Paul Jabara, 1948-1992
Story by Bruce Vilanch and Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Bruce Vilanch
Photo by Theo Juliet
It’s fair to say that Paul Jabara wrote some major chapters of the Gay American Songbook. Paul was the songwriter for mega-hits.
“Last dance, last chance …” — that’s Donna Summer. He also wrote “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls — two girls who were in my weight class — and with his co-writer Bruce Roberts, “No More Tears,” (singing) “Enough is enough is enough); a duet by, yes, Donna Summer and uh, Barbra Streisand — that’s the woman. Paul and Bruce Roberts also co-wrote “The Main Event” from the movie The Main Event starring Ryan O’Neal and uh, Barbra Streisand — yes, that’s the woman.
I am Bruce Vilanch. Paul was a dear friend of mine for 25 years. I met him … actually, I didn’t meet him the first time I met him. The first time I met him was at the Billboard Theatre in New York. He was in the original cast of Hair, and as part of the opening number “Aquarius,” he crawled from the stage over the seats. He crawled the entire length of the orchestra, going – stepping on seats as he went, and people ducking and all of that, you know. And he passed right over me, and he was wearing bell bottoms and no underwear. And I was immediately interested in him as a performer … [lecherous laugh] … of course.
And some years later, he did a musical called Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It, and it was written for Bette Midler, who was a creative collaborator of mine of long-standing. And she didn’t do it; Ellen Greene did it. And it came to Broadway, but it never actually opened. It was a way over-the-top disco musical. It was insane.
Ellen was in it with André De Shields and Paul and a bunch of other people. The producer was Robert Stigwood. As it got closer and closer to opening night and previews, Stigwood decided it was never really going to happen. And the word got out that he was going to close it on Saturday night. So it was the must-see event of the season.
I was in New York with Bette and her piano player Barry Manilow — music director, I should say — and we went. We got tickets and it was like going to the Academy Awards. It was spectacular. And the show was insane, ridiculous and awful — and Paul was brilliant. And that was the second time.
And years later, a few years later, we were both in Hollywood, and we collaborated on a couple of musical projects that never happened, but we became very close friends. And I remember having dinner at his house. In the living room, he had a huge picture of himself. It was a replica of Barbra Streisand’s first album, called My Name is Barbra, and her picture on the cover. And instead of her, it was Paul, who had been photo-shopped in. And above it, in the same font, it said My Name is Jbara — and he had removed the first a from his last name, as she had removed the middle a from her name — so it was My Name is Jbara.
And at the time, I said, “You know, Paul, you have proven my theory about every gay man in Hollywood: They either want to be Barbra Streisand or have dinner with Barbra Streisand. And you have managed to do both.”
So for “The Last Dance,” the Donna Summer tune, Paul won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues song, and an Academy Award — yes, he won the Oscar — and a Golden Globe — which, of course, is much more valuable — from the film Thank God It’s Friday. You remember that one; it was set in a disco. He wrote songs for other major artists, including Bette Midler, and Diana Ross, Billy Preston, Julio Iglesias — even Raquel Welch sang one of Paul’s songs. Of course, no one heard her — they were too busy watching her lungs.
Paul was also an accomplished actor and singer. He was one of the original cast members of Hair, as I mentioned, and Jesus Christ Superstar — two Tom O’Horgan shows. He replaced Tim Curry in the role of Doctor Frank-N-Furter in the Los Angeles stage production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Roxy when Tim went to England to do the movie.
Paul and John Schlesinger were good pals, and he appeared in some hilarious roles in a few of John’s movies, including his Oscar-winning 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, in which Paul played a hippie handing out pills and asking partygoers if they wanted to go “up or down” — [laughs] an elevator operator!
In Schlesinger’s movie The Day of the Locust, Paul appeared in drag singing a cover of the Marlene Dietrich song “Hot Voo-Doo,” which you’ll remember is the one she sang dressed as a gorilla. In 1981, Paul starred in another John Schlesinger film, the comedy Honky-Tonk Freeway, as a songwriter named T. J. Tupus whose day job was as a truck driver hauling lions and a rhino. In the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday, which featured “Last Dance,” he played Carl, the near-sighted disco patron blindly looking for love. Paul also sang two tracks on the original soundtrack album.
If you had to choose one of Paul’s songs to define his life, it might be his duet with Donna Summer, which is aptly entitled “Never Lose Your Sense of Humor.” Paul may have lost his battle with AIDS in 1992 at age 44, but he left us with a treasure trove of hits that you still cannot help but hear at your local dance club or bar, especially if you stay until closing and shake your money-maker to “Last Dance” — which has become the anthem of closing time at every disco in the world.
If you look up one night and see a flash of light across the sky, no doubt it’s a reflection from Paul’s disco ball, up there in gay heaven.