Celebrating Sylvester’s Greatest Hits for Pride 2023

Sylvester’s voice – an otherworldly sonic boom of a voice that climbed to dizzying heights – was a significant force in queer pop culture in the 1970s.

Disco Heat: The Fantasy Years 1977-1981
Real Gone Music
2 June 2023

Sylvester, sister, you’re an angel walking among us, on the face of this earth, you were so beautiful, you were so fragile, you were so real.

Sandra Bernhard, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part I, (1994)

Donna Summer is rightly considered the Queen of Disco, but Sylvester is a contender for the title. Like Summer, Sylvester brought artistry, a church-fueled power, and enthusiasm to dance music, injecting a spiritual passion to the dancefloor. His voice – an otherworldly sonic boom of a voice that climbed to dizzying heights – was a significant force in queer pop culture in the 1970s. A Los Angeles native, he moved to the Gay Elysian of San Francisco in the early 1970s, joining the queer counterculture of the city and becoming a member of the drag troupe the Cockettes. The Cockettes were performance artists who embraced a melange of counterculture influences and adopted an experimental, absurdist, oft-improvised performance style for their stage work.

Though a vital member of the group, Sylvester had grander ambitions and moved on, striking out on his own, assembling a backup group, the Hot Band, with whom he recorded a pair of albums for the Hot Thumb label. His recorded material with the Hot Band differed significantly from his disco work. Before becoming a dance icon, he sang rock and soul, his soulful falsetto invigorating covers of songs like Neil Young‘s “Southern Man” and Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”. His persona at this time was indebted to blues and soul legends like “Lena [Horne], Bessie [Smith], Josephine [Baker], Billie [Holiday]. There was a lot for him to admire about blues women.”1

On his debut album, he covered standards popularized by Billie Holiday, like “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)” and “God Bless the Child”. Success with the Hot Band was limited, and they parted ways. The singer tooled around for a few years during the 1970s, playing gay clubs before catching the eye of producer Harvey Fuqua, an important figure in Sylvester’s commercial success. With Fuqua, he recorded a series of disco albums for the Fantasy label, becoming one of the genre’s most influential practitioners.

From 1977 to 1981, Sylvester found his musical groove, wailing some brilliant dance records. Disco music dominated pop music in the 1970s, transcending its underground roots to become mainstream. Gay, Black, and Latino clubs and performers created this propulsive, energetic music, and as the decade progressed, disco found its way to crossover pop. Not only an incredible vocalist, Sylvester was also an accomplished singer-songwriter, having a hand in penning some of his most enduring hits, including classics like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, “Dance (Disco Heat)”, and “Body Strong”, working with dance pioneers like Patrick Cowley, Martha Wash, Izora Rhodes, and Fuqua, who came of age musically with the legendary Motown label.

Sylvester’s church-hued vocals and fiery wailing (his vocal runs were thrilling) imbued the hyper-synthetic music with a deep spirituality and emotionalism. One of his most defining classic tunes, “Dance (Disco Heat)”, is the name of this fantastic compilation, which chronicles Sylvester at his commercial and creative peak. Sylvester’s brand of disco music was a thoughtful marriage of the sacred and the secular, the holy and the hedonistic. The muscular beats and pulsing synths created sensual and sexy music, but Sylvester’s gospel cry brought an urgency to the music. Musicians like Fuqua and Cowley created slick, decadent soundscapes, and Sylvester’s charisma and talent would elevate the material and bring it back to the church.

Though disco is synonymous with queer nightlife, its most essential creators always acknowledged its roots in Black gospel music. Disco singer Carl Bean (who had a hit with the queer classic “I Was Born This Way” in 1975) said of the connection between gospel and disco music: “The backbeat of disco is the rhythm of the Black shout.” Bean would cite his peers, many of whom came from the Black church, as evidence of that connection. “So most of us that were successful— that’s why I think that most of us were recruited out of Black gospel music. Thelma Houston was a gospel singer prior…Teddy Pendergrass came out of the church, I think, from his history, as a young boy. Sylvester, myself, certainly Izora (Armstrong) and [Two Tons of Fun] they both came out of the church up in the Oakland area.” 2

Though Sylvester established himself as a disco star and amassed an impressively prolific career, his legacy is tied up in disco music, queer history, queer liberation, and the tragic history of AIDS and AIDS advocacy. Though he charted consistently throughout his career on several labels, his most important work is from his tenure with the Fantasy label, where he recorded five studio LPs, a live album, and a greatest-hits compilation. The best material from those albums is collected for Disco Heat: The Fantasy Years 1977 – 1981. The music in this collection shows just how vital and vibrant great disco music is, and it should silence the genre’s close-minded critics who unfairly lump disco with the kitschy aesthetic of the 1970s.

The set’s producer, Joe Marchese, assembles a wonderful chronicle of a genius talent who was very much ahead of his time. There are ubiquitous classic hits expected when listening to Sylvester, but Marchese wisely included lesser-known tunes and album cuts. The album doesn’t stray from his dance work, though there are some slower moments, including moving ballads that show off the singer’s glistening voice.

According to Sylvester’s biographer, Joshua Gamson, the man who would go on to epitomize disco music had an ambivalent relationship with the genre, worrying that its mainstream success and campy excess cheapened the artistry. So, though Sylvester did love recording dance music, he was also interested in showing off his ability to record slower material. Marchese added ballads to give a more comprehensive look at the diva’s talents. So, on a sweet number like the Burt Bacharach/Hal David number, “I Took My Strength from You”, listeners are gifted with the singer’s sweet, soulful falsetto. Stephanie Mills introduced the song, and it’s worth listening to the contrast between the two singers: Mills’ youthful and powerful belt compared to Sylvester’s shimmering croon. The record also includes a stately version of Morgan Ames’ “Loving Grows Up Slow” (which features a scorching guitar solo).

Sylvester paid homage to his friend Patti LaBelle on a live version of her song “You Are My Friend”. Taken from his live album Living Proof, the piece highlights the gospel that nurtured his voice. Trading trills with his background vocalists to the rapturous cheers of his audience at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, Sylvester takes his listeners to church. The other Living Proof track is a medley of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” and Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”. The stirring tune is yet another reminder of the versatility of Sylvester’s talents.

Of course, the dance music on Disco Heat dominates. Sylvester’s greatest hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, is an exhilarating song. Produced by Fuqua and Sylvester, the music works off a hypnotic beat, like a sped-up metronome. His vocals are extravagant and flamboyant, cooing and shouting, hitting glass-shattering notes. The lyrics celebrate queer sex, an anthem of post-Stonewall gay culture. It’s an affirming song that is unapologetically queer, defiant in its bold lyrics. “When we’re out there dancing on the floor, “he sings, “and I feel like I need some more, and I feel your body close to mine, and I know, my love, it’s about that time.” Sylvester’s words speak to the sensual and liberating power of the dance floor and dance music integral to the beauty of disco music.

There are other dance floor staples like “Body Strong”, a frantic tune that features some nifty, space-age synths that coil and spin. The strutting “Dance (Disco Heat)” is just as crucial to the Sylvester legend. These songs, “Mighty Real” and the funky “I Can’t Stop Dancing”, create a vital library of dance music that shows off a specific moment in queer pop culture in the late 1970s before that joyful hedonism was marred by the AIDS crisis.

Disco Heat captures the best of Sylvester’s work. He would continue to record music in the 1980s as the disco backlash meant that dance music shifted toward dance-pop, HI-NRG, and house. His final album, 1986’s Mutual Attraction, was released on a major label, Warner Bros. but lacked the innovation of his work from the 1970s. The collection is, at once, comprehensive and concise.

The June 2023 release of Disco Heat coincides with Pride month at a critical time for queer rights, given how legislators throughout states like Texas, Tennessee, and Florida are slashing away at queer rights, including bans of gender-affirming care, public drag performances, and queer-inclusive education. Sylvester is a significant figure in the queer rights movement, and he would go on to become an essential voice during the AIDS crisis, going public with his diagnosis.

In an interview with Connie Johnson and the Los Angeles Times, Sylvester said, “It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease.” He adds, “The Black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease.” By coming out, he hopes “that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.” 3

After Sylvester died in 1988, pop culture and music continued to be impacted by his influence. We hear echoes of his work in the music of a wide range of artists, including Madonna, Janet Jackson, Billy Porter, Lil Nas X, Beyoncé, Lizzo, and Mykki Blanco. Big Freedia paid tribute to Sylvester, saying that the legendary diva was a “big influence in my life…The messaging in the music helped me figure out how I was.” 4 Disco Heat spotlights another example of queer artists’ invaluable contribution to popular culture. Few have had the reach that Sylvester had.

Works Cited

  1. Joshua Gamson, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco, Picador 2005.
  2. Kai M. Green interview with Carl Bean. “Carl Bean on Disco and Gospel”. Foundations of House: House Music Heritage, 2013.
  3. Connie Johnson, “Disco Singer Sylvester Confronts AIDS without Any Regrets.” The Los Angeles Times, 10 Sept 1988.
  4. Katja Vujić, “Big Freedia Owes Everything to Her Mom, Her Church, and Her City”. The Cut, 25 June 2021.