In 1953, two years before future country superstar Reba McEntire was born, songwriters Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster penned a tune that would later top both the pop and country charts, and be recorded by scores of artists along the way. “Secret Love” was written for inclusion in the Wild West movie musical Calamity Jane, starring Doris Day, with Day’s version, a soaring, heart-tugging ballad, reaching Number One on both the Billboard and Cash Box pop charts. The following year, yodeling crooner Slim Whitman reached Number Two on the country chart with his version. Two decades later, in 1975, the song finally went all the way to the top of the country survey in a bilingual version by Mexican-American Freddy Fender.
On May 26th, 2000, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Reba McEntire, dressed in a stunning blue gown, performed a relatively upbeat version of “Secret Love” at a gala celebration in honor of Elizabeth Taylor. The actress-humanitarian was in attendance, accompanied by longtime friend Michael Jackson.
A tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS research at a time when few of her Hollywood contemporaries were joining her in the cause, Taylor raised millions of dollars in her lifetime and was a co-founder of AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Hosted by Brits David Frost and Stephen Fry, the tribute to Taylor, who died in 2011 at age 79, also featured performances from Tony Bennett, Andrea Bocelli, the cast of Chicago and others.
But it was McEntire who provided the sole “country” presence at the event, delivering “Secret Love” with her distinctive Oklahoma twang — and adding a few subtle dance movements to her performance. Six months (and perhaps a few dance lessons) later, McEntire would make her Broadway debut in Annie Get Your Gun, earning raves for her role as Annie Oakley.
Notably, the Calamity Jane film was Hollywood’s response to the success of both the stage and movie version of Annie Get Your Gun. But another aspect of the film would come to light decades later when gay and lesbian film historians, interviewed for the documentary The Celluloid Closet, pointed to Day’s film performance of “Secret Love” as hinting at a (very) secret same-sex attraction Jane harbors for her friend, Katie.