What Was Playing on the Jukebox at Stonewall When the Riot Started?

“It’s a microcosm, a fragment of that era,” says “Songs from the Stonewall Jukebox” producer David Driver.

One of the most intriguing celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall is being held at New York’s Symphony Space next week: a live musical performance of songs that were on the Stonewall Inn jukebox when the riots started.

“There are so many disparate, sort of overlapping versions of what happened at Stonewall,” David Driver, who is producing and performing in “Songs from the Stonewall Jukebox,” tells NewNowNext. “But the one thing we can all agree on is what was on the jukebox.”

Well, mostly.

”I mean, our list isn’t certified by the Library of Congress,” he adds, “but I believe it’s accurate.” (He’s using the oft-cited list compiled by the Stonewall Veterans' Association.)

Truth be told, the Stonewall actually had two jukeboxes in those days: One in the front room—“the more conservative, boring one,” Driver says—and another in the back “that was more exciting, for the young street kids.”

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American singer and actress Judy Garland (1922 - 1969) on stage, circa 1960. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Judy Garland

Driver and the members of the Riot Squad, his all-queer band for the night, started with a master list of about 75 tracks, compiled from both jukeboxes. Winnowing it down to the 18 or so they’ll perform Thursday night was a tall order.

“I wanted to be egalitarian with how we decided on the material,” Driver says. “And I wanted to represent the real diversity of that night—of age, gender, of ethnicity. But we also wanted songs that are fun to listen to—and that a five-piece band could realistically play.”

Jukeboxes were really the sole source of music for bars in the 1960s. They were a great equalizer, and a way for patrons to communicate with each other through music. The Stonewall Inn’s jukebox was loaded with the hits of the day: Yes, there were 45s from gay faves like Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Diana Ross, but also from Three Dog Night, Henry Mancini, and the Isley Brothers.

Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" from Midnight Cowboy was in it, but so was “Get Back” by the Beatles.

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: David Driver performs at Sundance... Sings! hosted by Sundance Institute Theater Department at Symphony Space on September 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)

David Driver

Some songs are being included, Driver says, because they felt “prescient,” like Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Got Myself a Good Man” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand.” “When you listen to the material, some of it is so relevant. And speaks to my experience as a gay man, even if it wasn’t intended that way.”

For LGBTQ representation, he included “You Don’t Own Me,” a chart-topper for teen pop idol Lesley Gore, who came out later in life.

“I saw Lesley Gore in concert and totally found her inspiring,” Driver recalls. “A young drag queen named Castrata is going to sing it. She’s new to New York, but she has this incredible joie de vivre.”

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Lesley Gore Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lesley Gore

Surprisingly, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” also made the cut.

“I've always hated that song,” Driver admits. “It’s such a symbol of white male privilege. But knowing what I know now, about how the Mob was running the club. And how that fueled the raids, it feels really relevant.” It’s also a song about a man facing his mortality after living his life authentically.

While smell is the sense most often linked to memory, for Driver, hearing—and hearing music, in particular—is a close second.

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Low-angle view of American Pop and Rhythm & Blues singer Diana Ross, of the Supremes, as she performs on an unspecified television show, late 1960s. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Diana Ross

“I have such a clear memory of the songs that got burned into my brain when I first became cognizant of the world. I’m a musician, so obviously music resonates deeply with me, but I think everyone has heard a song and been transported back in time.”

He hopes the audience at Symphony Space is transported, even just a little, to that summer night in the West Village a half-century ago.

“I want it to feel like someone went up to the jukebox with a bagful of dimes and just kept hitting play.”

David Driver and the Riot Squad perform “Songs from the Stonewall Jukebox” at Symphony Space on June 6 at 7:30pm. Symphony Space’s Stonewall at 50 series runs May 31-June 12.

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