The Soundtrack to The Stonewall Inn

If you were walking into The Stonewall Inn in June 1969, you would turn to your right once inside the small entrance lobby and step down into the main bar. With walls painted black—even the inside of the windows were blacked-out and boarded-up to prevent onlookers and slow the inevitable police raids—the bar would stretch far down to your left, where a dancefloor, maybe lit with a spare spotlight, would move with patrons dancing to the hit singles of the day.

STONEWALL INN. PHOTO BY: DIANA DAVIES, NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY. CREATIVE COMMONS 3.0

That the Stonewall allowed gay men to dance with one another was a unique and defining characterestic of the club, one that made it an overnight success upon its opening on March 18, 1967.

Even in 1960s' New York City, homosexuality was all but illegal. Bars could not serve alcohol to homosexual patrons, dancing and other public displays of affection were prohibited, and the only people that risked running gay bars were Mafiosi. The Stonewall Inn, like the other similar establishments, was run by the Mafia—and was regularly raided by police.

But in between such disturbances, the Stonewall's permissive atmosphere attracted a loyal cast of regulars and a more diverse clientele than other gay bars of its time; while there were many masculine-presenting gay men, there were also drag queens, more effeminate queer youth, and a smaller number of lesbian and transgender patrons. There were also more white people than other races and ethnicities, but black, Puerto Rican, and other Latinx people were common as well.

While demographic breakdowns of the clientele have been debated and disputed over the years, the Stonewall maintained a reputation for being freer, more inclusive, and, simultaneously, more rough-around-the-edges than the more upscale gay bars nearby. The scene outside the club on Christopher Street, which was home to many young runaways, could be raucous.

According to recollections in Stonewall, the jukeboxes that fueled the dancing were "stocked with singles, which could be played for ten cents a song or three for a quarter." Like the watered-down drinks (priced at $1 a piece), the cigarettes, and the more illicit substances available, the selection of jukebox singles was also courtesy of Mafia supply chains.

The songs that were regularly spun in June 1969, according to the Stonewall Veterans Association (SVA), included Jerry Butler's "Only the Strong Survive,", Marvin Gaye's "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," The Ronettes' "You Came, You Saw, You Conquered," and other Motown soul and pop songs. In a nod to both the Mafia employees' favorite crooner—and an oddly yet appropriately subversive track for the Stonewall atmosphere—the June jukebox also included Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

Even at their most spirited, the songs reported to have been in constant rotation in June 1969 don't, on their own, portend rebellion. Sly & The Family Stone's "Stand!"—while fairly light and poppy in its production—gets closer than most at putting some words to the era's demands for civil rights:

Stand! For the things you know are right.
It's the truth that the truth makes them so uptight.

Diana Ross & The Supremes' "The Young Folks," also addresses youthful revolt within the confines of a lilting pop rhythm:

Here's the deal, accept it if you will—
They're comin' on strong, it's their time to live.
My old friend, I thought you knew by now:
You gotta make way for the young folks.

There were plenty more songs that instead had winking lyrics, like Connie Francis' "Follow the Boys" (a sample line: "I'll follow the boys, wherever they go, I'll follow the boys, 'cause in my heart I know") and "Where the Boys Are" ("Where the boys are, someone waits for me"). These songs, respectively, opened and closed out many nights at the Stonewall, according to the SVA.

But deeper within the club there was a back room, a smaller bar area one step up from the main floor, even more dimly lit. And in here, there would congregate the younger, edgier street kids, who wanted to listen to harder soul music like that of Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, and artists similar to these early Stax legends.

Connie Francis - "Where the Boys Are"

"The back room, with its more soulful music, made up in spirit whatever it lacked in size. Its lively feeling derived from its being the favored place of the homeless youth, as well as of young blacks and Puerto Ricans," writes David Carter in Stonewall. "Always crowded, the younger and the 'in' crowd claimed the back room as their domain. The back room's flagstone floor gave it an advantage for energetic dancers."

The music, the youthfulness of the patrons, and the free atmosphere combined into a heady mix of personal acceptance, release, and rebellion, according to Stonewall regular Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt:

"The music is carrying the articulation of this emotional need that can't be articulated on the outside publicly. You picture a bunch of kids and the towns they came from: They hear the songs on the radio, Diana Ross or The Shangri-Las, and the way they relate to it is they identify it as someone of their own sex, but they're not telling anyone," he says in Stonewall. "At the Stonewall, all these kids who had to hold this inside in high school can now articulate this completely."

The sign left by police following the raid is now on display just inside the entrance. PHOTO BY: RHODODENDRITES. CREATIVE COMMONS 4.0

In this mix, even lighter fare about long-lost lovers took on greater significance. When speaking of the song "Forget Me Not," a song sung by a female character sending her lover off to war, Lanigan-Schmidt explains how he and others could read their own love stories into those lyrics, and acknowledge it together.

To have had a similar affair, as brief as it may have been, "and then come to a place and be able to dance that into a song was a major innovation at the Stonewall, because it wasn't happening anyplace else," he says.

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, this expansive sense of freedom would, once again, be abruptly cut short at the Stonewall Inn with a raid by the NYPD.

The procedure at that point, more than two years into the club's life, was well-known. On any normal raid, the lights would flicker, most of the Mafia employees would disappear, the one-and-only front door would open to swarming officers, and a handful of patrons would be arrested for the evening.

The Stonewall's owners, like their peers, regularly paid off police. Even during raids, they were often in close-contact with officers, just going through the motions until they could resume business again hours later.

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas - "Third Finger, Left Hand"

But the oppression that night reached a breaking point with the bar crowd and those congregating outside on Christopher Street. At first, the air was jovial, with a campy rendition of "We Shall Overcome" being sung by the crowd. But soon, set off by the cops' attempts to push various drag queens, lesbians, and other patrons into a paddy wagon, some of those being arrested and members of the crowd began to fight with police.

The rebellious actions that first night and spontaneous bouts of street fighting over the course of the next week—many led by trans women of color and effeminate men—would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Like the articulation of private desires found inside, the Stonewall patrons demanded the same freedom out on the streets.

Participants and leaders like Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova, and Sylvia Rivera would form new activist groups like the Gay Liberation Front, bring new life into older gay rights organizations, and set a fire under the LGBTQ organizing still ongoing today.

Looking back at Stonewall in 2019, Lanigan-Schmidt, the former street kid regular and now renowned artist, still places great importance on the music and the dancing the pre-dated the rebellion. "It was the dancing together, being able to hold each other, that made Stonewall so special," he told Artforum in a remembrance post for this year's 50th anniversary of the riots.

"One of my favorites was 'Third Finger, Left Hand' by Martha & the Vandellas, a 1967 song that was about hoping for a wedding ring, but if you count the fingers, the third finger could also be your middle finger. So we would all dance with each other while flipping off the outside world."