I wonder how the younger generations remember Sylvester. Perhaps most commonly as the singer of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the pulsating Disco hit, which they may recognize from Target ads. They may think of Sylvester as a character in the recent miniseries When We Rise or the Oscar-winning film Milk. Others might have found the clip of Sylvester performing on The Late Show with Joan Rivers and chatting with the host on her 1980s late night TV show, discussing his husband, Rick.
The life of Sylvester James is full of interesting footnotes: from walking around the streets of Los Angeles as a youth in drag, when “cross-dressing” in California was a crime, to hosting “gay parties” at the home of singer Etta James, to being a member of the Cockettes with John Waters muse Divine, to discovering Martha Wash, to befriending Harvey Milk, to singing background on Aretha Franklin’s first platinum album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? But the real legacy of Sylvester is the force of nature who was Sylvester.
Long before Big Freedia had the kids twerking or Young Thug wore a dress, before RuPaul sang the praises of being a supermodel and later became an Emmy award-winning TV host, before Brits such as David Bowie, Boy George of Culture Club, Pete Burns of Dead or Alive, and comedian Eddie Izzard donned makeup or painted their nails, before Prince performed in crop tops and lace, and even before Grace Jones became an androgynous femme fatale as a model, singer, and actor, Sylvester was photographed for his 1973 album, in full drag. Through the years, his look would almost always be outrageous, over-the-top, and fabulous. Sylvester personified uniqueness at a time when individuality was not always tolerated, let alone accepted or appreciated. Sylvester forged his own path, along which many of us continue to travel.
Sylvester and I were contemporaries. If Sylvester had survived the plague, he would have been able to celebrate his seventieth birthday this year. But like far too many people who contracted HIV in the 1980s, he died from AIDS soon thereafter. He was only 41 years old. He made a big impact in his short life.
Sylvester’s music has withstood the test of time. His musical background may have been rooted in the gospel music of his Pentecostal upbringing and his grandmother’s appreciation of Jazz music, but he made some of the best R&B, Funk, and Disco music ever recorded. Whether it was due to his unwavering falsetto or his glamorous presentation, Sylvester is the sole male member of the Disco Divas club and contender for the crown “Queen of Disco.” He sang in falsetto not in the pleading or seductive manner that many contemporary male singers do, but as a siren, both ringing the alarm and luring people to the dance floor. Sylvester was one of a kind.
There is more to Sylvester’s music than that unrelenting falsetto and a pulsating beat. Sylvester’s baritone can be heard on several recordings and is in the forefront of his final album on Fantasy Records, Too Hot to Sleep. There’s also his unforgettable rendition of the Patti LaBelle ballad “You Are My Friend,” from his live album Living Proof, which includes his monologue and vocals by his backup singers Martha Wash and Izora Armstead (née Rhodes), also known as Two Tons O’ Fun, The Two Tons, and eventually The Weather Girls. He kept on singing covers and originals well into the 1980s.
Sylvester was unapologetically Sylvester. Even when it caused Black radio stations not to play his music, because of homophobic DJs and program directors and their perceptions about what the audience would accept, Sylvester may have toned down his look during a few photo shoots to appease the record label, but he didn’t let other people define him. Echoing a sentiment he would often say to interviewers who wanted to label him as this or that, his response to Joan Rivers referring to him as a “drag queen” during their interview was succinct, “I’m just Sylvester!”
I remember the first time I met Sylvester. I felt I had met a kindred spirit – and someone whose fashion and flair was on par with my own. It was the mid-1980s and I was at King’s Dominion, the amusement park near Richmond, Virginia, where Patti LaBelle was having a concert that evening. While standing in line for a ride with a couple of friends, one of them commented that someone standing near us looked like Sylvester. “All these tall Queens look like Sylvester,” I replied. I then took a closer look and suspected this was more than a mere resemblance. We got closer and I called out his name. He smiled and we all introduced ourselves. We all ended up sitting down and talking for a couple hours. He wasn’t Sylvester the Star, he was just Sylvester James, our Sister. We talked about music, lyrics, life, and much more. I remember him saying, “I wish people would just listen to the music and be free.”
I had the opportunity to interact with him briefly several times after that initial meeting. Every time we saw Sylvester perform live we all danced, shouted, and were lifted higher by his music and his spirit. We were able to transcend our problems as queer people, as people of color, as Black people, as people dealing with prejudice, poverty, illness, and whatever other obstacles we all faced. Free people free people, and that he was and he certainly did!
Before Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus appeared at LGBTQIA Pride celebrations, Sylvester was performing at festivals and participating in parades and marches, even until the very end, when he was pushed along in a wheelchair. Sylvester was out there before anyone really knew what being “out” looked like. The 1988 Castro Street Fair was “A Tribute to Sylvester” to show appreciation for all he had done for his community over the years. He died later that year, on December 16.
I hope the younger generations will remember Sylvester. I encourage them to see the production Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, backed by the fabulous Sheryl Lee Ralph, any chance they get to see it. They can read the biography The Fabulous Sylvester by Joshua Gamson. They can also watch the superb episode of “Unsung” on TV One about Sylvester. Most importantly, they can listen to Sylvester’s music online or from the CD or vinyl collection of someone with good taste in music.
Sylvester’s legacy will live on, not just in music, but because his royalties which, after years of paying off Sylvester’s debt, now benefit the charities AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand. His legacy will live on in every person who discovers Sylvester for themselves and is inspired by his story and his fearlessness. His legacy will live on until a time when young people will not understand why it is that how a person dressed, expressed their gender identity, or who they loved would be anything more than a footnote in their story.
Rayceen Pendarvis, known as the High Priestess of Love and the Goddess of DC, is an emcee, columnist, social media personality, and host of various events produced by Team Rayceen, including The Ask Rayceen Show, a monthly free community festival and live entertainment event in Washington, DC. For more information about Rayceen Pendarvis, Team Rayceen, and The Ask Rayceen Show, please visit AskRayceen.com
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