The Red Hot Organization was launched in 1990 with a Cole Porter tribute album
Exactly 35 years ago, in December 1985, “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne [Warwick] & Friends – those friends being Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder – was vaulting up a myriad of Billboard charts, on its way to topping the trifecta of the pop (the Hot 100), R&B, and Adult Contemporary charts in January 1986.
It was the first major record whose proceeds went to AIDS research and relief, reportedly raising over $1 million for AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
Four years later, the Red Hot Organization was launched by producer Leigh Blake and entertainment lawyer John Carlin, both of whom, according to redhot.org, had been “involved in the downtown New York creative scene that was devastated by the AIDS epidemic.” Blake knew David Byrne, who committed to be involved in the first Red Hot project, which would become Red Hot + Blue, a tribute to Cole Porter; his involvement led to others agreeing to take part, and the ball started rolling from there. The compilation was released in the autumn of 1990, eventually reaching #38 on the Billboard album chart. For this year’s World AIDS Day, December 1st, the album was just released digitally for the first time ever, and is now available for online purchase and streaming.
Certainly, there had been plenty of Various Artists compilation albums released before Red Hot + Blue–most notably, to my mind, the 1987 Special Olympics benefit A Very Special Christmas, which I see as the immediate predecessor to this one. Most such albums, however, had either big names or “hip” ones, but not both. RH+B, however, pulled in not just U2 (then, arguably, the biggest rock band in the world) and Jody Watley, but also Sinéad O’Connor and Tom Waits. Acts which bridged the two categories such as Neneh Cherry and Fine Young Cannibals appeared, too, not to mention international acts Salif Keita and Les Negresses Vertes.
Hearing this cavalcade of artists covering the work of Cole Porter, arguably the 20th century’s finest songwriter, is a kick – especially considering the ways in which some of them turn their chosen songs inside out. The Jungle Brothers, for example, represent hip hop with their version of “I Get A Kick out of You,” originally sung by Ethel Merman in the 1934 musical Anything Goes. Neither Merman nor Porter could’ve fathomed what the JBs would do with the track, dispensing with its original lyrics entirely and replacing them with raps from Baby Afrika Bam (who also produced), Mike G, and Sammy B. They manage to take the intent of the original song and update it for the ‘90s, and the hip hop generation. Similarly, Neneh Cherry’s update of “I’ve Got U Under My Skin” (co-produced by Baby Bam as well) opens with a rap from Cherry, before she sings the original 1936 chorus and then a series of verses which are specifically about AIDS, ending with the admonition “Share your love, don’t share the needle.” She cleverly takes “under my skin” literally, turning the song into one about the dangers of IV drug use; 30 years later, it still astounds.
VIDEO: Jungle Brothers “I Get A Kick Out Of You”
VIDEO: Neneh Cherry “I Got U Under My Skin”
Then there’s U2. The Joshua Tree made them the world’s biggest rock band, and Rattle and Hum (both film and album) (fairly or un-) calcified their image as no-fun too-serious rockers in the mold of – The Band? (They certainly seemed to crave that roots cred.) With their cover of “Night and Day,” however, one of the most iconic songs in Porter’s catalog – they took the hardest of hard left turns, crafting a slinky electronic groove over which Bono could croon and growl. It’s easy to look back now and see this as the groundwork being laid for the Berliner shocks to come of 1991’s Achtung Baby, but at the time, this was a jaw-dropper moment. And Brian Eno didn’t even have a hand in it! (It was co-produced by the band with their sound tech Paul Barrett, who also played keyboards.) The song’s video, directed by Wim Wenders, landed in the MTV Buzz Bin, while the song climbed to #2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart – and, even though we didn’t realize it at the time, showed us the band’s future direction.
VIDEO: U2 “Night and Day”
Others took a more retro approach. Sinéad O’Connor, Annie Lennox, k.d. lang, Lisa Stansfield, and Jody Watley (a full quarter of the album’s artists) all went in either jazzy or torch directions with their renditions, O’Connor and lang a couple of years ahead of 1992 albums on which they’d forge further into those modes (O’Connor on her covers project Am I Not Your Girl? and lang with her massive commercial breakthrough Ingenue). The ladies weren’t alone, either, as Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame took a largely similar tack with “Do I Love You,” allowing spacy, wide-open production to leave the focus on a bare vocal. Meanwhile, punk/-ish legends Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop took on “Well, Did You Evah!” (popularized by no less a pair of legends than Crosby and Sinatra in 1956’s High Society) with snarls and sneers (and plenty of humor), moving the song from High Society to the East Village and CBGBs.
VIDEO: Iggy Pop and Deborah Harry “Well, Did You Evah”
Also significantly, three of the album’s 20 selections were by openly LGBT artists: along with lang, Jimmy Somerville turned “From this Moment On” into a dancefloor slow burn, while Erasure (and their gay singer Andy Bell) took on “Too Darn Hot.” For one of the music industry’s first major AIDS/HIV charity undertakings, it was important, and mattered, that queers be recognized and involved – especially as Porter’s own homosexuality was a fairly open secret in the entertainment industry during his lifetime, and many of his songs (including some included here) were very obviously coded, with dual lyrical meanings, depending on your own personal perspective.
VIDEO: Jimmy Somerville “From This Moment On”
As this year marks the 30th anniversary of both the Red Hot Organization and the Red Hot + Blue album, it’s finally been released on streaming services – hallelujah! – along with the set of remixes done at the time for Cherry’s contribution. Subsequent albums focused on different genres and composers, from Fela Kuti to Bach and Gershwin, and from dance to country to alt-rock, but Red Hot + Blue will always hold a strong place in my heart for what it was at the time, what it is to this day, and what it begat.
Bless Blake and Carlin (the former left Red Hot years ago, while the latter still runs it) for not just starting an important charitable org, but giving us decades of great music in the process.