t revealed to have been a woman masquerading until after his death.
A pair of documentaries in this year’s QFest focus on musicians, both with Philly roots, whose personal and sexual identities were equally bound up in their onstage personas. Glam-rock singer Jobriath did Bowie one better, ditching the ambiguity for a frank and fateful up-front homosexuality; the bassist now known as Jennifer Leitham, on the other hand, hid her true identity for decades while touring with Mel Tormé and Doc Severinsen as John Leitham.
Leitham had one advantage over Tipton as far as secret-keeping goes: Her false identity was the male one she was born with. Andrea Meyerson’s film I Stand Corrected largely steps aside to allow the garrulous Leitham to tell her own story, recapping her years as an in-demand studio and touring jazz bassist with a pageboy haircut who could only be herself while at home. Ten years after her sexual-reassignment surgery, Leitham’s story spills out of her, decades of furtive caution finally remedied.
FEMALE TROUBLE: Trans bassist Jennifer Leitham (right) says her legacy in the jazz community has been compromised since undergoing sexual-reassignment surgery in 2001.
Her image on the bandstand transformed in tandem with her personal identity. Always a skilled player, John played sitting down, eyes glued to the sheet music, while Jennifer sways, sings and stands in the Mary Janes that long-time employer Severinsen continues to good-naturedly criticize. “In my previous persona, I tried to deflect attention away from the fact that I’m a girl,” Leitham says from her L.A. home. “I purposely sat on a stool when I played, because if I’d stood up I would have started dancing. I let myself go when I play and I didn’t want to dance around like a girl in front of a crowd.”
Since her transition, Leitham has refocused her career on being a bandleader, a decision resulting both from choice and necessity. The jazz world is simultaneously progressive and ultraconservative, and Leitham knew her career would suffer if she publicly identified as transgender. “That’s why it took me 48 years to transition,” she says. “I was scared to death I wouldn’t have a career. It wasn’t until I came to a point in my life where I was willing to walk away from my career that I was able to go ahead with it.”
While she continued to find work with Severinsen and a handful of other open-minded bandleaders following her surgery, opportunities dried up for her on the road, in the studio and on festival bills. The situation remains daunting a full decade later. “I became a total outcast,” she says. “Most people just didn’t want to be in a room with me. I made them very uncomfortable just being me. So over the years I’ve carved my own turf. I keep putting myself out there so people can see that I’m still a developing, evolving musician.”
Despite the rejection of peers who had long regarded Leitham as a leader on her instrument, a rift in her relationship with her parents and dire medical complications from her surgery, the mood of I Stand Corrected is almost uniformly upbeat. The message of the film is that for all its consequences, the decision to embrace one’s true self brings confidence and, ultimately, happiness.
“There’s angst involved in everyone’s life,” Leitham says. “But every transgender film I’ve seen is more about the angst, more about the surgery, more about the mental anguish of it all. There are so many transgender people who are fabulously successful, well-integrated, contributing members of society. I’d like people to see a film that shows a transgender person for what they do, not what’s between their legs. Maybe it’s not as sexy or salacious to make a film like that, but I thought it was important to show a transgender person as a functional human being who’s contributing something positive to the world.”
Jobriath, on the other hand, never hesitated to embrace his identity – several of them, in fact – but the result was not quite so positive. In the early 1970s, Jobriath teamed up with club owner, promoter and consummate bullshit artist Jerry Brandt, who set in motion a steamroller of a hype machine for Jobriath’s debut album. A lucrative deal with Elektra (inflated in the press to as much as half a million dollars), an enormous billboard in Times Square, full-page ads in Vogue and Rolling Stone, banners on seemingly every bus in Manhattan — Jobriath’s name was everywhere, an overkill that his eccentric style couldn’t possibly live up to.
Most critically, Jobriath loudly proclaimed himself “rock’s truest fairy,” marking him as the first openly gay rock singer on a major label. The move may have seemed canny to Brandt at the time: With Bowie playing up his androgyny and bands like The New York Dolls cross-dressing flamboyantly, coming out must have seemed like the next logical PR move. It was a step too far for the time, however: The mass audience rejected him while, as Kieran Turner points out in his doc Jobriath A.D., the gay community was undergoing a shift to leather-clad hyper-masculinity and listening to disco, not rock.
“Had Jerry Brandt really been gay or involved in that community, he would have realized what an absolute blunder it was,” says Turner. “It makes sense to me that, being a straight man, he would not have known where the pulse of the gay community was. He figured, there’s this very fluid sexuality going on — the gays will love it.”
It may have taken 30 years or so, but Jobriath’s unique, outré music and brash image have been embraced by a number of musicians and artists. Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff cite his influence in the film, while Morrissey reissued Jobriath’s two albums on CD and Henry Rollins narrates the doc.
Turner, whose only previous directorial credit was the gay Christmas comedy 24 Nights, unearths as much backstory on Jobriath as it’s possible to discover. He was born Bruce Wayne Campbell in King of Prussia in 1946 and died of AIDS at the Chelsea Hotel in 1983. In between, he reinvented himself several times. He became Jobriath Salisbury when he joined the West Coast production of Hair, and, following the implosion of his glam career, became nightclub performer Cole Berlin.
For Jobriath’s youngest brother, these were never separate identities. “I think he’s all one personality,” says Willie Fogle, a writer and videomaker who appears in the film. “I don’t view him kaleidoscopically.”
Born 13 years later to a different father and raised in a separate household, Fogle was never particularly close to his older half-brother. But he never saw a disconnect between the Bruce he encountered at home and the Jobriath who peered out from album covers in outlandish getups.
“It wasn’t hard at all to reconcile them because he was always so flamboyant,” Fogle says. “He always showed up at the oddest hours. My mother and I lived in this low-down, not-quite-impoverished apartment complex, and he would show up at midnight in a full-length fur coat with a big dog. I was a very sheltered kid and naturally shy, so it was something for me to see this very high-energy personality suddenly show up.”
Sharing his half-brother’s homosexuality and an artistic bent, Fogle looked up to him and found promise in his relationship with their mother. “I drew upon my mother’s affection for Bruce,” he recalls. “I think she supported him as a gay person in everything but a conscious way. That generation just couldn’t deal with homosexuality. It was like saying somebody was a murderer, totally unacceptable in name if not so much in lifestyle. So I cashed in on that, thinking that if she adored Bruce then she might like me. As it turned out, she didn’t like me as much because I was so much different than him. He was much sunnier; I was darker and troubled, so it didn’t quite work out for me.”
Fogle has struggled over the years with depictions of his sibling. For more than a decade after his brother’s death, he assumed that Jobriath had been all but forgotten by everyone except for his friends and family. But as appreciations and testimonials began to appear online in the late ’90s, he wasn’t always pleased with what he read. “He’s like a watermelon and people just come along and take a big slice,” Fogle says. “They don’t really think of Jobriath belonging to anybody, they just think of him as this no-strings-attached entity that is now being eagerly discovered. And the fact is that he did have a place in the world, and with his family.”
Turner’s film depicts that family life and Jobriath’s more public personae, utilizing animation to breathe life into moments that weren’t captured for posterity. But as thorough as the documentary is, the director still feels like there’s much more to be told. “Jobriath was a very private person,” Turner says. “He didn’t reveal things to the people who were closest to him. When he would adopt a new alias, he would drop pretty much everybody that was associated with the old persona. So it was almost like making several mini-documentaries. People who have seen the film have told me they don’t really feel like they got to know who Jobriath was. And my response is, ‘Gosh, neither did I. Neither did anybody.’”
The impression that Jobriath A.D. leaves is of another body of work left frustratingly incomplete by AIDS, an all-too-common story. But Jobriath’s simultaneous embrace of theatrical rock, showtunes, classical music and pop points the way toward a style that would be far more embraced in underground circles today, had he ever found a way to integrate his various personalities.
I Stand Corrected ends on a much happier note, with a career still in progress and an identity very confidently integrated at last. “I am who I am,” Leitham says succinctly. “I’m able to project it and not have to think about it. That’s the side of the story that often doesn’t get told. I knew my popularity in the jazz world was going to take a hit, but my own personal inner well-being, my own sense of self, has gotten so much better. That’s the real happy ending.”
I Stand Corrected plays Thu., July 19, 7:15 p.m. and Fri., July 20, 5 p.m.; Jobriath A.D. plays Sat., July 14, 2:30 p.m. and Sun., July 15, 9:30 p.m., $10, Ritz East, 125 S. Second St., 267-765-9800, qfest.com.