Decades ago, an openly gay man appeared on the late night talk show circuit, titillating audiences with his flamboyant lifestyle. No, it wasn’t Richard Simmons. It was celebrity hairdresser/dance-pop dervish Monti Rock, aka Sir Monti Rock III, aka Disco Tex.
A frequent guest of Johnny and Merv, Rock (real name Joseph Montanez, Jr.) was born in 1942 to a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. His mother was a Pentecostal preacher who kicked her effeminate teenage son out of the house at 14. Making his way to Manhattan, he was taken in by an ex-boyfriend of celebrity hairdresser Kenneth, who suggested he become a hairdresser. Entertaining wealthy older women, moaning about the non-stop party that was his life, he too became famous for his way with a curling iron.
Openly fey, wearing long hair and jewelry, it was only natural he would drift into show business, developing a nightclub act. But there was no denying his talent was in talking – specifically, talking about himself. Then one night in the mid-1960s, Johnny Carson came to the club, was impressed with his rapport with the audience, and booked him for The Tonight Show. He ended up doing 84 guest appearances. This was at a time when novelty acts like Tiny Tim, Mrs. Miller and Charo were mainstays on shows like Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, who also began booking Monti. He was no longer regaling rich old ladies at the beauty shop, he was regaling a huge television audience. As fan Howard Stern noted, he was the most interesting guest on all the talk shows he watched because he was so funny and entertaining.
Rock eventually met gay record producer Bob Crewe at a party, who suggested he cut a single. Crewe, who famously worked with the Four Seasons and Labelle, grafted Rock’s oh-so-fabulous lifestyle rap (“My chiffon is wet, darling, my wig is wet!”) over a catchy disco beat, referencing everything from Rona Barrett to “Radar Love.”
Suddenly Monti Rock, plus a hired quartet of black background singers, became Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes, with a hit single called “Get Dancin’” that eventually sold 7 million copies. The talk show novelty act was now a disco novelty act, and joined the ranks of Percy Faith, Peter Nero, and Ethel Merman as unlikely disco artists. Later appearing as the DJ in the blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever (insisting to John Travolta that they change the DJ character’s name from Bernie to Monti), he was deemed a one-hit wonder and eventually moved to Mexico to try and capture fame there, to no avail. Later, he went back to cutting hair, even opening a chain of “beauty saloons (sic).”
True to fellow disco artist Gloria Gaynor’s vow that “I Will Survive,” Monti Rock is still around, performing – wait for it, darling – weddings in Las Vegas! That’s right, Sir Monti is now Reverend Monti, at least according to his Facebook page, where he also posted a moving tribute to the victims of the recent massacre. As one of the first openly gay figures to appear on national television, Rock is now considered something of a pioneer. He even had his own Simpsons tribute when Disco Stu’s hallucinatory vision of heaven blasted “Get Dancin’” on the soundtrack.
What’s next for 76-year-old? Another comeback? A Broadway show? Get Dancin’ with the Stars? In the wild and wacky world of showbiz, where even James Franco’s movie about the worst film ever made, The Room is generating Oscar buzz, anything is possible. Why not give this gay hero one last shot at the thing he craves the most — time in the spotlight, wearing lots and lots of feathers.
Here’s a brief career retrospective of Monti: