Leigh Blake was about 23 years old when she arrived in New York from London alongside her punk comrades in 1976. She had her sights on music and filmmaking while perusing the brutal but bohemian metropolis: Greenwich Village during the day and CBGB at night. She befriended a guy named David along the way. David was not a punk rocker but a hairdresser -- a gorgeous, chiseled man with a beautiful, flowing crown. For a stint, she left New York to return to Great Britain in 1978 before crisscrossing the Atlantic back to Manhattan in summer 1983. One afternoon, as she walked in the West Village, a gentleman called out, "Leigh!" Turning around, she didn't recognize the man calling her name. She kept drawing blanks, staring quizzically. She had no recollection of this man who obviously knew her. Mustering up the strength, David re-introduced himself. There on Horatio Street, David was no longer the muscular lad, but very thin -- frail even -- and held very little resemblance to her old friend from years prior.
"He sat me down and told me everything I needed to know from a very personal perspective. That infuriated me," Blake remembers. "It was almost like everywhere I went, people were just incredibly ill."
In the following days, she saw more of her friends go from spry to bedridden. Blake's friend, John Carlin, was seeing the same thing with his friends: the most talented, the most fun, the most charismatic.
"By the late '80s, all of that began to change because of HIV and AIDS," Carlin said.
Carlin had previously curated exhibits at the Whitney Museum of American Art and was a part of the downtown art scene. One of his friends was the painter and graffiti artist Keith Haring. Another friend was the photographer and writer David Wojnarowicz; both near death in their early to mid-30s.
"This dark cloud came over everyone," Carlin said. "Literally, people you would see at parties and clubs at the top of the world and all of a sudden, they'd either be sick or gone."
Anger, despair, and frustration ran high beneath the Village's shroud. New York downtown, Carlin remembers, was an amazing place with mixtures between the uptown and downtown worlds in music and visual art. Local color was having a profound impact on global culture. Recognizing he couldn't make enough money in the art world or in teaching at the time, Carlin enrolled in law school at Columbia University.
Blake wanted to do something concerning this mysterious disease zapping the life from her friends. So did Carlin. What to do exactly wasn't so clear -- but the urgency was present.
The shift came dramatically. The mysterious disease emerged in 1981. By 1983, two years after AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) was named, there were 2,118 reported deaths in the U.S..
"That was the motivation for a lot of people to become activists," Carlin said.
Several groups in the city formed in the mid-to-late 1980s, mobilized themselves, and began making noise -- most notably, Gay Men's Health Crisis, People With AIDS Coalition, Gay Men of African Descent, the Lavender Hill Mob, and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Out of school, Carlin began working at a law firm.
"I ended up working for a lot of my friends who were artists as a lawyer, which was an interesting thing. I was much more useful as a lawyer than I was as a curator and as a writer," he said.
Carlin worked pro bono for his artist friends, "a rag-tag bunch" that included punk rock musician Richard Hell, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, Pee-Wee's Playhouse's cartoonist Gary Panter, and the budding documentarian Blake. Carlin secured the book deal for David Wojnarowicz's memoir, Close to The Knives, and helped find a real-estate lawyer who let Wojnarowicz stay in his loft after his partner, Peter Hujar, died.
"One of those really sad things of that era were LGBTQ people had no rights at the time. If you were living in an apartment and your partner died and the lease was in your partner's name, the landlord would kick you out," Carlin recounts.
Glimmers of hope were few and could be dashed abruptly. A well-known cosmetic company that Carlin doesn't name started an HIV campaign and enlisted several famous performers. Performers waived their fees as a generous gesture; however, the company did not fulfill its promises in terms of charity. That added fuel to Carlin's already ignited fury. "I was just -- I'm sitting there, and all these people I knew were getting sick, and it's this terrible period, and then there's this really wealthy cosmetics company, who could have easily afforded it, just didn't," he said. Though upset, "On a rational level, I thought, 'Oh, you can get famous people to do things for this cause.'"
How Cole Porter Became Involved With East Village Punks
Meanwhile, Carlin discovered that Paul, Weiss, the Midtown law firm he joined after Columbia, represented the Cole Porter estate. Cole Porter, the famed Broadway composer and Tony Award winner, seemed to be forgotten in contemporary pop culture. Carlin had even taught about Porter's cultural significance in the courses he led before leaving academia. Carlin loved Porter's songs -- and because Porter was gay but closeted, it was thought many of his songs had coded romantic messages; something that could resonate in 1989-1990. An idea hatched. He approached a partner in the entertainment division who controlled the trust and pitched what would become Red Hot + Blue. The album's title was a reference to a musical Porter debuted in 1936, and the title of a 1950s integrated Memphis radio broadcast by legendary disc jockey Dewey Phillips.
The partner at the law firm was intrigued, Carlin recalls. "[He] basically said, 'If you can get the right level of performers, we'll let you do it,' and that's how it started."
Meanwhile, Carlin's friend Leigh Blake was slated to film a documentary on the city's punk scene. During the pre-production stage, Blake's funding fell through. The timing was just right -- or so Carlin thought. Carlin told Blake about his idea for an AIDS benefit project using Cole Porter's music. In her British accent, Blake laughed, calling it "corny," "the worst idea ever." Two days later, Carlin remembers Blake calling him back, saying, "Well, maybe it's not the worst idea ever." More ideas began to brew as they talked. Thanks to Carlin's law firm salary, he advanced Blake money to get started on this Cole Porter AIDS benefit project. Blake and Carlin divvied up the work.
The venture started off as King Cole but later changed to Red Hot.
amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research) was an early Red Hot supporter. They assisted Red Hot with getting a nonprofit status, which wasn't easy. Producing and selling albums would seem to be a record label, not a typical nonprofit. amfAR also helped with fundraising and grant reviews. They co-sponsored a kickoff event for Red Hot in Los Angeles and secured an Elizabeth Taylor endorsement (Taylor was the co-founder of amfAR with Mathilde Krim, Ph.D.), which helped get several corporate sponsors. Sally Morrison, friend and publicist to Taylor, was volunteering at amfAR in 1989.
"I came into it [Red Hot] because I met Leigh Blake, who is this fantastic, brilliant, very creative person who wanted to do something in her world, in the music world, in the world of film about AIDS," Morrison said.
Both Blake and Morrison were British transplants in New York adjusting to this disease in their own ways.
amfAR amplified Red Hot's messages for a number of reasons. "It was really important to them, they were a beneficiary, and because it was this incredible way of being able to get the word out, which they really cared about," Blake said. "amfAR was incredibly supportive of us, and Sally in particular."
Morrison assisted Terence Beirn, a former reporter at KGO San Francisco who led amfAR's media relations. amfAR quickly became skilled at HIV-related messaging for the general public with an entertaining aesthetic -- for example, when Ryan White was kept out of school in Kokomo, Indiana. In response, amfAR aired a radio ad in the Kokomo media market educating people as to why it's very short-sighted to keep the 13-year-old, HIV-positive White out of school, because the virus could not be passed through casual contact. The ad aired the following week, and national media coverage ballooned. Celebrities including Rob Lowe, Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Donald Trump paid visits to Indiana in support of White. Morrison remembers the passion-filled creativity bubbling among the people addressing HIV. The office was in overdrive. amfAR wanted to impart its wisdom to Red Hot.
"We were building a boat as we learned to sail it," Morrison said. "We honestly did not know what we were doing -- we were very young, and very sort of vigorous, and we had a lot of energy about it."
"Many, many people on the team were HIV positive and some cases very, very sick, and Terri Burns was one of them. The person I later married, Paul Corser, was another of them, and it's just different when the person sitting next to you is ill and the mission is 2 inches from your face at all times," she said. "Perhaps the most powerful thing in keeping people sustained was the fact that people with HIV were actually sitting at their desks, next to you. They were your colleagues, and you were sort of fighting for them, so there was a great immediacy about it."
Morrison eventually became amfAR's executive vice president, and memories remain. Fear and stigma were at a fever pitch. For instance, going down to the mailroom in the basement every morning to pick up any and all packages, from envelopes to boxes. "The guy that brought the mail would not come up to the fourth floor, to our office, because it said 'AIDS' on the door and he was afraid to come in," she said.
This is the environment that stoked Red Hot's fervor.
With Chrysalis EMI on board as the record label, finally, "Red Hot + Blue" was born, the first of 20-something albums Carlin, Blake & Co. would release under the Red Hot banner -- all sharing the same mission: Celebrate the universal language of music and film while raising HIV awareness and funds for HIV efforts without compromising any of these components.
Blake went back across the Atlantic to London securing musicians, while Carlin stayed stateside, ironing out business.
"I'm not sure how much of an uphill battle it would've been to produce in the U.S. But there, I had a lot, a lot, a lot of support. I mean, English artists were really, really supported there," Blake said. "I feel like it wasn't really that I even had the expertise. I mean, it was only the second thing I'd ever produced. It was just I was so beside myself and so outraged and so driven, and so completely passionate. And so, with the people around me, that's really what got it done."
The social climate differed between the U.S. and Great Britain in terms of sexuality too, which had an effect on each country's HIV responses. London was the right place at the right time for executing Red Hot's musical pursuits, Blake recalls while preparing her mid-day tea.
"People were really, really supportive there, in ways I found more complicated here because of all the stigma and all the fear, and all this insane homophobia," she said.
"I have nothing good to say about Margaret Thatcher, except for the fact that when AIDS became really clearly recognized as a threat, the UK government really did something about it," Blake said. "I mean, their messaging was kind of terrifying, with tombstones falling and stuff like that, but no one was unaware."
The arts community was not waiting for politicians to lead. An Early Frost aired in 1985, while the first wide-release film with AIDS as the subject, Longtime Companion, was released in theatres in 1990.
Musicians Get Involved Despite 'Gay' Stigma on an HIV Project
Many of Blake's contacts were friends she met through her travels and through like-minded music industry associates like David Byrne, the lead vocalist of the Talking Heads, a super-popular new wave band by 1989. "John and I think of David Byrne as the patron saint of Red Hot. Because, at the time, he was hotter than hell," Blake said. "His signing on really made everyone else sign on."
"Once David said yes, a bunch of other people started to say yes," Carlin said. Annie Lennox, Iggy Pop, and k.d. lang joined the Red Hot + Blue effort.
"We got really excited because, creatively, it was a really fun thing to do, just trying to match these classic songs that nobody had really paid attention to since the Frank Sinatra era with all kinds of new musicians," Carlin said. "We just thought that was hysterical, and that was a lot of fun."
Of course, Byrne's stamp of approval did not completely erase stigma. Several well-known musicians -- specifically, a popular male R&B artist of the era -- said no because of the fear he would lose his fan base if assumed gay -- a very real consideration in 1990.
"One thing that I realized in retrospect was part of what made Red Hot grow so influential culturally was that it was an AIDS benefit where a lot of the people involved weren't gay. That might sound weird to say, but I think the fact that, say David Byrne and ultimately Bono [U2's lead vocalist] and a few other people became sort of the artistic leaders of the project," Carlin said. "Nobody thought Bono was gay because he was on an AIDS benefit. He was the most popular rock star in the world, basically."
Blake's little black book of contacts was packed with artists; however, U2 was the only artist she didn't know or have friends who knew them or their management. It was a long process of selling the idea to U2's management, she said. Before Red Hot approached Bono, he was not involved with HIV advocacy.
"It was a big deal when they agreed. I mean, The Joshua Tree [album] had blown up," she said. "I've been friends with him, and he's a beloved friend of mine ever since. I mean, to me anyway, no one is more dedicated to the cause that they adopted. ... I chose Wim Wenders for their film [Red Hot + Blue's accompanying film]. I'll never forget, we flew to Berlin to shoot this film, and the Wall came down that day. It was so incredible."
Today, Bono is one of the -- if not the -- most well-known AIDS advocates in the world. He is co-founder of (RED), an entity working with companies to raise money for HIV-related philanthropy. To date, (RED) has generated more than $465 million for HIV treatment and prevention in Africa through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. And U2 continues to sell out stadiums across the world.
"He always gives me credit for bringing him into the movement in the first place," Blake said.