As a back-up vocalist, out singer/songwriter Billy Newton-Davis has worked with Gloria Gaynor. As a Broadway performer, he has appeared in shows such as Eubie! and Bubbling Brown Sugar. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the Canadian resident is a four-time Juno Award-winningCanada's version of the GrammysR&B and house music artist. Diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Newton-Davis lives his life on his own terms.
Windy City Times: Tell me about being in your first music group, The Illusions.
Billy Newton-Davis: I was one of the vocalists, but I was really the meat of the organization. It was a band with piano, bass, drums and guitar.
WCT: While working on Broadway in the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, you were told to hide your orientation onstage?
Billy Newton-Davis: .It was really odd because I was told, "You're just too gay for the audienceleave that backstage. When you're on stage, you're a man." I have always been rebellious against things like that, and it bothered me.
WCT: How did you handle it?
Billy Newton-Davis: .You can only be who you are. These kinds of things lead you to hiding and having secrets. That was the interesting thing about HIV/AIDSbecause at that time, that's what was going on. We guys were going out and people didn't know it and it wasn't so talked about. I hung out in the club atmosphere more than I did the bar atmosphere because I didn't want to associate myselffor some odd and strange reasonwith those types of people. People were always concerned about my feminine ways and to this dayI am who I am.
WCT: You moved to Toronto in 1980 to be part of the revue, Eubie! and you released two records in Canada in 1986 ( Love Is a Contact Sport ) and 1989 ( Spellbound ). Were you out during that time?
Billy Newton-Davis: .My manager knew but my record people didn't know.
WCT: In 1986, your doctor told you that you were HIV-positive. Is that something you kept close to the vest?
Billy Newton-Davis: .That was kept close to the vest. I did this documentary called Centre Stage Chronicles and I was interviewed by Olympian Sylvia Sweeney. We had discussions about disclosure and everything had to be approved after it was filmed and scripted. In the middle of filming she asked me about my HIV status and it caught my breath, and I came out with it. There was a tearful shocking moment, becauseon one hand she just outed me.
We just kept rolling with it and it was at the end of the filming. She sent my partner and me footage and we looked at it and we thought, "How beautiful is that?" If I can let go of that and express my feelings about it, then maybe I can change somebody's life and thoughts about what they are going through as one that has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
WCT: Tell me about some of your activism.
Billy Newton-Davis: .When Sylvia and I did have that conversation, it opened the door for me to come out and really talk about it and be a part of different events. I became very active with ACTa Canadian organization that empowers adults and young people living with HIVand the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. I have helped to raised thousands of dollars for the cause because I can be that person.
WCT: Did you see the Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer?
Billy Newton-Davis: .I missed it and I'm very unhappy that I missed it. There needs to be more celebration around it and he needs 150-percent support on all his decisions. He is saying things that we've heard beforeI was a woman living in a man's body, and I don't want to stay there anymore. I truly understand it. I am fascinated by this new acceptance of transgender. It's really amazing.
WCT: What was it like being a part of the Canadian a capella group The Nylons in the early '90s after being a solo artist?
Billy Newton-Davis: .It was a great moment in my life. When I left Broadwayeven though I was a principleI was a member of the ensemble. Being in The Nylons was a good opportunity; [ex-member] Marc Connors had died, I was with the management company and the group liked me and I liked them. My dad had been a quartet singer and I was in a choir in high school so I knew about group singing.
WCT: You are now known for being a house-music artist.
Billy Newton-Davis: .I love it. It's a very difficult genre of music because there is so much of it. I've gotten to work with Deadmau5 and some other amazing people. But right now, I want to go back to my R&B roots and put a bit of EDM in it.
WCT: Have you ever been to Chicago?
Billy Newton-Davis: .Chicago is a hot city and I have performed there many times in the past. They are very forward with the LGBTQ community. My hopes are to keep recording and get my music out there. I would love to work in the Chicago dance scene.
Keep up with Newton-Davis on Facebook at www.facebook.com/billynewtondavis .