Posterity sometimes overlooks the most exciting and dynamic musical characters of the past. Next year, there’ll be swathes of articles in the music press about 1968, with 50th-anniversary pieces in the newspaper arts supplements chronicling the major players not only in pop, but also in jazz, folk, blues and soul. 1968 marks fifty years since the first album by a woman who was part of David Bowie’s inner circle for a number of years. She appeared in films, helmed a blues festival in Mustique, and made albums of her own songs for Decca and RCA. Her name is Dana Gillespie or, in full, Richenda Antoinette de Winterstein Gillespie. Perhaps the next time you’re having gay massage, the conversation will turn to music and you’ll be able to discuss this under-appreciated lady.
Dana made no secret of the fact that she believed in total emancipation. In many ways, she was at the vanguard of a certain brand of feminism. She loved men, but she didn’t entertain notions of being inferior to them for one moment. She would have been absolutely comfortable with the idea of gay massage. Her first album, Foolish Seasons, came out on Decca in 1968 and was a pot pourri of different popular styles, including chanson, sunshine pop and jazz. By the mid-seventies, Dana was working with David Bowie, having sung backing vocals on his fifth album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. She and Bowie were on the same record label and looked after by the same management company (MainMan). In return, Bowie and his sidekick, Mick Ronson, produced part of Dana’s 1974 album, Weren’t Born A Man. The cover showed Dana resplendent in suspenders and a feather boa. Despite presenting her as a kind of lesbian outrage, the album failed to find a wide audience. The same fate befell her equally good followup, Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.
Having struggled to find an audience as a singer/songwriter, Dana took some time off to appear in films (she’d already starred in the West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar, playing Mary Magdalene in the original cast). She appeared in ‘The People that Time Forgot’ and Hammer Studios’ ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. She also took a role in women’s prison drama, ‘Scrubbers’ (1982). But music was to call to Dana once more, and she re-emerged, this time as a bawdy blues mama, singing raunchy songs about love-making and seduction. It was a perfect match and she has continued in the blues vein to this day. Gradually, Dana’s early work has been finding its way back onto the market and plans are afoot to reissue some of her 1970s work in a luxury format in 2018.