‘You make me feel, mighty real!’ Oh, how that lyric line sung by Sylvester, the Queen of Disco Sylvester over a gospel-tinged disco beat made those who heard and danced to it truly feel mighty. That one line can sum up the impact Sylvester had on a generation of club kids, an era of music.
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
While preparations were underway for a unique Sylvester concert at the War Memorial Opera House, several parties withdrew. It almost didn’t happen. The Opera House Board was homophobic & tried to stop the show. The lawyers for the promoter prevailed & the show went on.
March 11, 1979, Sylvester, and his girls Martha Wash, Izora Rhodes, Jeanie Tracy and Sharon Hymes, 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.
When asked about heroes, Sylvester is the first on lips of gay men who went out dancing in the 1970’s. Sylvester embodied the disco fantasy in wich race and gender lose their relevance.
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….
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!
Sylvester performing live, together with the Two Tons Of Fun, ‘Can’t Stop Dancing’
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”.
Living Proof present Sylvester at a key point of transition in his career where he is moving more toward his soul and cabaret roots, and paying homage to the disco that took him over the top. It is also a few years before he would go on to define NRG music.
On the double album 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 (lead vocals)
- Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (Two Tons of Fun) (background vocals)
- Jeanie Tracy (background vocals)
- Sharon Hymes (background vocals)
- Eric Robinson (background vocals)
- Overture: Grateful, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Dance (Disco Heat)
- Body Strong
- Medley: Could It Be Magic (Eric Robinson), A Song For You
- Loverman, (Oh Where Can You Be)
- Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves
- You Are My Friend
- Dance (Disco Heat)
- You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real): dance version/slow gospel version
- Patrick Cowley (Synthesizer)
- Eric Robinson (Keyboards)
- Michael Finden (Keyboards)
- Tip Wirrick (Guitar)
- Bob Kingson (Bass)
- Kevin Dixon (Drums)
- Richard Kvistad (Timpani)
- David Frazier (Percussion)
- Gus Anthony Flores (Percussion)
- Dean Boyson (Trumpets)
- Ross Wilson (Trumpets, Trombones)
- Dan Reagan (Trombones)
- Marc Baum (Saxaphones, Flutes)
- Jay Stolmac (Saxophones, Flutes)
- and the ‘San Francisco Symphony’
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!’
by Jean Amr