Get ready to shake your boot-tay!!!!!!
The singer Sylvester – often narrowly and affectionately called the “queen of disco” – is one of the best kept secrets of American music. Had it not been for him, the likes of RuPaul and other singing queens may not have the career they have now.
Born Sylvester James in 1947, it wouldn’t take long for the young singer to delight audiences with his eccentric and emotional vocal stylization, and it wouldn’t take long for those same audiences – who embraced his musicality – to reject his humanity. Recognized as a uniquely gifted singer, the church put him in a front and center role in their choir, and it was in that early role that he learned how to control his voice, but also to sing with soul stirring passion. He also learned of what Ralph Ellison referred to as the “magic of mood and memory” that music effortlessly possesses and weaves into an enchanting spell. At the age of eight, he sang the pop standard “My Buddy” at the funeral of one of his friends – a fellow congregant of the Pentecostal church who was also eight years old.
The childhood joy and affirmation that Sylvester received from lifting his voice in public performance also brought him the pain and despair of alienation and ostracization. The church’s organ player sexually molested Sylvester, and when Sylvester required hospitalization from the assault, the church, in a stunning display of hateful stupidity, oh what a shock.... treated the attacker and victim with the same level of scorn. Ridiculed for effeminacy and condemned for homosexuality at the age of 13, Sylvester stopped attending the church that shaped his childhood and allowed him the first opportunity to develop into a singer.
The tension and conflict that resulted between he and his mother caused him to move in with his grandmother, who had an accepting attitude toward homosexuality. It was good that she did, because in Sylvester’s teenage years, he not only lived an openly gay lifestyle, but would often dress in full female attire. Transvestitism was illegal in California, but Sylvester risked suffering severe consequences from police officers or, worse yet, from anti-gay vigilantes.
The most emergent personality quality and character trait of Sylvester, from an early age to the final years of his short life, was the strength that lays the bedrock foundation of courage. Through the storms of hate, Sylvester was unmoved. Sylvester moved to San Francisco and joined the drag troupe, The Cockettes. This short period of Sylvester’s career was musically rich. He explored his love of blues and jazz, and even claimed, on stage, to be Billie Holiday’s cousin, but the performance was so outrageous that crowds came to concerts more for the theatrics than the music. It wasn’t until Sylvester began to perform under his own name, with his own band, and with his close friends, backup signers Izora Rhodes and Martha Walsh, that he could truly present his musical genius. His performances were still flamboyant, but the flamboyance was more measured so as not to distract from the music.
Sylvester was most famous and popular for his soaring falsetto voice, and it was in such voice that he scored his biggest disco hits in the ‘70s – “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”, “Dance (Disco Heat)”, and “Body Strong”. It was also the voice – falsetto crooning combined with gospel shouting – that Prince would steal for his entire career. Disco, in the ‘70s, was the friendliest form of music to gay performers. Perhaps surprisingly, he was a great rock singer. His debut album with Sylvester and The Hot Band, Blue Thumb Collection, released in the early ‘70s, contains ferocious covers of Neil Young, James Taylor, and Lieber and Stoller. Bill Graham booked Sylvester to play the Rock Show at Winterland in San Francisco, but was never booked again after he took the stage in silver sequined chaps. He wrote terrific soul songs for the albums Sylvester / Too Hot to Sleep, and covered Smokey Robinson and Ashford & Simpson, but when he refused to perform as anyone but his over-the-top, flamboyant, drag wearing self after feeling uncomfortable with conformity when he wore a man’s suit to sing at an award’s show, if not often not invited back. He had two gold records, and opened for Chaka Kahn, but the success he deserved eluded him everywhere—except San Francisco.
My favorite song by Sylvester
My favorite song by Sylvester
The ‘80s were a tumultuous and ultimately, sad period for Sylvester. The end of the disco era pushed Sylvester to explore different styles of his music, but more importantly, the holocaust of AIDS in San Francisco tore apart his beloved community. Sylvester once said that his life “did not begin” until he moved to San Francisco, and it would eventually end there. The place that allowed him to be free was falling apart, and his partner died of AIDS. Sylvester would also fall prey to the horrible disease in 1988
Sylvester released his final album, Mutual Attraction, in 1986. It’s a wonderful blend of dance and gospel, featuring the pulsating energy of “Talk to Me”, the funk of the title track, and the slow groove of “Cool of the Evening”. The highlight, however, may be his loose, wild, and gospel driven cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”.
The video shows Sylvester performing throughout his beloved city of San Francisco, and ends with him with scatting and singing freely over church house piano and in front of a church choir. He shouts “Help me! Help me! Help me survive in the city!” with such emphatic joy that the listener knows he is not praying, pleading, or asking, but affirming the state of communal love he finally found – wrapped in the arms of San Francisco, but also in the muscular spirit of a new congregation – The Love Center Church started by gospel Singer Walter Hawkins in East Oakland. Hawkins envisioned a church that would welcome societal outcasts, and love those deemed unworthy, inferior, or ugly by an ignorant culture.
The church stands for him as he belts out the words of Stevie Wonder, and the choir follows his lead. His life had come full circle. He never lost his faith in God no matter how much certain close minded keepers of his faith told him he was unwelcome to it. In the final years of his life, he found a Christian community that protected, enhanced, and enshrined his faith in the impenetrable coating of dignity that only love can build.
Shortly before his death, the 1988 Castro Street Fair in San Francisco was named a “Tribute to Sylvester”, and although he was too sick to attend, he could hear crowds of people chanting his name from outside his bedroom window.Sylvester left a legacy of musical greatness and personal bravery. He refused to live in a shame for a natural inclination that enabled him to pursue and forge his own identity. He also rejected those who would try to use him as a political prop, stating that his music was to transcend the gay rights movement, and resisting the narrow categorization of “drag queen”. When people would ask him to label himself – gay rights activist, drag queen, etc. – he would say simply and proudly, “I am Sylvester.”