Sylvester James, who performed as Sylvester, was a Gay disco icon. Through his gospel-trained falsetto voice, Sylvester demonstrated disco music’s potential for ecstatic expression as he melded camp (hilarious performance, often involving effeminate behavior), sonic-driving beats, and spiritual fervor.
Sylvester was born September 6, 1947, into an upper class family in Los Angeles. He gained renown as a gospel singer while still very young. By the age of fifteen, he had begun to experiment with drag. These two elements of his life catapulted him into stardom at the height of the disco era.
At the age of twenty-two, Sylvester moved to San Francisco in 1970. He was befriended by a member of the Cockettes, an avant-garde theater troupe that performed in drag. Sylvester was adopted by the troupe after doing a Billie Holiday impression with a gardenia in his hair. He became the opening act of the Cockette show as a vintage blues nightclub singer. The Cockettes were a hit in San Francisco, but they were not successful at all when they performed in New York, where audiences met their loosely structured performances with disdain. Sylvester, however, received rave reviews. Back in San Francisco, Sylvester opened for the Pointer Sisters with his back-up musicians, The Hot Band, and he cut two records for Blue Thumb in 1973 as a blues singer. Neither album sold well.
Queen of Disco
Disco music began as a quasi-underground phenomenon influenced heavily by Gay men and Black musicians. By 1975, disco had begun to go mainstream. Sylvester gained international fame when he fused the disco beat with Black gospel.
Sylvester moved into the Castro District of San Francisco and paired with Martha Wash and Izora Armstead-Rhodes, two women who also sang gospel and performed as Two Tons O’ Fun (later on as the Weather Girls, they had a hit on their own, “It’s Raining Men,” in 1982). Sylvester’s first album together with Wash and Armstead-Rhodes, Sylvester, yielded the hit tune “Over and Over.” Sylvester and Two Tons O’ Fun performed at Elephant Walk, a Gay bar at Eighteenth and Castro, on Sunday afternoons through 1977.
Disco expanded as a genre in which camp, androgyny and Gayness were increasingly permissible. A new band was assembled for Sylvester, and he met Patrick Cowley, who did the lighting for City Disco and who was famous for his dance music productions, including a sixteen-minute remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Sylvester’s next album, Step II, was released in the summer of 1978. This album was expressly dance-oriented to catch the cresting wave of disco. The A side contained two songs: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” Both of these songs, released as the two sides of a 12” single, reached the #1 position on the American and British dance charts, which led to appearances on American Bandstand, Dinah Shore, and The Merv Griffin Show. Sylvester appeared in drag on all of them.
Cowley did a treatment of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” similar to his Donna Summer remix. Sylvester followed this success with another hit: “Do You Wanna Funk.” Pressure from the label to dress and behave more masculine inspired him to attend meetings with record companies in drag.
Sylvester’s fame in San Francisco was enough to get him into the War Memorial Opera House in March 1979, where he gave a sold-out performance, complete with back-up singers, band, and a 26-piece orchestra. From that concert came the double album, Living Proof, along with studio recordings. In 1984, he performed at the Castro Theatre with a 14-piece orchestra and back-up singers (Jeanie Tracy, Martha Wash, Daryl Coley, and Lynette Hawkins). By that time, however, his appeal was waning, and the event did not sell out.
Sylvester and the Castro
Making his home in the Castro District of San Francisco, Sylvester became an integral part of the District’s history. He performed at two of Harvey Milk’s birthday parties, one on May 22, 1978, Milk’s last birthday among the living, and the other on Milk’s posthumous birthday on May 22, 1979, the day after the White Night riots that occurred when Milk’s assassin, Dan White, was acquitted of murder.
Sylvester regularly performed at the annual Castro Street Fair. An activist who volunteered to work with HIV+ patients and who raised money for AIDS-related charities by performing for benefits, he was too ill from his own struggle with AIDS to perform during the 1988 Castro Street Fair, so the event was dedicated to him. That same year, he would participate in the Gay Freedom Parade in a wheelchair. He died on December 16, 1988, from AIDS-related complications. “I don’t believe that AIDS is the wrath of God,” he was reported to have said. “People have a tendency to blame everything on God.”
Joshua Gamson, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco. New York: H. Holt, 2005.
Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-1979. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2003.
Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: A Secret History of Disco. New York: Faber and Faber, 2005.