Mae West was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll before there was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
After Mae West, the rest of us just tried to keep up.
We owe a lot to Mary Jane West of Brooklyn’s Bushwick. All her irrepressible life force was dedicated to breaking taboos, scandalizing propriety, and celebrating the very tangible pleasures of being human. From the scandal of her first starring role on Broadway in her own play, "Sex," in 1927, to the last immersion in outrageous camp with the 1978 film, "Sextette" (also produced and written by her), Mae West was blazingly true to herself and to us. She shares, if not the martyrdom, the legacy of Lenny Bruce in her humor, defiance and incorrigibility.
As for West’s musical legacy, it has long taken a backseat to her theatre and film career, but it is no less luminous in its bold attitude. She recorded many notable double entendre blues and pop hits in the 1930s, and continued releasing records almost to her dying day.
Her real rock ‘n‘ roll roots go back only as far as the 1966 classic album, Way Out West, on Tower Records, with its respectably rocking versions of “Boom Boom,” “Shaking All Over,” and “Day Tripper.” She may have been 73 at the time, but she was nobody’s grandma. Tower even graced a couple of the singles pulled from the album with picture sleeves. Her pop cachet was golden. The following year, The Beatles put her on the Sgt. Pepper album cover.
When she made yet another grand return to the public limelight with the transsexual comedy, Myra Breckinridge, in 1970, the soundtrack label was ready for maximum exposure. 20th Century-Fox Records issued a rare promo-only cast interview album (DS-1924/1925) that laid the groundwork for what was hoped to be a smash movie and smash album. The movie was getting a lot of pre-release press and publicity. Not only was it Mae West, but it was riding the wave of the late ‘60s cultural explosion of sexual freedom, caustic camp, and pop art.
The label readied two of the movie’s highlight production numbers for radio stations.
West kicked it all out on a cover version of Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle.” Redding’s version was already solid rocking soul, but West’s gender switch atop a big swinging orchestra was something else. This was swagger with a capital S, readymade for her throaty innuendo-laden delivery (“When I get to throw it on you/You got to come back for more.” “I'm advertisin' love for free/So, you can place your ad with me.” “Hey little baby, let me light your candle/Cause mama I'm sure hard to handle”). Wailing behind her was a definitely psychedelicized guitar freakout.
This wild production was backed by the nominally tamer “You Gotta Taste All The Fruit,” a lusty call to arms and carpe diem. Oddly, the origin of the song goes back to a failed Broadway musical called “Something More” from 1964. The show starred Barbara Cook, Hal Linden, and Arthur Hill, but it only lasted 15 performances. And “You Gotta Taste All the Fruit” was cut even before the show opened. But West resurrected this Sammy Fain chestnut and wrung more juice from the fruit than anyone could have thought possible.
20th Century-Fox brought out a stunning full-color picture sleeve for their promo single, selecting a shining moment from West’s bravura performance in the movie. It’s definitely a glorious image, all showbiz and glamour (and camp and craziness).
Well, the movie tanked, the song didn’t