Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester

Living Proof

The singer Sylvester – often narrowly and affectionately called the “queen of disco” – is one of the best kept secrets of American music. The cruelty of such secrecy and the thievery of the obscurity in which Sylvester’s varied musical catalogue still lives is not a crime merely because he was one of America’s greatest singers, performing songs in nearly every genre. It isn’t a crime simply because Prince should include a disclaimer with every song he releases: “Apologies to Sylvester”, and it isn’t a crime only because he was a talented and prolific songwriter. Sylvester’s lost legacy is all of the above, and it’s an example of integrity and dignity that his career provides to performers and observers. Sylvester’s career also illustrates the hideous damage caused by bigotry and ignorance.

Born Sylvester James in 1947, it wouldn’t take long for the precocious 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. After being abandoned by her husband, Sylvester’s mother, Letha, raised her three sons in the Pentecostal denomination of Christianity. The dramatic flare of black gospel made a mark on Sylvester, and by the age of three, he was already performing songs of spiritual fire for the church.

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, 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 stratification and the fires of hate, Sylvester was unmoved. It was such strength that empowered Sylvester to use his talent to become a radical visionary of music and identity; performance and authenticity.

While in his first band in the ’60s, The Disquotays, he befriended Etta James and often sang with her in the privacy of her home. From black gospel to Billie Holiday to Etta James and Smokey Robinson, Sylvester had his influences, but like most great singers – Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles – his personality dominated every performance, making songs of any genre somehow his own.

After The Disquotays broke up, 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. The hospitality toward homosexuality that disco showed created a violent backlash among rock fans, but not all rock singers cooperated with the castigation campaign. Bruce Springsteen wrote the disco song “Protection” for Donna Summer to combat, in his words, “the subtle homophobia and racism of the anti-disco movement.” Although Sylvester recorded traditional R&B albums, including one that had him in male attire on the album’s cover, he could never match the success that he found in disco.

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. He had two gold records, and opened for Chaka Kahn, but the success he deserved eluded him everywhere — except San Francisco.

Sylvester’s only live album, Living Proof, recorded in 1979 in front of a sold out audience a the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on March 11 – the same day Mayor Diane Feinstein awarded him the key to the city – is a triumph of American soul and dance music. He gives excellent renditions of his own hits, including a masterful “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” to close the show, and covers a diversity of artists that demonstrates his wide sweeping musical taste and knowledge and his uncanny vocal ability to sing anything – “Blackbird” by The Beatles, “A Song for You” by Leon Russell, “Lover Man” by Billie Holiday, and “You Are My Friend” by Patti Labelle.

To listen to this album is to be in awe of Sylvester’s talent and to find yourself in a state of bewilderment over why he is not recognized as one of America’s greatest singers. Put Sylvester up against any American singer, and pound for pound, note for note, he can not only compete, but he will often win.

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 leaves a legacy of musical greatness and personal bravery and independence. 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.”

The declaration of a singular identity was Sylvester’s way of amplifying his remarkable commitment to evade category. Sylvester was a rebel. He was black, but did not quite fit into the black minority. He was gay, but did not quite fit into the gay minority. He often wore drag, but did not quite fit into the transvestite minority. He was a Christian, but did not fit into any Christian minority. He certainly never fit into the majority. He represented himself and succeeded because of it, but was also – unfairly and unjustifiably – limited because of it.

America has made laudable progress in gay rights. The freedom, mobility, and liberty enjoyed by gay people today is radically different from the stratification and alienation that kept Sylvester out of the mainstream in the ’70s. Sociologist Joshua Gamson has written a biography on Sylvester, and a documentary and a feature film are in the works.

As America moves forward into a new era of equality, it would be only right for music fans to look back on the career of Sylvester with both enthusiasm and regret. A rediscovery of Sylvester’s achievements should excite us, but it should also shame us into reflecting on the cultural losses endured by ignorance and bigotry. Most American music fans are unfamiliar with Sylvester, and they are poorer for it. After writing The City and the Pillar, a novel about two young men in a romantic relationship, Gore Vidal almost lost his writing career. American arts and letters would have been much poorer had it not been for Vidal. The nation came to its senses with Vidal, but with Sylvester it never quite found its rationality and now it can never quite recover the loss.

The best way to proceed in such an undertaking of learning from past mistakes, besides enjoying the music that Sylvester left behind, is to examine whether or not we are living up to his example and honoring his legacy of authenticity. In an age when “selling out” has become so predictable that to utter the words makes the statement that follows those words clichéd and meaningless, and in an age when performers voluntarily reduce themselves to brands, Sylvester shows us how, against great odds, one can discover the most hidden treasure of the soul and present the greatest gift of the artist: humanity.