This was written for the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife, Mickey Weems, ed., and it's referred to at the Qualiafolk website. It's not a crossposting.
For you, it's the beginning of what I hope, by the beginning of July, will be a weekly series on the disco era, that commercialized manifestation of gay liberation that people associate with the 1970s. We begin with our VERY own disco diva, one Sylvester James (1947-1988).
ONE of the youtube videos I've embedded is the one song -- the ONLY song -- you really need to remember from the disco era.
It is almost impossible to discuss the aftermath of Stonewall without acknowledging the fact that, as a consequence, gay men and women gained the right to dance in their own bars without having to worry about any further police harassment, and dance bars and discotheques constituted one of the main sites of gay liberation. Sylvester James, who performed as “Sylvester,” is an extraordinary figure in GLBTQ history, as he became the first – and perhaps only -- gay “disco diva.” Sylvester, more than any other disco artist, demonstrated the form’s potential for ecstatic expression, as he used his gospel-trained falsetto voice to rewrite the possibilities of pop music in the service of gay desire and pleasure.
Sylvester was born September 6, 1947, into what he called an upper class black bourgeois family in Los Angeles. Although he was brought up by his mother and stepfather, Letha and Robert Hurd, he was most influenced by his grandmother, the blues singer Julia Morgan. At a very young age, his ability as a Gospel singer was apparent, and, by the age of fifteen, he had begun to experiment with drag, and these two elements of his life would catapult him into stardom at the height of the disco era.
In 1970, at the age of twenty-two, Sylvester moved to San Francisco, which he found to be much more congenial than Los Angeles. He was befriended by a member of the “Cockettes,” a legendary avant-garde theater group which has been described as “hippies in drag.” Sylvester was adopted by the troupe after doing a dead-on Billie holiday impression, with a gardenia in his hair, at a party. He was soon retained as the opening act of the Cockette show, which he performed as a vintage blues nightclub singer.
The Cockettes were successful in San Francisco, but they flopped in New York, where they staged their last performance in the autumn of 1971. However, Sylvester, who opened for them, 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.
By 1975, disco, which had been a quasi-underground phenomenon involving gay men and those black musicians who specialized in dance music had begun to go mainstream. Sylvester, who had moved into the Castro District, had paired with Martha Wash and Izora Armstead-Rhodes, two big black women who also sang Gospel and performed as Two Tons of Fun (as the Weather Girls, they had a hit on their own, “It’s Raining Men,” in 1982).
The trio was signed by Harvey Fuqua, a record producer who had worked for Motown and was now producing on his own for Fantasy Records, and their first album together, Sylvester, yielded the hit tune “Over and Over.” Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun performed at Elephant Walk, a gay bar at Eighteenth and Castro, on Sunday afternoons through 1977.
In the spring of 1978, Sylvester was invited to appear in drag in the Bette Midler film, “The Rose. As disco expanded as a genre in which camp, androgyny and gayness were increasingly permissible; Fuqua assembled a new band for Sylvester; at the same time, Sylvester met Patrick Cowley, who did the lighting for City Disco, and who had gained a modicum of fame for a sixteen-minute remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Sylvester’s next album, Step II, released in the summer of 1978, was expressly dance-oriented to catch the rising 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. This led to appearances on American Bandstand, Dinah Shore and The Merv Griffin Show, and Sylvester appeared in drag on all of them. Sylvester had managed to fuse the disco beat with the gospel R&B tradition, but adding the synthesizer catapulted him beyond both of these, especially after Cowley did a treatment of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” similar to his Donna Summer remix.
Sylvester followed this success by performing at the War memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1979, and by moving to Megatone Records, where in 1982 he entered the Hi-NRG arena with the now-classic "Do You Wanna Funk." (here in a remix by Razormaid which just improves it)
Pressure from the label to "butch up" his image led him to attend meetings in full drag. Sylvester wan’t the first musician to address his homosexuality, but he never sang simple, feel-good music; in fact, he sang back up for Aretha Franklin on her 1985 album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who. By 1976, Warner Brothers signed him for an album, Mutual Attraction, and “Someone Like You” became Sylvester's second #1 hit on the American dance chart
Sylvester died on December 16, 1988, from complications from AIDS. He left a new sound, one that articulated the pleasure of the dance floor, while recognizing it was not always bliss. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and Sylvester himself were inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame in recognition of his achievement as an artist.
I restrained myself as far as embedding went, too.
Joshua Gamson, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco (2005) - a very good biography by a very smart sociologist.
Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music, 1970-1979 (2003) -- I learned a LOT from this book, because there were things about the decade I didn't remember even though I lived through it.