Disco superstar Sylvester: Why his relevance still feels mighty real

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

*** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Sylvester, known for his extravagant style, falsetto singing voice, and hit song “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” was the “Queen of Disco.”

Sylvester’s “Mighty Real” remixed a gospel song and became a pioneering disco record, musically and socially. It’s one of Billboard’s top LGBTQ anthems and is a catchy, uptempo dance single.

Sylvester also had success with other songs, including “Dance (Disco Heat),” “Someone Like You” and “Do You Wanna Funk?” According to his Associated Press obituary, “Five of his songs became gold record hits, selling more than 500,000 copies, and one went platinum, selling more than one million records.”

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

He could put on a show. His performances were described as soulful and glittery, he was known for entrances that resembled movie scenes, and he had plenty of standing ovations and sold-out appearances.

A montage of albums by Sylvester, the androgynous disco star who died in 1988. (credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

icon to expand image

“A lot of people love my show because they don’t understand it,” Sylvester said, according to Joshua Gamson’s book “The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco.”

At one performance, a background singer felt the venue vibrate. She thought it was an earthquake, Gamson wrote, but no. The vibrations came from people dancing in the balcony, causing it to rock and sway visibly.

His music became the soundtrack of gay liberation. “If Harvey Milk was the mayor of Castro Street, Sylvester was its undisputed first lady,” Gamson wrote.

» RELATED: Jean-Michel Basquiat: Artist made his colorful mark

Sylvester was born Sylvester James Jr. in 1947 in Watts, California. As a kid, he went by the family-given nickname “Dooni” and grew up in the church, singing in the choir before he stopped attending. By the time he was 11, he lost interest in riding bikes and fishing, and focused on playing with dolls and wearing his mother’s high heels or jewelry.

“You’re very strange,” he recalled his mother saying, to which he replied, “That’s OK.”

He was part of a group called the Disquotays in Los Angeles, which featured cross-dressing and transgender women. And when he moved to San Francisco in 1970, he joined the Cockettes — an assorted group of gender-bending hippies who put on midnight shows while wearing avant-garde and glitter attire — and became Sylvester.

His career and social life took off. He went on worldwide tours, had a gold record and disco stardom, and succeeded and failed in love.

Sylvester identified as a gay black man and was androgynous, dressing how he preferred — wearing silver pumps and a tiara in a Parisian airport if he wanted. He once said that in his attitude and style, he was Josephine Baker. He slicked back his hair, donned wigs and ponytails, and wore crop tops, dresses, pants and high heels.

On her talk show, Joan Rivers once asked Sylvester, “How does your family feel about you being a drag queen?”

“I’m not a drag queen,” he famously responded. “I’m Sylvester.”

All of his outfits were well-planned and fabulous. His avant-garde style paved the way for those Billy Porter award-show entrances. Porter once said on a late-night talk show that he still deals with people who take issue with his sexuality and style of dress.

Decades earlier, so did Sylvester.

“Sometimes, folks make us feel strange,” he once said at a show. “But those folks, they’ll have to catch up.”

Those who needed to catch up included his recording label, whose executives didn’t know how to market Sylvester, so they tried to turn him into Teddy Pendergrass to appeal to the masses. The industry was conservative. According to Gamson’s book, Sylvester was too black for white audiences and too gay for black radio.

“They weren’t playing the guy’s records because he’s too outrageous, too outrageously gay,” said Terri Hinte, who worked at Fantasy Records. “At the time it felt like if we did what he wanted to do, he’d just be dismissed. He’d be defined by that and the music would be completely overlooked.”

The label wanted him tone it down. He named his next album “Sell My Soul.”

Sylvester eventually left Fantasy.

» RELATED: Eartha Kitt: Entertainer , activist and “Catwoman”

When disco died, Sylvester’s stardom seemed to stall. But years later, when dance music became the wave, Sylvester’s career caught fire again. He had a No. 1 record on Billboard’s dance charts, a new album released by Warner Bros., and a spot on “The Late Show with Joan Rivers.”

But amid the dizzying success came the ravages of AIDS. In the 1980s, as AIDS deaths rose rapidly, one of Sylvester’s former roommates from their days as Cockettes returned to San Francisco in 1986 and said the city had gone from three parties a week to empty streets.

“Everybody looked sad or old,” Tahara said. “And everybody was afraid of parties. I was going to a funeral every week.”

In the fall of 1987, Sylvester’s lover died from AIDS complications.

By May 1988, Sylvester had drafted his own will. That June, he participated in his final Gay Freedom Day parade. He was in a wheelchair because his health had deteriorated, and paradegoers didn’t immediately recognize him. But once they did, they cheered and chanted his name.

» RELATED: 'What you see is what you get!' The story of Flip Wilson & Geraldine

As he approached death, Sylvester didn’t want his friends to see him fragile and weak, and he told them not to cry.

“I just want to go to sleep,” Sylvester told Martin Worman, an actor, performer and researcher who wrote a dissertation on the Cockettes. “I know where I’ve been, and I know what I’ve done. I just want to go to sleep, peacefully, quietly. My mother knows. You see, everyone knows. It’s all taken care of. All done. My business is done.”

Sylvester died on Dec. 16, 1988, from AIDS complications. He was 42.

At his request, he was buried in an embroidered red kimono and matching red lipstick.

Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.