Vincent L. Stephens Interview

Vincent L. Stephens is the Director of the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity and a Contributing Faculty in Music at Dickinson College. He’s also the author of a new book called Rocking the Closet: How Little Richard, Johnnie Ray, Liberace, and Johnny Mathis Queered Pop Music. With a title like that, it should be pretty obvious why I wanted to interview him for this newsletter.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally? 

I have always been drawn to the performing and visual arts, and since high school I knew I wanted to write about culture professionally. I attended Emerson College to study journalism. While I enjoyed my studies, and learned a lot writing for the college paper (The Berkeley Beacon) and interning at a professional daily paper (The Florida Times-Union), I took a graduate level theory course as an undergrad that inspired me to pursue graduate school. I completed an M.A.in Popular Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University) and a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Maryland College Park). 

Collectively these three disciplines gave me a foundation to write about various popular mediums in multiple voices. Prior to the release of Rocking the Closet my scholarly essays have been published in various academic journals and edited collections, I co-edited a book on the notion of “postraciality” with my colleague Anthony Stewart, wrote about vocal jazz for All About Jazz.com for a few years, and have maintained the music blog Riffs, Beats, & Codas, since 2015.

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?

As a graduate student I was originally exploring the trope of “authenticity” in popular music, especially the ways music critics use the term to denote artistic merit. The term is highly gendered in ways that demean musical expressions deemed as feminine and as queer. This inspired me to look at musicians who went against the grain of gender norms in 1950s popular music. The four musicians I selected are very musically distinct but each of them had to contort themselves to be commercially viable. For example, for Mathis and Little Richard to crossover commercially in the 1950s they had to avoid the appearance of being a sexual “threat” to white audiences. Mathis adopted a sexually neutral “dandy” image that downplayed sexuality whereas Little Richard created an over-the-top theatrical persona that performed a similar neutering function.

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal. 

Because I knew I was seeking an academic publisher I researched presses with music and/or sexuality themed series. Most publishers require writers to submit proposals outlining the main argument, key theoretical and methodological approaches, aspects that distinguish the project from existing books and the target audience, among others. It is a normal practice to send a prospectus to multiple publishers. From there, publishers review the proposal and if they’re interested they forward it to professional reviewers in the field whose feedback determines whether it will advance to publication. The University of Illinois Press was a remarkable partner. I received helpful feedback from the reviewers and benefited from an acquisitions editor, Laurie Matheson, who really believed in the project and was able to offer thoughtful advice that enhanced my writing and thought process.

Was there much of a research process? What did that look like? How did you go about writing the actual book? 

The writing process between the contract and the publication took approximately three years. I’m very disciplined so I set realistic deadlines and worked steadily chapter-by-chapter to develop and refine my ideas. Because I work full-time as an administrator and teacher, and have a life (somewhat!), I carved out writing time when I could.

I adapted an early version of the Mathis chapter from my dissertation into a journal article Popular Music & Society published in 2010. My goal was to test out the viability of the idea. The essay, “Shaking the Closet,” won an award from the journal and motivated me to develop a fuller proposal based on the essay’s premise about the nuances of sexual disclosure. 

I had already acquired an archive of primary and secondary source material, but the research process was ongoing. For example, I discovered concert programs and celebrity fan books, in stores and online, which enriched my discussion of Liberace. I also located a YouTube interview with Mathis from CBS Sunday Morning that was pivotal.  

During the proposal phase I was invited to write an essay on contemporary issues of sexual disclosure for a book called Masquerade: Essays on tradition and innovation worldwide. The essay allowed me to bridge the struggles of 1950s era musicians with more contemporary 21st century musicians such as Ricky Martin and Adam Lambert. More importantly, it helped me explore the relevance of my argument for musicians beyond the 1950s. As public people popular musicians continue to navigate their private sense of sexual identity with the public’s perceptions.

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic you're writing about?

All four musicians’ recordings are well-preserved on CD and online streaming services. You can also find Liberace, Mathis and Little Richard on video streaming services easily. Ray, less so, because he made few TV appearances.

Some books that illuminated the post-World War II social context for me included Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine (Henry E. Scott), Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties(Wini Breines), Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Michael Kimmel), The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Darren K. Johnson), The Chitlin’ Circuit And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll (Preston Lauterbach). One of the more surprising sources in this vein was actor-singer Tab Hunter’s memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star(Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller) and the 2015 companion documentary film.

There are also several helpful biographies of the artists including Jonny Whiteside’s Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story, Darden Asbury Pyron’s Liberace: An American Boy, Bob Thomas’s Liberace: The True Story, Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard, Quasar of Rock, and David Kirby’s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Liberace also wrote Liberace: An Autobiography.

What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?

The proliferation of online sites for long-form writing (e.g. blogs) and anonymous commentary has seemingly made everyone feel like a pop culture “expert.” I encourage serious writers to seek out fresh topics and invest the time and energy to do the work required to develop original arguments with insights that challenge conventional wisdom.