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, vèry rare live performance, ‘Stormy Weather’
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. Patrick later co-founded the much respected Megatone Records, along with Marty Blecman. 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.
Head way came when Sylvester and the boys 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.
Sylvester, Step II (Click photo to enlarge)
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.
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!
When Sylvester was invited to appear at the Stars party at the Embarcadero in May 1978 he was inspired to write the song Stars 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.
Sylvester, Stars, 1979
In 1979, after two million selling albums, Sylvester and friends Marha Wash, Izora Rhodes, Jeanie Tracy, Patrick Cowley performed live at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. 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. Singing not only his hitsongs, but also some beautiful standards, like Thelma Houston’s beautiful ‘Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves’. Recorded live, the album contains many live songs from the concert, and also two studio recordings: Can’t Stop Dancing and In My Fantasy.
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.
The voice of dance music Sylvester and the Two Tons of Fun (Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes) performing live ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’
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’.
Sylvester Sell My Soul, 1980
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.
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, as The Weather Girls, whose smash hit, ‘It’s Raining Men’ 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
Sylvester M-1015, 1984 with dance hits ‘Rock The Box’, Take Me To Heaven’ and the amazingly beautiful ballad ‘Shadow Of A Heart’
Jim Gilstrap, Vicki Randle, Jeanie Tracy and Sylvester had a great time during the Aretha sessions, 1985
Doing background vocals before, in 1985, one 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.
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.
His sole Warner Bros. album was Mutual Attraction in 1986 and gave us some great songs, like the million sellers ‘Someone Like You’, ‘Sooner or Later’ and the tittle song ‘Mutual Attraction’. The 12-inch single of ‘Somene Like You’ featured an Original cover art by Keith Haring.
Sylvester, Mutual Attraction, 1986
Sylvester’s 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, 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 died two months later at the age of 41 on December 16th, 1988. His good friend Jeanie Tracy took care of Sylvester during his last days.
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.
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. In 2005, a biography written by Joshua Gamson and titled The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The music,
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
by Jean Amr