Sylvester (1947–1988) was an unabashedly flamboyant, cross-dressing, and cross-genre recording artist who took the 70s by storm in disco, then moved back to his roots in gospel and soul in the 1980s. Born in Watts, L.A. as Sylvester James, Jr., Sylvester developed a love of singing through his Pentecostal church choir, where he showed considerable talent quite young. Yet despite his outstanding voice, he was also subject to heartbreaking bigotry and ignorance from his church and his original family. Accepted unconditionally his grandmother as a teenager and by a community in San Francisco that embraced him spiritually and musically in the last decades of his life, Sylvester would eventually make peace with his mother before his death. Sylvester broke through many barriers simply by being true to himself as a person and as an artist.
Sylvester was performing moving gospel songs by the age of 3, and by the age of 8 was a featured soloist in his church’s gospel choir. Yet Sylvester’s early life as a performer was a career bust but a musical bonanza, filled with groups with catchy names like The Disquotays, The Cockettes, and Sylvester and The Hot Band, through which he made lifelong musical connections and friendships with musical greats such as Etta James, Smokey Robinson, and others. Through these connections, he expanded and perfected his repertoire to include blues, jazz, classical r&b, rock, soul, and of course, his beloved gospel music. In the mid-70s Sylvester teamed up with two friends and backup signers – Izora Rhodes and Martha Walsh (then known as Two Tons of Fun) – and his performing and recording career took off. Two Tons of Fun would themselves later became well known as the Weather Girls for hits like “It’s Raining Men.” From 1976 forward, his solo career took off during the height of the disco era, where he developed large followings in the UK and the US, and notably in San Francisco.
During this time, five of his songs became gold record hits, selling more than 500,000 copies each, and one went platinum, selling more than one million records. Among Sylvester’s hits were Dance (Disco Heat) in 1978, selling more than a million records. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)‘ in 1979, Do You Wanna Funk? in 1982, and Someone Like You in 1987 each topped 500,000 records sold. In retrospect, Sylvester’s music videos seem tame now, but in their time they were considered edgy, and to some, outrageous. His soulful, glittering style of performance influenced major performers like The Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler and the Pointer Sisters.
Sylvester was an AIDS activist in his last years and upon his death in 1988 from AIDS left all future royalties from his work to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities.
Artist photo (b&w) credit: RB Redferns