With the bad news about the death of David Bowie, and the subsequent tsunami of Internet posts about his life and work, the passing of another 70s glam rocker—albeit a much more obscure one—Brett Smiley has gone nearly unreported. Smiley died on January 8th at his home in Brooklyn after a longtime battle with both HIV and hepatitis, at the age of 60.
Brett Smiley is not someone who was necessarily “forgotten” or who was a “has-been” per se, as he was never really known by the public at large in the first place. He occupies the place that’s under Jobriath in the hierarchy of little-known androgynous Bowie-wannabe pretty boys of the glam rock era. He was a cult figure, sure, but it’s a cult consisting of a very few members (I consider myself one of them).
I suspect Brett Smiley won’t get an obituary in the New York Times, so below is a post from the Dangerous Minds archive to mark his passing. And here is a fascinating personal essay about his later years, and recent death, that was just posted by someone who knew him. There are several in-depth interviews with him that you can find online should you want more.
File this under “If You Like Jobriath”:
One day I found myself looking for obscure glam rock compilations on Amazon and the “customers who bought this” recommendation led me to an album called Breathlessly Brett, an LP originally recorded in 1974—but not released until 2003—by a then-teenaged performer named Brett Smiley. It seldom left my CD player for the next month. I got really obsessed by this album.
I’d never heard of Brett Smiley before that, but when I did a search on him, an interesting story emerged. A child star who went to junior high school with Michael Jackson (they shared a woodworking class), Smiley once played the title role in the Broadway musical Oliver!. He was just a sixteen-year-old when he was discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, then keen to take his career down a Phil Spector-type producer/Svengali path and feeling competitive with Jobriath’s manager, Jerry Brandt.
Smiley was given a $200,000 advance and recorded an album produced by Oldham with Steve Marriott from the Small Faces and Humble Pie on guitar. An amazingly raucous single “Va Va Va Voom” was released and heavily hyped with Smiley’s blonde pretty-boy face appearing in ads all over London, and in an extremely over the top performance and interview on the popular Russell Harty Plus TV program.
Disc magazine proclaimed Brett to be “The Most Beautiful Boy In The World.”
“It wasn’t a slipper he slipped to Cinderella…” Brett Smiley as the Prince in the 3-D erotic musical version of ‘Cinderella.’
The insanely catchy single “Va Va Va Voom”
Hard to see how a tune that fucking catchy failed to storm the charts, but the single bombed and the album was shelved. Although Smiley auditioned to replace David Cassidy in The Partridge Family and made film appearances (like 1977’s erotic Cinderella and American Gigolo), he must’ve fallen into some sort of “velvet goldmine” because he wasn’t really heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes of his forgotten album. The sad truth was that Brett Smiley wallowed in serious skid-row drug addiction for years. His legend proved mysterious and intriguing for glam rock fans and Johnny Thunders’ biographer Nina Antonina wrote a book, The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley? about how Smiley’s super brief pop supernova moment—just the idea of him—so strongly influenced her teenage years.
The Russell Harty Plus clip below features a young Brett Smiley performing his Ziggy-influenced “Space Ace” (the “Va Va Va Voom” B-side) and it’s pretty incredible if you like this sort of thing. It’s followed by an embarrassing interview.