You’ve heard him countless times on NPR, but you’d never guess that business reporter Sonari Glinton is obsessed with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and the Great American Songbook.
Sonari Glinton was my guest this month on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast where gay men share stories of the entertainment that changed their lives. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Sonari’s media diet was carefully crafted by some adults who knew exactly what he needed to see and hear.
Childhood Fascination with Golden Age of Hollywood
From a young age, he was fascinated with The Tonight Show. He loved the monologues and sketches at the top of the show, and also the big guests like Bob Hope. “It wasn’t the tonight show with anybody,” he said. “Something like 40 million people tuned into this. … It was mainstream.”
But beyond the media that everyone around him watched, Sonari was guided by a woman named Willa White. “We called her Mama Willa, Mrs. White.” She was Sonari’s godmother’s mother. “She was just an incredible woman.” Her husband was a part of local organized crime, and she was in her 60s or 70s in the 1980s, so she could explain to Sonari who all of the great stars on Carson were.
At the same time, Sonari discovered Judy Garland. He would look up her name in each week’s TV Guide, which back then had an index, and find out when she’d be on TV that week. He’d even go to the library to learn more about who was in what movies, with the encouragement of adults in his life. “It was like, ‘this is good—now go find this,’ and that was Mama Willa.”
That’s how he found Carmen McRae, learned about Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, and the music that surrounded him in Chicago. “Finding culture was such a treasure hunt. … I miss the guides I had.”
Doused in Black Culture
Albertina Walker, famed gospel singer, lived down the street. Mavis Staples lived two neighborhoods away. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks came in and read at the school. These figures reminded him that black culture was worthy—but it took many more years for him to accept that the culture being created by people his age was of value too.
That regular exposure to black culture, he said, was an antidote to the white culture that dominated America.
To their credit, the adults who raised Sonari, from teachers to relatives to family friends, made sure he was exposed to as much culture as possible. He was regularly taken to museums and shows, and nobody discouraged his interests, even when they were peculiar. He loved Judy Garland and would lip-sync to her records. Then he found Frank Sinatra and realized that he was inextricably drawn to emotional singers who confessed heartache.
Once he found Richard Rogers and Billy Strayhorn, he was hooked. Both of those musicians were gay, and though that wasn’t a component of their work, something in their plaintive melancholy songs spoke to him—and still does. And for that, he says, he’s grateful: “I’ve grown into a man with taste that would please Willa White.”
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