Sylvester - "Dance (Disco Heat) feat. Two Tons of Fun"
In June we will be featuring all LGBTQ+ artists in honor of LGBTQ Pride Month
Sylvester James Jr. who used the stage name of Sylvester, was an American singer-songwriter. Primarily active in the genres of disco, rhythm and blues, and soul, he was known for his flamboyant and androgynous appearance, falsetto singing voice, and hit disco singles in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Born in Watts, Los Angeles, to a middle-class African-American family, Sylvester developed a love of singing through the gospel choir of his Pentecostal church. Leaving the church after the congregation expressed disapproval of his homosexuality, he found friendship among a group of black cross-dressers and transgender women who called themselves The Disquotays. Moving to San Francisco in 1970 at the age of 22, Sylvester embraced the counterculture and joined the avant-garde drag troupe The Cockettes, producing solo segments of their shows which were heavily influenced by female blues and jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. During the Cockettes' critically panned tour of New York City, Sylvester left them to pursue his career elsewhere. He came to front Sylvester and his Hot Band, a rock act that released two commercially unsuccessful albums on Blue Thumb Records in 1973 before disbanding.
Focusing on a solo career, Sylvester signed a recording contract with Harvey Fuqua of Fantasy Records and obtained three new backing singers in the form of Martha Wash, Izora Rhodes – the "Two Tons O' Fun" – and Jeanie Tracy. His first solo album, Sylvester (1977), was a moderate success. This was followed with the acclaimed disco album Step II (1978), which spawned the singles "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)", both of which were hits in the U.S. and Europe. Distancing himself from the disco genre, he recorded four more albums – including a live album – with Fantasy Records. After leaving this label, he signed to Megatone Records, the dance-oriented company founded by friend and collaborator Patrick Cowley, where he recorded four more albums, including the Cowley penned hit Hi-NRG track "Do Ya Wanna Funk." An activist who campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS, Sylvester died from complications arising from the virus in 1988, leaving all future royalties from his work to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities.
During the late 1970s, Sylvester gained the moniker of the "Queen of Disco" and during his life he attained particular recognition in San Francisco, where he was awarded the key to the city. In 2005, he was posthumously inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, while his life has been recorded in a biography and made the subject of both a documentary and a musical.
Sylvester has been described as having a "flamboyant and colourful" public persona, wearing both male and female gendered clothes as part of his attire, with his biographer Joshua Gamson opining that for Sylvester, "gender was an everyday choice". Sylvester described his public persona as "an extension of me, the real me". Sylvester's friend and publicist Sharon Davis described him as "a quiet, often thoughtful, caring guy, who put others before himself, and was generous to a fault, having little regard for money. His policy was you only live once, so enjoy!" She also noted that he could be "unpredictable", being "stubborn as a mule" and "always speak[ing] his mind". Sylvester was considered to be a prima donna by members of the Hot Band and could be temperamental and difficult with those whom he worked with. He found it difficult saving the money that he earned, instead spending it as soon as he obtained it, both on himself and on his lovers, friends, and family.
Sylvester was openly gay, with Gamson noting that he tended to enter into relationships with men who were "white, self-doubting and effeminate." In 1978, he entered into a relationship with a young white model named John Maley; Sylvester later devoted the song "Can't Forget the Love" from his Too Hot to Sleep album to his young lover. Maley ended the relationship to move to Los Angeles, later recollecting that Sylvester "was a lovely man, and I owe him a lot." In 1981, Sylvester entered into a relationship with a slim brunette from Deep River, Connecticut named Michael Rayner, but unlike his predecessors, he did not move into Sylvester's house; their partnership ended when Rayner admitted that he had not fallen completely in love with Sylvester. Sylvester's next major relationship was with Tom Daniels, a hairdresser whom he met in 1982, but their romance ended after six months when Daniels discovered that Sylvester had been having sex with other men while on tour.The singer's final partner, the architect Rick Cranmer, was a six-foot two blonde, and the duo moved into a house together in the hills. Cranmer died of AIDS-related complications in 1987, the year before Sylvester succumbed to the virus.
As an openly gay man throughout his career, Sylvester came to be seen as a spokesman for the gay community. He informed a journalist that "I realize that gay people have put me on a pedestal and I love it. After all, of all the oppressed minorities, they just have to be the most oppressed. They have all the hassles of finding something or someone to identify with – and they chose me. I like being around gay people and they've proven to be some of my closest friends and most loyal audiences."Elsewhere, he nevertheless remarked that he felt his career had "transcended the gay movement. I mean, my sexuality has nothing to do with my music. When I'm fucking I'm not thinking about singing and vice versa." He was openly critical of what he perceived as divisive tendencies within the gay community itself, noting that "I get this conformist shit from queens all the time. They always want to read me. They always want me to do it their way. I am not going to conform to the gay lifestyle as they see it and that's for sure". He was particularly critical of "clones" – gay men who dressed alike with boots, boot-cut jeans, checked shirts and handlebar mustaches – stating that all too often they judged those gay people who were flamboyant or extravagant.
Davis characterized Sylvester as an "absolute perfectionist". He was very self-conscious about his physical appearance, and when he obtained enough money from the successful Step II album, he spent part of it on cosmetic surgery to remove a bump on his nose, inject silicone into his cheeks, and have cosmetic work done on his teeth. He would also insist that all pictures of himself were meticulously airbrushed.
Sylvester was born and raised into the Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, and remained a Christian throughout his life. He often compared the ecstatic feelings that accompanied his onstage performances with the feelings experienced in a gospel choir in a Pentecostal church. When performances reached a certain level of heightened emotion, he would comment that "we had service." In later life, he joined the Love Center Church in East Oakland, a ministry founded by the preacher and former gospel singer Walter Hawkins in the 1970s. He had been introduced to the church by Jean Tracie in the 1980s and would soon become a regular churchgoer, enjoying the place's welcoming attitude towards societal outcasts. Sylvester requested that his funeral be undertaken by the ministry at the Love Center.
So today, with boldness and bravery abounding, I choose Sylvester the "Queen of Disco's” "Dance (Disco Heat) feat. Two Tons of Fun", as my, be unabashedly yourself, lift off the ground, do not let them tell you that you are less than, song for a, stand up, stand out, never blend in, Friday.
Happy LA Pride!