Gay Iconography: No Disco Queen Quite Like Sylvester

 

Having grown up in Los Angeles, Sylvester moved to San Francisco in the '70s. He became involved with an avant-garde performance art troupe known as the Cockettes, (featured in the documentary previewed above). Though Sylvester briefly lived with the outlandish group of psychedelic drag queens in their commune, he maintained his unique style. While they opted for more outrageous looks and make-up, his performances (which didn't always fit with themes or narrative of the group's work) instead focused on jazz and blues singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. The Cockettes performed in New York City, but their San Francisco vibe didn't translate to NYC audiences. Sylvester's portions of the show were the exception, and the positive reaction inspired him to leave the group in pursuit of his solo career.

 

Much could be said about Sylvester's style. He rejected the label "drag queen," (like he does in the clip above with Joan Rivers), but his androgynous appearance was certainly part of his appeal. Even glam rocker David Bowie had said that he wasn't needed in San Francisco because "they've got Sylvester."

 

After two underperforming albums with his Hot Band, Sylvester found his groove with back-up singers (and fellow gay icons) Martha Wash and Izora Armstead. They dubbed themselves Two Tons o' Fun. The women, who would go on to become The Weather Girls, shared Sylvester's gospel roots.

 

Sylvester's fourth album, Step II, went gold, spawning hit singles "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" (above) and "Dance (Disco Heat)." His increased profile earned him three Billboard awards and a small part in The Rose, starring Bette Midler. Sandra Bernhard covered "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" on her album Excuses For Bad Behavior, Part One.

 

Sylvester was a fixture in San Francisco. He performed at the 1980 opening of the Castro Muni station (above), and he was friends with Harvey Milk. His partner, Rick Cranmer, became infected with HIV in 1985, passing away two years later. Sylvester became an AIDS activist up until he died of complications of AIDS in 1988. A few months before his death, the Castro Street Fair was dedicated "A Tribute To Sylvester." Although the singer was too sick to attend, he could hear the cheers from the crowd from his apartment.

Are you a Sylvester fan? What's your favorite Sylvester memory?

Comments

  1. Gregory in Seattle says

    Truly a pioneer. And I didn’t realize that the Weather Girls got their start as his backup. Cool!

  2. Andy says

    This guy was not only an amazing talent, but incredibly courageous as well. Where is his biopic?

    I consider myself fortunate to have actually seen him in person, though it was at the very end of his career, shortly before he died. I didn’t know he had AIDS, it certainly didn’t hinder his performace, which was great.

  3. Jerry says

    Hell, Sandra Bernhard turned “Mighty Real” into its own segment in “Without You I’m Nothing.”

    LEARN YOUR HISTORY, CHIRRENS!

    “Pretend it’s 1978, and you’re straight…”

  4. DBAUDIT says

    I saw him a couple of times. One was either a Gay Pride party or the Castro Street Fair at the corner of 18th and Castro in San Francisco. He tore the place up!

  5. JonnyNYNY2FLFL says

    I always took my opportunities to climb right onto the edge of the stage in the dome of the Saint during his many performances there. It was an ethereal experience. He epitomized the joy of the gay disco era.

    I edited several riffs from “Do Ya Wanna Funk” & made them into ringtones for my iPhone. I’m exhilarated every time I get a call to this day.

  6. JonnyNYNY2FLFL says

    I always took my opportunities to climb right onto the edge of the stage in the dome of the Saint during his many performances there. It was an ethereal experience. He epitomized the joy of the gay disco era.

    I edited several riffs from “Do Ya Wanna Funk” & made them into ringtones for my iPhone. I’m exhilarated every time I get a call to this day.

  7. Mohammad says

    I had the poignant pleasure of seeing Sylvester in what may have been his last performance at “The Dance” party in late 1984 in Philadelphia. He rocked the old Bourse building and brought down the house with a gospel song with the Weather Girls (he called them the Weather Balloons) that closed the event and left many people in tears. Sadly, he was soon gone…as were many

  8. simon says

    The other guest looks like Charles Nelson Reilly who sang “Out there …..” in Hello Dolly.

  9. secret identity says

    “Are you a Sylvester fan?” How can one not be? Sadly he passed away before I came out, but I certainly knew his music. He is, to me, a true icon of gay in all its facets. I love his music, and as someone said better than I, how can you NOT dance to his music?

  10. petey says

    Now here was a queen with balls. He also had a great voice and good production values. Do You Wanna Funk and You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) were very well-produced songs.

  11. Ram San says

    I want to a show of his held @ the Sunset Boulevard Bar in San Antonio. What a great show, he mingled with the crowd and I asked him to dance and we did, to a 10 minute mix! What a great memory, I still talk about it often!! Sylvester was one of a kind and what a voice.

  12. Steven says

    JERRY! THANK YOUUUUUUUUUU! Sandra taught me about Sylvester. A true star whose story needs to be shared.

  13. Kenneth says

    I saw him in Atlanta in the 80’s very shortly before his death. He was phenomenal, and although I’m sure he was ill at the time, you certainly couldn’t tell. It was truly a memorable show. Definitely iconic.

  14. Joe in Ct says

    Truly an amazing performer, shockingly real – might real for his time.

  15. Glenn says

    I saw Sylvester perform at a night club in Providence, RI called the Fife and Drum in the early 80’s when I was a college student at RISD. He wore this amazing “Armani” styled suit with severe shoulder pads and he looked fabulous. One of the best shows I attended during my college years.

  16. greenfuzz says

    Saw him and Two Tons Of Fun at the Castro St. fair in 1980. It was a glorious day and Sylvester rocked the stage. Use to see him walking around the Castro too.

  17. Mighty Real says

    Not an icon. Too obscure. More of a trailblazer. I could go with ‘hero’. Maybe even ‘role model’ for some young kids today who are living ‘out’, which I guess also makes him ‘way ahead of his time’. I have always loved (and still have) a couple of his songs ‘You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’, but his catalogue is pretty limited. Of course he gets huge style points for having ‘Two Tons O’ Fun’ as his backing vocalists. Wish I could’ve told him that I loved him.

  18. says

    Great comments and truly fitting for a unique, one of a kid trailblazer! I seem to recall a story that he basically died penniless and or was sadly, always very low on cash.

    Isn’t ironic and sad when great men (and women) who had enormous gifts and leave greatness to future generations were not able to reap wealth in their lifetime…..

    I believe his back story and life was as unique as he was. Someone really needs to make it all into a great film.

  19. WTF21 says

    Sylvester was a good friend of mine, as well as Eric J. who wrote and produced Disco Heat.I will never forget the day Dan White received his unforgivable sentence for killing Harvey Milk and Mayor G. Moscone. We as a huge mass met at Castro & Market and marched to city hall. Sylvester and I were side by side rallying for justice. Not only was he a HUGE voice, a HUGE champion for civil liberties, also, a truly endearing person. I loved this man so much!! A GAY ICON….There is no other..

  20. WTF21 says

    Sylvester was a good friend of mine, as well as Eric J. who wrote and produced Disco Heat.I will never forget the day Dan White received his unforgivable sentence for killing Harvey Milk and Mayor G. Moscone. We as a huge mass met at Castro & Market and marched to city hall. Sylvester and I were side by side rallying for justice. Not only was he a HUGE voice, a HUGE champion for civil liberties, also, a truly endearing person. I loved this man so much!! A GAY ICON….There is no other..

  21. TonyC says

    For the Gay community he was far from obscure.. His music and he were always a joy. I can remember the last time I saw him live back at The Limelight(that old church no more) .. He was such a ” staple” sometimes he went unnoticed when he got on the stage to sing.. One of my favorites from that era especially to dance to

    Cheers..
    TC

  22. foxy says

    I have fond memories of seeing him buzz by on his scooter in San Francisco…

  23. daws says

    Sylvester was before my time but I recently bought an album of his thanks to the show Looking. Good to see that such a trailblazer lives on.

  24. says

    I photographed Sylvester in concert several times in SF from the late 70s to the mid 80s. He was a great performer and a sincere, humble and gracious person. I miss him very much.

  25. Michael says

    Thank you for this post. Sylvester was one of my heroes growing up in the 70’s. He never failed to get me on the dance floor whenever he was played. Someone above said the adjective should be trailblazer but not Icon but I disagree and it just goes to show how history doesn’t always get it right when we discuss the Britneys as “Gay” Icons and forgot that THIS is a real Gay Icon. His voice, songs, and activism were inspiring to me and my generation and his passing from AIDS hit us all very hard. Glad to finally see him getting some praise and recognition.
    Long Live the Queen of Disco !!

  26. Bryan says

    Sylvester was larger than life, and yet personal and intimate. I loved him during the disco era…and I still do. Legendary!

  27. Chocolate City says

    Sometimes when I daydream, I have a triple-fudge porn fantasy of Billy Preston, Sylvester James, and Luther Vandross livin’ it up in disco heaven—Bad Boys Havin’ A Party, indeed.

  28. Gamage C says

    First saw him on Dance Fever, Oct. 8, 1978, and from that point on he remains one of my favorite singers; anyone who knows me know I call him my patron saint. Always makes me feel might real!