Monday, 1 December 2014

Songs For AIDS

To mark today’s World AIDS Day I’m looking at how music has been used to raise awareness of the disease.

Less than a month ago a newly completed song performed by Freddie Mercury and Queen was released. Freddie died of AIDS-related causes in 1991 and became one of the first international music stars to reveal he had the disease.

The new song, “Let Me In Your Heart Again”, was recorded in the 1980s and was never completed or released, though it was later recorded and released as an album track in 1988 by Anita Dobson, the wife of Queen’s guitarist Brian May. It has been included in Queen’s new compilation album “Forever”.

The song forms part of a campaign organised by Coca Cola and (RED) charity called “Share the Sound of an AIDS-Free Generation”. Other artists and songs are included in the campaign but this is by no means the first musical fundraiser for AIDS awareness. The first concert to have any specific mention of AIDS in its content was back in 1992 with the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt Songbook.

The brainchild behind this Songbook concert was William Parker (1943-1993), He was a professional baritone singer who had been diagnosed with HIV in 1986. During the early years following the initial shock caused by the outbreak of AIDS many lgbt communities across America began fundraising events to help the many victims and surviving partners.

William Parker felt that, although well intended, many of these fundraising concerts and recitals did not contain any works by openly lgbt composers or addressed the issue of AIDS awareness. Concerts included works already known by composers and writers also already known, in attempts, perhaps, to appeal to the widest possible audience.  Parker sang at several AIDS fundraisers himself where the very word itself was never mentioned out loud. Parker felt that with so many in the music industry affected by HIV and AIDS there would be enough support within the community to organise a fundraiser by lgbt composers and performers.

William approached a lot of composers and writers, most of whom he had worked with and knew, and he was pleasantly surprised at how many agreed to participate.

Very early on in the planning stage William envisaged the project as a companion to the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, the ever-growing patchwork of fabric squares, each one dedicated to loved ones who had died of AIDS. Like the quilt the Quilt Songbook was intended as an ever-growing project with new works being submitted for future performance.

The Songbook concert was premiered on 4th June (not July, as Wikipedia claims) 1992 at the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York. Most of the contributing composers and writers were present, and some of them performed their own pieces. William Parker was joined by three other baritones – Kurt Ollman, William Sharp and Sanford Sylvan. They sang solo and together.

The following day the songs were recorded, except for William Parker’s three solo pieces. He had been feeling unwell on the day of the concert and the effort of performing and organising the event had exhausted him. He was too unwell to record his pieces.

After the AIDS Quilt Songbook’s premiere William Parker’s health deteriorated. Although wheelchair-bound towards the end, he managed to sing at several recitals, standing out of his wheelchair for the fist of these.

William’s last public performance was on 1st December 1992, which is another reason why I chose to feature him on this World AIDS Day.

William died in his New York apartment, having been cared for by his sister Amy, on 29th March 1993. The previous day he had received friends from the Songbook project and they listened to the first mastered recording of “Fury”, one of the tracks William was well enough to record after the premiere. This track is the first one on the official AIDS Quilt Songbook album.

William Parker’s legacy was a realisation that sufferers, partners, family and friends affected by HIV/AIDS can find a channel through which this can be channelled through music and poetry. Since the first album release in 1993 more songs have been added to the Songbook, growing, like the AIDS Quilt itself, into a multi-coloured patchwork, reflecting the varied lives and loves of people who have died. The most recent AIDS Quilt Songbook concert took place in New York on 14th November to mark its 22nd anniversary.

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