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Sylvester James was born on this day in 1947 (to December 16, 1988). The celebrated American disco and soul sensation was known to his many devoted fans simply as “Sylvester”, and rocked to the top of the disco music charts in the late 1970s as an androgynous performer with a captivating falsetto voice, backed by lush orchestration and some of the most danceable beats ever recorded.
Sylvester James was born to Letha Weaver and Sylvester “Sweet” James in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, in a family he once described as “an upper middle class, black, bourgeois family”. He and his five siblings were raised by his mother and stepfather, Robert Hurd, but he reported that he was most influenced by his grandmother, Julia Morgan. Sylvester would later boast of her being a prominent Blues singer in the 1920s and 30s, and the tales he heard of her days of “divadom” had as much artistic influence on him as anything else he would experience.
Sylvester defied every convention and never hesitated to go his own way. He first developed a love of singing through the gospel choirs of his Pentecostal church, the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in South Los Angeles. Sylvester recognized his own homosexuality from an early age. At age eight, he engaged in sexual activity with a far older man at the church—at the time rumored to be the church organist—although he would always maintain that this was consensual, and not an example of sexual molestation. Taken to a doctor after receiving injuries during anal sex, the doctor first informed his mother Letha that her son was gay, something that she could not initially accept, viewing homosexual activity as a perversion and a sin. News of Sylvester’s homosexual activity soon spread through the church congregation, and feeling unwelcome and persecuted for his homosexuality, he ceased his attendance when he was thirteen.
He left his mother’s home soon after, and now homeless, Sylvester spent much of the next decade staying with friends and relatives, in particular his grandmother Julia, who expressed no disapproval of his homosexuality, having been a friend of a number of gay men in the 1930s. On occasion, he would return to his mother and step-father’s house for a few days at a time, particularly to spend time with his younger sisters, Bernadette and Bernadine. Aged 15, he began frequenting local gay clubs and built up a group of friends from the local gay black community, eventually forming themselves into a group they called the “Disquotays” who eventually disbanded in 1970. After complaining that he was “suffocating in Los Angeles” he made his way to San Francisco, where he embraced the counter-cultural life and joined the drag troupe ”The Cockettes”, eventually producing his own solo shows in which he was heavily influenced by female blues and jazz singers Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. In the middle of their critically panned tour of New York City, Sylvester left the “Cockettes” and decided to focus entirely on a solo career.
On his own, Sylvester performed in San Francisco as a solo act. One of his most famed shows entitled “Jungle Sin,” reprised Sylvester’s greatest “Cockette” solo songs and took place at the San Francisco supper club “Bimbo’s”. These shows were produced by the rock impresario David Ferguson. In 1972 Sylvester performed at “The Temple” in San Francisco with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters, who were also produced by Ferguson. A decade after “Stonewall,” Sylvester was visible, defiant, proud and unapologetically gay. He was often described by reviewers as a drag queen, although he repeatedly rejected such a description.
Sylvester signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977, working with the production talents of Motown producer Harvey Fuqua, who produced his first five albums. Sylvester also met his frequent collaborator Patrick Cowley, whose synthesizer teamed with Sylvester’s voice, proved to be a magical combination, and pushed Sylvester’s sound in an increasingly dance-oriented direction. His second solo album, “Step II” (1978), unleashed two disco classics: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, and “Dance (Disco Heat)”. These two songs quickly climbed the American dance chart, and spent six weeks at #1 in August and September of 1978. By that time, both his live shows and recordings also featured the back-up vocals of “Two Tons O’ Fun” comprised of future Weather Girls Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes. Later on, Sylvester added another voice to the Two Tons, Jeanie Tracy, who stayed and sang with him after the Two Tons left to go on their own. 1979 brought three Billboard awards and an appearance in the movie “The Rose”, starring Bette Midler. He sang “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” live for The Castro Street Fair, thanks to openly gay San Francisco Supervisor, Harvey Milk.
Moving to Megatone Records in 1982, Sylvester quickly recorded a Hi-NRG classic with “Do Ya Wanna Funk”, which was featured in the 1983 film “Trading Places”. Sylvester became very close to Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash, for whom he recorded background vocals for “LaBelle’s” dance hit “Lucky Tonight”.
Sylvester’s Greatest Hits: Nonstop Dance Party ©1983
His record label saw greater popularity for Sylvester’s stunning vocal skills, and pressured him to “butch up” his image. Defiantly, he attended meetings with executives 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 indomitable spirit. In 1985, one of his dreams came true as he was asked to sing back-up for Aretha Franklin on her “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” comeback album. His sole Warner Bros. Records disc was “Mutual Attraction” in 1986; a single from the album “Someone Like You” became Sylvester’s third #1 hit on the U.S. dance chart, and featured original cover art by artist Keith Haring.
Sylvester’s partner, Rick Cranmer, became aware that he was infected with HIV in 1986. With no known medical cure, his health deteriorated rapidly, and he died in September of 1987, leaving Sylvester devastated. Although he recognized that he too was probably infected, Sylvester refused to have his blood tested, only noticing the virus’ first symptoms when he developed a persistent cough. Beginning work on an album that would remain unfinished, he moved into a new apartment on Collingwood Street in San Francisco’s Castro District, and tried his best to continue performing, even though he became too sick to undertake a full tour. Hospitalized for sinus surgery in late 1987, upon returning to his apartment he began to be cared for by his mother and close friend Jean Tracy. While other friends came to visit him; he would proceed to give away many of his treasured items to his friends, and wrote his will.
Sylvester lost a lot of weight and was unable to walk very far. He was pushed along in a wheelchair at the 1988 Gay Freedom Parade in the Castro, just in front of the People with AIDS contingent Along Market Street, assembled crowds shouted out his name as he passed. The subsequent 1988 Castro Street Fair was named “A Tribute to Sylvester”, and although he was too ill to attend, crowds chanted his name to such an extent that he was able to hear them from his bedroom. He continued to give interviews and took part in AIDS activism, in particular highlighting the devastation that it was wreaking in the African-American community. In an interview he stated that “I don’t believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God”.
For Thanksgiving 1988, his family came over to spend the holiday with him, by which time he was becoming increasingly bed-ridden and reliant on morphine to ease his pain. He died in his bed on December 16, 1988 at the age of 41. Sylvester had already planned his own funeral, insisting that he be dressed in a red kimono and placed in an open-top coffin for the mourners to see, with his friend Yvette Flunder doing his makeup. He wanted Jean Tracy to sing at his funeral, accompanied by choirs and many flowers. The whole affair took place in his church, the Love Center, with a sermon provided by Reverend Walter Hawkins. The event was packed, with standing room only, and he was buried at his family’s plot in Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Part camp with a lot of vamp, Sylvester James gained the moniker as the “Queen of Disco” and managed to both shock and delight audiences with his incredible voice, androgynous presence and spectacular performances. While others would later emulate his style, he was unique and groundbreaking and considered a visionary in terms of his proud queerness, Blackness and artistry.
A biography, “The Fabulous Sylvester“ was authored by the sociologist Joshua Gamson and published in 2005. In 2011, the TV series “Unsung” aired an episode on Sylvester, that was later made available through YouTube. “Sylvester: Mighty Real,” the official feature length documentary on the life and career of Sylvester, was in production, but sadly, the film’s progress has now halted.
The much anticipated Off-Broadway musical “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical,” opened yesterday at Theatre at St. Clements in Manhattan, and is expected to run through October 5, 2014. You can obtain tickets for this limited engagement show here:http://www.fabuloussylvester.com/
We remember Sylvester on this day in celebration of the 67th anniversary of his birth, and in appreciation for his indomitable spirit, his supreme artistry, his advocacy for those fighting the AIDS crisis, and his many contributions to our community.
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