Today we remember and honors the memory of the Original disco diva Sylvester who would have been 68 today. Sylvester James, Jr. (September 6, 1947 – December 16, 1988), better known as Sylvester, was an American disco and soul singer-songwriter, known for his (vèry) clear high voice (occasionally a rich baritone voice), and flamboyant and androgynous appearance. He was often described as a drag queen, although he repeatedly rejected such a description. He was ‘just’ Sylvester!
There’s little doubt of the lasting cultural influence Sylvester had on Disco and Hi-NRG Dance music of the 70’s and 80’s or how strains of his genius continues to ripple through today’s music. His sound has inspired artists in both style, uncompromising creativity and sampled to fuel their own endeavors.
Sylvester James found his way to San Francisco in 1969 from his hometown of Watts in LA where he’d been raised within the confines of his local AME baptist church choir, and as one of his mother’s most cherished children. His grandmother was the jazz singer Julia Morgan. Living in San Francisco, he performed in a production called Women of the Blues, where he was singing songs of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and his grandmother.
Upon arriving Sylvester found kindred, outside the box, spirits in San Francisco, most notably with SF’s Queer, gender bending, premier tripping, glitter doused, drag/theatre troupe The Cockettes. His vocal stylings of Blues greats Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday standards brought down the house when he opened for many of the Cockettes wildly chaotic and grand productions. He worked with them until after their infamous New York City debut and disappointingly short Broadway run. Sylvester decided that he wanted to buckle down and get serious. Now was the time to work on his own vision of his music.
In 1972, Sylvester supplied two cuts to Lights Out San Francisco, an album complied by the KSAN radio station and released on the Blue Thumb label. In 1973, Sylvester & his Hot Band released two rock-oriented albums on Blue Thumb (their self-titled debut was also known as Scratch My Flower (due to a gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker adhered to the cover).
‘Sylvester’s falsetto alone evoked a universe of timeless, idiosyncratic talents and influences’, writes Brian Chin in the package’s liner notes of the ‘Sylvester and the Hot Band’ cd, it’s so true hearing ‘God Bless The Child’
Before disco, before ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and ‘You Are My Friend’ 25-year-old Sylvester emerged from the underground scene in San Francisco with a longhaired rock band, recording two influential albums for Blue Thumb Records. Infused with a love of the blues, a deep emotional connection with Billie Holiday and a flair for flamboyance, the Sylvester and his Hot Band tackled with boundless energy a dizzying sampler of American music, from Neil Young to Ray Charles, from James Taylor to ‘My Country ’Tis Of Thee’. His version of ‘God Bless The Child’ is memorable! A musical treasure! The kind of music he loved more then disco!
Sylvester was a sweet individual who had the talent to take you to the dance floor, then take you to church, and bring you back to the dance floor without you knowing.
Signed a solo act to Fantasy Records in 1977, and working with the production talents of legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua. His third album, self titled, ‘Sylvester’, the first with his new, East Bay based label, Fantasy, was vèry well received by critics as his fans.
Sylvester enlisted the talent of two amazing singers whose background were, like Sylvester’s own, deeply rooted in the experience of the Gospel music. Martha Wash and Izora Armstead, collectively became his muses, best friends and back up singers he lovingly dubbed The Two Tons of Fun. These women were the last pieces of the puzzle Sylvester had been searching for to help create the perfect sound that’d thrust him and his music onto the world’s exploding Disco stage.
Two singles were issued from the album. The first single, a self-penned song called ‘Down, Down, Down’, charted at #18 in the Billboard Dance chart. The following single ‘Over and Over’ written by the iconic duo Ashford & Simpson failed to make any impression on the charts, at the time. On the track “I’ve Been Down”, the lead vocals are performed by Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash.
Sylvester, Step II
Later Sylvester collaborated with singer, writer and producer, Patrick Cowley, another, out, popular and rising star of the San Francisco, Hi-NRG, Disco sound scene. Cowley’s synthesizer and Sylvester’s voice proved to be a magical combination, and pushed Sylvester’s sound in an increasingly dance-oriented direction.
This resulted in 1978’s his fourth album, Step II, Sylvester’s perfect alchemy of music, rhythm, talent and timing paid off spawning two big hits ‘You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat)’. And some amazing beautiful soulful ballads. They spread their glitter-riddled gospel all over the world.
Performing ‘Dance Disco Heat’ and ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’, Ohhh this boy could sing! Sylvester was amazing to work with …really talented, a pro in every sense of the word! Wow…. As Cherrill says “In time they will be regarded as nostalgic reflections of the disco era” …and as we now know they are!
November 27, 1978, San Francisco was mourning of the killing of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That evening, a spontaneous gathering began to form on Castro Street, moving toward City Hall in a candlelight vigil. Their numbers were estimated between 35,000 and 40,000, spanning the width of Market Street, extending the mile and a half (2.4 km) from Castro Street.
The next day, the bodies of George Moscone and Harvey Milk were brought to the City Hall rotunda where mourners paid their respects. Over six thousand mourners attended a service for Mayor Moscone at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Two memorials were held for Milk; a small one at Temple Emanu-El and a more boisterous one at the War Memorial Opera House.
Sylvester & Harvey Milk
March 11, 1979, after two million selling albums, Sylvester, and his friends Martha Wash, Izora Rhodes, Jeanie Tracy, Sharon Hymes and Patrick Cowley, together with a large band, and the complete 26-piece San Francisco Symphony Orchestra blew of the roof of the 3,000-seat sold out War Memorial Opera House. San Francisco where Sylvester wore the moniker of the Queen of the Castro alongside his Disco title, he blends all the colors in his musical palette into a work of remarkable imagination and spirit.
A genuine original, he was the vèry first ‘modern’ artist to perform in a classic Opera House, he was one of that special breed of performers who come fully to life onstage, who have the unfailing instincts to ignite an audience with sophistication, sass, and style. In a business where clones abound, Sylvester was the real thing.
It was the first time èver in music history that a non-classic singer performed, with the whole orkestra, a concert on stage in an Opera House. Sylvester treated attendees to ballads, covers and medleys, in addition to Sylvester’s own hits. His falsetto sound was a mix of male and female voice. Most intriguing about the venue was the sheer range of material being performed. Sylvester covered everything from the Beatles ‘Blackbird’ to Billie Holiday’s ‘Lover Man’ to Barry Manilow’s ‘Could It Be Magic’. Sylvester’s reinterpretations of Thelma Houston’s Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves and Patti LaBelle’s ‘You Are My Friend’ where the standout of the show as it showcased the genius interplay Sylvester, Rhodes, Wash and Tracy utilized in their live performances. Everybody sang along to the ballad version of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) at the end of the concert…. These last three songs where much more then just ‘beautiful songs’ in a time of the city’s mourning. There tittle’s say more then enough….
Sylvester, Living Proof, 1979 Live recorded at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, as first ‘non-classic’ act ever. Sylvester absolutely set the stage and paved the way for all the rest … in many many ways.
However, Sylvester’s celebratory music was the voice of gay pride. In bars, clubs and concert halls, Martha Wash, Izora Rhodes backed him. The night after his historical sold-out Sylvester Concert at the War Memeorial Opera House on March 11, Mayor Diana Feinstein declared it Sylvester Day and presented him the key to the city. The people where still mourning, but the Queen of Castro was their new hero, if he wasn’t already!
The Opera House gig was recorded, and subsequently released as a live double album, called Living Proof. The album contained a typically eclectic mix of blues, disco, funk and beautiful ballads. Sylvester feld that Living Proof, is “the best representation of what people had been writing about me since the day I started performing. All the energy is there”.
The voice of dance music Sylvester and the Two Tons of Fun (Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes) performing live ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’
On the double album ‘Living Proof’ are two studio recordings: ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’ and ‘In My Fantasy’. ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’, a single released from this album, was a huge hit in the disco clubs.
Sylvester, Stars, 1979
When Sylvester was invited to appear at the Stars party at the Embarcadero in May 1978 he was inspired to write the song ‘Star (Everybody is one)’ to celebrate the event. Stars was a huge disco extravaganza and set the standard for future parties in San Francisco. When you purchased your ticket for Stars you were given a can. After using a can opener to get to your ticket you also found a poster a brochure and a T-Shirt, quite a package! It was just one month before the Stars party when Sylvester and Patrick Cowley sat down and composed the song for the event.
Two months after the concert, on May 21, 1979, thousands of members of San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District community took to the streets to protest the lenient sentence received by Supervisor Dan White for the murders of local politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Their anger–combined with the actions of police who arrived to quell the scene–soon boiled over into rioting. The resulting violence affected San Francisco’s LGBT community for decades to come. Sylvester’s voice helped foster that fight… ‘Everybody is a Star!’. From that moment ‘Star’ became an anthem for the gay community.
1979 brought three Billboard awards and an appearance in the movie, The Rose, starring Bette Midler. Memorable: performing with Bette Midler ‘The Fire Down Below’.
In 1980, Sylvester also reached tabloid headlines after he was arrested on a visit to New York City, accused of being involved in the robbery of several rare coins. After three days of incarceration, he was released on a police bail of $30,000. Sylvester was never charged, and police later admitted their mistake after it was revealed that the real culprit had posed as Sylvester by signing cheques in his name.
Returning to San Francisco after this event, it was here that Sylvester produced his next album for Fantasy Records, Sell My Soul. Largely avoiding disco after the genre had become unpopular following the much publicized Disco Sucks movement, Sell My Soul instead represented a selection of soul-inspired dance tracks. Recorded in two weeks, Sylvester worked largely with backing singers and musicians whom he was unfamiliar with, and regular collaborators Rhodes and Cowley were entirely absent.
Sylvester Sell My Soul, 1980
Sylvester’s fifth and final album for Fantasy Records was ‘Too Hot to Sleep’, in which he once again eschewed disco for a series of groove soul tunes, ballads, and gospel-style tracks. Missing the Two Tons entirely, Tracy was instead accompanied by a new backing singer, Maurice ‘Mo’ Long, and because the three of them had all grown up in the Church of God in Christ, they decided to refer to themselves as the C.O.G.I.C. Singers. The album also featured a number of tracks in which Sylvester avoided his usual falsetto tones to sing in a baritone voice.
On jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s thirty-second album ‘Magic Window’ – released on September 29, 1981 – Sylvester sung ‘Magic Number’ also in his ‘low-voice’, together with Jeanie Tracy on backingvocals, Ray Parker Jr. on guitar and Sheila Escovedo on percussion. ‘Magic Number’ was available in several different (long)versions.
1981 Sylvester Too Hot To Sleep
1981 Sylvester Too Hot To Sleep (second cover)
Disco star Sylvester performs on the stairs at Greg’s Blue Dot in Hollywood, a popular gay club back in 1981. He is introduced by owner Greg Hammond
With the success of these world wide hits came more time under the often harsh and conservative public spotlight. Sylvester kept his unabashed flame on high whether performing for the very white, afternoon, talk show, television circuit or for a writhing throng of his adoring people at San Francisco’s largest dance club, The Trocadero.
Both the Two Tons and Sylvester came to suspect that Fantasy Records had failed to pay them all of the money that they were owed from the sale of their records. Sylvester left Fantasy and in November 1982 he filed a lawsuit against them; it ultimately proved successful in establishing that the company had been withholding money from him totaling $218,112.50. Nevertheless, Fuqua proved unable to pay anything more than $20,000, meaning that Sylvester never saw the majority of the money that was legally owed to him. Sylvester grew to despise Fuqua, and forbade his friends from ever mentioning his name.
They created the so called ‘Megatone’ sound. A true Hit machine with artist like Paul Parker, Jeanie Tracy and Sarah Dash. On many of their hits you hear Sylvester’s voice as backing vocal.
Sylvester eventually left Fantasy Records joining forces with his friend and Dance music mentor, Patrick Crowley and his partner Marty Blecman, at Magatone Records ensconced in the Castro on Noe Street. Sylvester and Megatone created four more albums and the mega huge, infectious dance track ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’
Sylvester, All I Need, 1982 with the hits ‘Do You Wana Funk’, ‘Don’t Stop’ and ‘Be With You’
Sylvester’s ‘girls’, the Two Ton’s of Fun, transformed as well. The duo was renamed The Weather Girls in 1982 after they released the top-selling single ‘It’s Raining Men’, “Hi, we are your weather girls”. ‘It’s Raining Men’ brought them to mainstream pop attention, and continues, like Sylvester’s songs, to be played the world over.
In 1982, Patrick Crowley tragically died, during those very early days in the Age of AIDS, not long after he founded Megatone Records, and the huge succes of the album ‘All I Need’, his own album ‘Mind Warp’, and Paul Parker’s ‘Too Much To Dream’ with the mega-hit ‘Right On Target’. Sarah Dash her album was sadly not finnished. Only two songs were released, “Low Down Dirty Rythem’ and ‘Lucky Tonight’ together with background vocals by Sylvester and Jeanie Tracy.
Sylvester, Call Me, 1983
In 1983, Sylvester became a partner of Megatone Records. That year he also brought out his second album with the company, ‘Call Me’, but it was not a big commercial success. Four songs from the album were released as singles, although only ‘Trouble in Paradise’ entered the top 20 of the U.S. dance charts; Sylvester later related that the song was his ‘AIDS message to San Francisco’.”
Sylvester was emotionally moved by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and began helping out at the Rita Rockett Lounge for patients of the disease at the San Francisco General Hospital as well as performing at various benefit concerts to raise money and awareness to combat the spread of the disease. In February 1984 he also performed a ‘One Night Only’ retrospective of his work at the prestigious Castro Theatre.
Sylvester still toured both domestically and in Europe, although he found that demand for his performances was decreasing, and that he was now playing to smaller venues and singing to a pre-recorded tape rather than to a live band as he had in the late 1970s
Sylvester M-1015, 1984 with dance hits ‘Rock The Box’, Take Me To Heaven’ and the amazingly beautiful ballad ‘Shadow Of A Heart’
His next album, entitled ‘M-1015’ (1984), was more frenetic and pumping than his previous releases, having embraced the recently developed genre of Hi-NRG, but it also included elements of electro . The major figures behind the album had been Kessie and Morey Goldstein, and Sylvester himself had not written any of the tracks. The album also contained increasingly sexually explicit lyrics, in particular in the songs ‘How Do You Like Your Love’ and ‘Seks’.
1984 was also the year that he did a duet with singer Earlene Bentley, who worked often with British songwriter, producer, and DJ, Ian Levine, who loved her outrageous, campy vocal style. ‘Stargazing’ became a hit in the United Kingdom. That year, he also entered into a relationship with an architect named Rick Cramner, and together they moved into a new apartment in the hills, where Sylvester decorated his powder room with posters and memorabilia of Divine, the drag queen, actor and singer whom he had briefly known when they were in The Cockettes.
In 1985, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition by working with the singer Aretha Franklin. Doing background vocals before, ione of his dreams came true as he was summoned to sing back-up vocals – together with best-friend Jeanie Tracy – for Aretha Franklin on her Who’s Zoomin’ Who comeback album.
Jim Gilstrap, Vicki Randle, Jeanie Tracy and Sylvester had a great time during the Aretha sessions, 1985
Sylvester, vèry rare live performance, ‘Stormy Weather’
That same year, Sylvester’s boyfriend, Rick Cranmer, discovered that he was HIV positive. When he died in September 1987, Sylvester lived in denial about his own status and decided not to get to tested, even when he developed a persistent cough, often a sign of a late-stage HIV infection.
Despite this, Sylvester began work on an album, moved into a new apartment in the Castro, and continued to perform. However with his health deteriorating, he was unable to embark on a full tour.
As the panic and reality around the pandemic gained steam-cutting down man after man in his prime during the eighties Sylvester worked tirelessly on many AIDS benefits, many times together with Joan Rivers, long before others did. He help raise much needed funds and awareness about the disease until his own HIV infection began to take it’s toll.
Sylvester’s final album, ‘Mutual Attraction’ (1986), was produced by Megatone but licensed and released by Warner Bros. On the album, Sylvester had worked with a wide number of collaborators, and included new tracks alongside covers of songs by Stevie Wonder and George Gershwin. Mutual Attraction gave us some great songs, like ‘Living For the City’ (Stevie Wonder), the tittle song ‘Mutual Attraction’, and million seller ‘Someone Like You’, that reached number one on the Billboard dance charts. The 12-inch single of ‘Someone Like You’ featured an original cover art by Keith Haring.
Warner Bros booked him to appear on the New Year’s Eve edition of The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, during which Joan Rivers described him as a drag queen; he corrected her by stating that he was not a drag queen, proclaiming simply “I’m Sylvester!” The appearance was also notable for Sylvester publicly declaring his relationship with Rick Cranmer despite the fact that Cranmer’s family were largely unaware of either the liaison or his sexuality.
Sylvester, Mutual Attraction, 1986
In late 1987, Sylvester was hospitalized for sinus surgery, having been diagnosed with AIDS. On discharge from hospital, he was looked after by his mother and his background singer and friend Jeanie Tracy. However, in May 1988, he was hospitalized again this time due to pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP).
Returning home, Sylvester wrote his will. He would never perform again. Although, he had lost a considerable amount of weight and was unable to walk, his last public appearance was at the Castro Street Fair in October of 1988. The MC on the main stage introduced him pointing up to where he sat on his apartment balcony overlooking the Fair action at Castro and Market. The crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands, gave him a rousing ovation that lasted for nearly 15 minutes. People openly wept realizing, as he frailly waved to the crowd from his wheelchair – being pushed along the entire route by his manager Tim Mckenna, who also had AIDS. McKenna died on January 3, 1990 -, soaking in the love that showered down on him. Most realized in all likelihood this would be the last time any of us would ever see our hero.
Sylvester was open about the fact that he was dying, and continued to give interviews to the media. His main focus was to highlight the impact AIDS was having in the African-American community.
Sylvester died two months later at the age of 41 on December 16th, 1988. Two weeks before Sylvester died, he told his minister of the Love Center Church in East Oakland, that he was ‘ready’. For Thanksgiving 1988, his family spent the holiday with him, although he had developed neuropathy and was increasingly bed-ridden and reliant on morphine. His good friend Jeanie Tracy took care of Sylvester during his last days.
Sylvester had planned his own funeral, insisting that he be dressed in a red kimono and placed in an open-top coffin for the mourners to see, with his friend Yvette Flunder doing his corpse’s makeup. He wanted Jeanie Tracy to sing at his funeral, accompanied by choirs and many flowers. The whole affair took place in his church, the Love Center, with a sermon being provided by Reverend Walter Hawkins. The event was packed, with standing room only, and the coffin was subsequently taken and buried at his family’s plot in Inglewood park Cemetery.
After his death, Megatone Records launched Immortal, the unfinnished album. Pressure from the label to ‘butch up’ his image would result in him attending meetings in full-on drag. A drag photo shoot, which he staged and presented to label heads as a gag (calling it his ‘new album cover’) would later grace the cover of Immortal after Sylvester died; it was the label’s way of paying tribute to his spirit. It contained Sylvester’s final studio recordings and was compiled by Marty Blecman.
Sylvester, Immortal, 1989 His ‘unfinnished’ last album
In the late 1990’s, performance artist Djola Branner (co-founder of the highly influential Pomo Afro Homos troupe) created his acclaimed solo piece and CD Mighty Real around the life of Sylvester. On September 20, 2004 Sylvester’s anthem record, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. A year later, on September 19, 2005, Sylvester himself was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his achievement as an artist. A biography of Sylvester, titled ‘The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music’ was authored by Gamson and published in the same year.
In 2010, the TV series Unsung aired an episode on Sylvester, that was later made available through YouTube. ‘Sylvester: Mighty Real’, an official feature-length documentary on the life and career of Sylvester, entered production; it featured interviews with members of Sylvester’s family and other artists and musicians who have been inspired by, but by 2012 the film’s progress had halted.
In August 2014, an Off-Broadway musical titled ‘Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical’ opened at Theatre At St. Clement’s in New York City. It was co-directed by Kendrell Bowman and Anthony Wayne, the latter of whom also performed as the titular character. Wayne stated that he discovered Sylvester’s story through a television documentary, and was subsequently “inspired by his drive to be who he was regardless of what he went through”, performing a concert of Sylvester’s songs with friends Anastacia McCleskey and Jacqueline B. Arnold as the Two Tons o’ Fun before deciding to begin work on the musical.
In 2014 Sylvester was one of the inaugural honorees in the Rainbow Honor Walk, a walk of fame in San Francisco’s Castro’s neighborhoud noting LGBTQ people who have ‘made significant contributions in their fields’.
Till today, we hear Sylvester’s songs in clubs and on the radio. Many of them are timeless. Also populair by other great artist like Jimmy Somerville and Jason Walker
Jimmy Sommerville performing live ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) at les années bonheur de Patrick Sébastien. He makes us feel mighty real!!
Sylvester and Patrick Cowley’s ‘I Need Somebody To Love Tonight’ sung by ‘wonderboy’ Jason Walker
I often think about what Sylvester might think about the world we live in today. What would he sing today? How would he feel about Pose on television? How would he feel about the rising of so many black queer artists working of the camera (or microphone) and behind the scenes? How he’d feel that he birthed a generation – black – gay men that dream dreams that are big and ambitious. My hope is he would feel mighty real.
by Jean Amr