Klaus Sperber (January 24, 1944 – August 6, 1983), better known as Klaus Nomi, was a German countertenor noted for his wide vocal range and an unusual, otherworldly stage persona.
Nomi was known for his bizarrely visionary theatrical live performances, heavy make-up, unusual costumes, and a highly stylized signature hairdo which flaunted a receding hairline. His songs were equally unusual, ranging from synthesizer-laden interpretations of classical opera to covers of 1960s pop standards like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" and Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes". He is remembered in the United States as one of David Bowie's backup singers for a 1979 performance on Saturday Night Live.
Nomi died in 1983 at the age of 39 as a result of complications from AIDS.
Klaus Nomi was born Klaus Sperber in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany on January 24, 1944. In the 1960s, he worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin where he sang for the other ushers and maintenance crew on stage in front of the fire curtain after performances. Around that time he also sang opera arias at the Berlin gay discothèque Kleist Casino.
Nomi moved to New York City in 1972. He began his involvement with the art scene based in the East Village. According to a documentary film made by Andrew Horn, Nomi took singing lessons and supported himself working as a pastry chef.
In 1972, Nomi appeared in a satirical camp production of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold at Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company as the Rheinmaidens and the Wood Bird.
Nomi came to the attention of New York City's art scene in 1978 with his performance in "New Wave Vaudeville", a four-night event MC'd by artist David McDermott. Dressed in a skin-tight spacesuit with clear plastic cape, Nomi sang the aria Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix ("My heart opens to your voice") from Camille Saint-Saëns' 1877 opera Samson et Dalila. The performance ended with a chaotic crash of strobe lights, smoke bombs, and loud electronic sound effects as Nomi backed away into the smoke. Joey Arias recalled: "I still get goose pimples when I think about it... It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone." The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that he was invited to perform at clubs all over New York City.
At the New Wave Vaudeville show Klaus Nomi met Kristian Hoffman, songwriter for the Mumps. Hoffman was a performer and MC in the second incarnation of New Wave Vaudeville and a close friend of Susan Hannaford and Tom Scully, who produced the show, and Ann Magnuson, who directed it.
Anya Phillips, then manager of James Chance and the Contortions, suggested Nomi and Hoffman form a band. Hoffman became Nomi's de facto musical director, assembling a band that included Page Wood from another New Wave vaudeville act, Come On, and Joe Katz, who was concurrently in The Student Teachers, the Accidents, and The Mumps.
Hoffman helped Nomi choose his pop covers, including the Lou Christie song "Lightnin' Strikes." Hoffman wrote several pop songs with which Nomi is closely identified: "The Nomi Song", "Total Eclipse", "After The Fall", and "Simple Man", the title song of Nomi's second RCA French LP.
This configuration of the Klaus Nomi band performed at Manhattan clubs, including several performances at Max's Kansas City, Danceteria and Hurrah.
Disagreements with the management Nomi engaged led to a dissolution of this band, and Nomi continued without them.
In the late 1970s while performing at Club 57, The Mudd Club, The Pyramid Club, and other venues, Nomi assembled a group of up-and-coming models, singers, artists, and musicians to perform live with him, which at times included Joey Arias, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, John Sex and Kenny Scharf. He also appeared on Manhattan Cable's TV Party. David Bowie heard about Nomi's performances in New York and soon met him and Joey Arias at the Mudd Club. Bowie hired them as performers and backup singers for his appearance on Saturday Night Live which aired on December 15, 1979. The band performed "TVC 15", "The Man Who Sold the World", and "Boys Keep Swinging". During the performance of "TVC 15", Nomi and Arias dragged around a large prop pink poodle with a television screen in its mouth. Nomi was so impressed with the plastic quasi-tuxedo suit that Bowie wore during "The Man Who Sold the World" that he commissioned one to be made for himself. Nomi can be seen wearing the suit on the cover of his self-titled album, as well as during a number of his music videos. Nomi wore his variant of the outfit, in monochromatic black-and-white with spandex and makeup to match, until the last few months of his life. Klaus Nomi released his second album, Simple Man, in November 1982.
Nomi also collaborated with producer Man Parrish. He appeared on Parrish's album Hip Hop Bee Bop as a backup vocalist on the track "Six Simple Synthesizers."
He played a supporting role as a Nazi official in Anders Grafstrom's 1980 underground film The Long Island Four.
The 1981 rock documentary film, Urgh! A Music War, features Nomi's live performance of Total Eclipse. His performance of Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix was used as the music for the closing credits.
666 Fifth Avenue was listed as the contact address in the liner notes of Nomi's 1981 self-titled record.
In the last several months of his life, Nomi changed his focus to operatic pieces; to fit, he adopted a Baroque era operatic outfit complete with full collar as his typical on-stage attire in this time frame. The collar helped cover the outbreaks of Kaposi's sarcoma forming on his neck, one of the numerous AIDS-related diseases Nomi developed toward the end of his life.
Nomi was reported to be gay; before his illness, there was speculation that he was asexual.
Illness and death
Nomi died on August 6, 1983 at the Sloan Kettering Hospital Center in New York City, one of the first celebrities to die of complications from AIDS. His ashes were scattered over New York City.
In popular culture
- Filmmakers such as Andrew Horn and writers such as Jim Fouratt consider Nomi an important part of the 1980s East Village scene, which was a hotbed of development for punk rock, music, the visual arts and the avant-garde. Although Nomi's work had not yet met with national commercial success at the time of his death, he garnered a cult following, mainly in New York and in France.
- Andrew Horn's 2004 feature documentary about Nomi's life, The Nomi Song, which was released by Palm Pictures, helped spur renewed interest in the singer, including an art exhibit in San Francisco at the New Langton Arts gallery and one in Milan at the Res Pira Lab, which subsequently moved to Berlin's Strychnin Gallery, called "Do You Nomi?". New music pieces inspired by Nomi were commissioned by the gallery to a variety of up and coming European musicians, including Ernesto Tomasini, a singer who is often considered to be Nomi's heir.
- German pop duo Rosenstolz and English singer Marc Almond recorded together a cover version of "Total Eclipse". It was released in 2001 as a single and reached No. 22 in the German charts.
- Morrissey used the song Wayward Sisters as an introduction prior to appearing on stage to begin a concert for his Kill Uncle tour. He used the song After the Fall in the same way during his 2007 American tour. Morrissey included Nomi's song Death in his compilation of influential songs titled Under the Influence, after selecting it in 1984 as the last track for his appearance on the BBC radio show 'My Top 10'. Morrissey also chose Nomi's version of Schumann's "Der Nussbaum" ("The Walnut Tree") as one of his selections on BBC Radio 4's "Desert Island Discs" in November 2009.
- On television, a character based on Klaus Nomi appears in the Adult Swim animated comedy/adventure series The Venture Bros.. He is one of the bodyguards, along with Iggy Pop, of David Bowie, who is "The Sovereign" of The Guild of Calamitous Intent. Nomi has super-scream capabilities, which he uses when he and Iggy turn against Bowie.
- Nomi's cover of Lesley Gore's 1964 hit "You Don't Own Me" has been featured on the nationally broadcast The Rush Limbaugh Show as the "Gay Update Theme". Despite the use of the song, Limbaugh reportedly has an appreciation for Nomi's unique rendition of the song, and has sold his albums on his website.
- Nomi's visual aesthetic has been noted as an influence on women's fashion such as Boudicca, Givenchy, and Paco Rabanne, as well as men's fashion designers such as Gareth Pugh and Bruno Pieters for Hugo Boss. Jean Paul Gaultier's Spring 2009 couture was influenced by Nomi and he used Nomi's recording of Nomi Song in his runway show.
- Kazakh-American tenor Timur Bekbosunov, profiled in LA Weekly's Best of LA People 2011 issue as 'The Reform Tenor', recorded Total Eclipse and performed it on America's Got Talent Season 10 with his dark glam opera band, Timur and the Dime Museum, and composer of the song, Kristian Hoffman, at the piano. According to Hoffman, "Timur sang Total Eclipse to the utter befuddlement of the panel of judges, with the exception of Sharon Osbourne who gave some encouragement".
- Mike Myers based the character Dieter from the fictional Sprockets show from Saturday Night Live on Nomi.
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode "Primal Perry", the boys' friend Baljeet makes a 1980s style music video featuring himself in costume and makeup as Klaus Nomi.
- In Season 6, Episode 7 of RuPaul's Drag Race, contestant Courtney Act wore a Klaus Nomi-inspired outfit for the episode theme of Black and White.
- Giorgio Moroder cited "The Cold Song" as his inspiration for "Tony's Theme" from the movie Scarface.