SYLVESTER: Disco Diva
“God, don’t ask me how I got started or how old I am or about the Cockettes! Let’s just say that I came from an upper-middle-class black bourgeois family in Los Angeles and that I left a boring nine to fiver to move to San Francisco. Better still, let’s say I was the first test tube baby!”
So declareth one of those rare artists who touched our lives with music, but more specifically, he was extremely talented and quite possibly the most outrageous and out spoken singers during the colourful disco era that dominated the world’s music during the mid-late seventies. Yep, it’s Sylvester!
For the record though, Sylvester James was born on or around 6 September 1947 in Los Angeles, and was raised by his mother and step father. Details of his early life are sketchy (and changeable depending on the mood he was in) but he did admit to being raised in church as a “child wonder of gospel”. By the time he was eight years old, he was a real star, travelling the gospel circuit on the East Coast and throughout the South. “At twelve I knew who Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were. Just like New York. When I went to New York, I knew New York. Where to go, what to do” he told me. “I have lived there in past lives. And the interest in black period theatre and music was there because I knew these people in my past lives.”
Sylvester credited his grandmother, Julia Morgan, as being the biggest influence in his young life “She was a blues singer during the thirties and travelled all over. She told me about black stars, that period of time when stars were stars, black or white.” As a teenager he scrounged around record shops, buying old 78 discs from the twenties and thirties to bring to life his grandmother’s words. It was also she who told Sylvester that he was gay so “I escaped from the church and totally stopped singing. I was too busy being the dark queen on Sunset Strip.” He performed in the musical 'Women Of The Blues' before joining The Cockettes of which he said “They were a gas. I loved them. I was already strange as far as the rest of the world was concerned and I felt I had safety in numbers. We did period pieces and we also did some preposterous glitter rock and roll.” Eventually he outgrew the group and chanced a solo career using the sets and costumes he used while a Cockette. He lived and worked as a woman, changed his name to Ruby Blue, drank gin and played piano on stage. “My mother says I’ve always lived in my fantasies!”
Skipping a few years here, Sylvester signed to Blue Thumb Records in 1973 where he released a trio of albums – 'Lights Out San Francisco,' 'Scratch My Flower' (it had a patch on the record cover which, when scratched, smelled of gardenias) and 'Bazaar.' As quirky as the releases were, they failed to elevate him to the dizzy heights of success. However, that day wasn’t far off. Nancy Pitts and Harvey Fuqua (ex Moonglow and Marvin Gaye’s mentor) chanced to see Sylvester perform at the Palms Café, San Francisco, where he held his Sunday workshops. This chance meeting led to a Fantasy Records’ recording contract where his debut album 'Sylvester' was critically acclaimed though not a big seller. But the single 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' was. When released in the summer of 1978 it raced into the top ten to become one of the inconic singles of the disco period as it figured in all the world’s charts. Dance music changed overnight as producers attempted to emulate Sylvester’s music, while he was crowned the Queen of Disco. The singer was also a guest reviewer for Blues & Soul in 1978, where he spoke on singles released by Eddie Floyd, Stephanie Mills, Loleatta Holloway and Wilson Pickett among others. As an aside here, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' lived on. In September 2004 it was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, and a year later its singer was also inducted for his achievements as an artist.
Sylvester’s second stormer 'Dance (Disco Heat)' followed, a top thirty entrant, while plans were put in place for him to tour the UK. With Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash, the Two Tons Of Fun (later The Weather Girls) Sylvester took London by storm as he performed to frenzied audiences in Hammersmith Odeon. He combined disco with gospel; ballad with dance, as he mesmerised the sold out theatre. His stage presence was graceful and witty, and the encore saw him return to the stage wearing a tiara saying “you can’t be a queen without a crown” before launching into 'Never Can Say Goodbye.' In actual fact, Sylvester had arrived at Heathrow wearing this damned tiara because he had nowhere to put it in his luggage. “I also carried a bunch of dead roses too. They died on the flight and again, I didn’t know what to do with them. So carried them like a bouquet.” A right regal pose which the photographers at the airport couldn’t get enough of. Also, one was never sure what Sylvester would talk about during his interviews – which was wonderful for journalists but not so for his anxious record company. For example, he once declared “I want to marry Prince Charles so’s I can be the Queen of England. Oh, isn’t Diana a lovely creature? I don’t care that he married her. There’s room for two.” However, it was all a game to him because underneath the glamour, glitter and quick tongue, Sylvester was a quiet, home-loving chappie who would rather stay at home with his partner, play records, or cook dinner for friends, rather than getting off his arse to travel from one end of the world to the other promoting his work.
From his success here, Sylvester took his show to The Opera House in San Francisco, where he performed, wearing a sequinned costume and feathered headpiece, at a gala black tie concert backed by a 28-piece orchestra. He was the first disco artist ever to appear at the Opera House. He also won three major awards at the prestigious Billboard Disco Forum in New York, and was presented with the keys to San Francisco on 11 March when it was proclaimed Sylvester Day.
Now let’s move from recording to acting when he made his film debut in 'The Rose' starring Bette Midler and Alan Bates. At some point during our evenings out, Sylvester told me “I play a singer who sings with Bette. It’s a Bob Seger tune ‘The Fire Down Below’. The film is loosely based on the lives of rock stars and personalites who were big and who died of overdoses of drugs. Heavy 1969. It’s not anything to do with Janis Joplin herself but loosely based on that type of character. …The film as a whole is the basic rise and fall story.”
Prior to the release of the 'Mighty Real' album, Sylvester released his London show- stopping version of 'I (Who Have Nothing)', followed by 'Stars' the single and album. 'Living Proof' in 1979 was his last album for Fantasy Records. He then signed with Megatone Records to release the Hi-NRG classic 'Do You Wanna Funk' in 1982, which was later featured in the 'Trading Places' movie. The 'All I Need' album was also issued in 1982. Then came the single 'Band Of Gold', and album 'Call Me' a year later.
I caught up with him again in January 1985 (this was to be his very last visit). “There you are bitch, I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages dear.” Sylvester had matured; his dress more conservative but, he admitted, his desire to shock people remained as solid as ever. “I still love being glamorous, but it’s also my work and a lot of the joy and fun has been taken out of it because it is work. Now I’m into chic clothes and objects. I also like diamonds.” He confided that when he was younger, one of his favoured fantasies was to find a treasure chest crammed with wonderful and expensive bangles and diamonds. Like most fantasies, he never found it, so purchased his own chest and began filling it with goodies. Also in 1985 his '12 By 12' album was issued, causing a lot of interest but poor sales. A year later 'Mutual Attraction' arrived , and three years on 'Immortal' was released after his death in memory of his great talent.
With the furore of the heady disco days behind him, he said he wouldn’t have changed a thing. But admitted his priorities had now changed. “At the time of ‘Mighty Real’ I didn’t want to sing disco and I had no choice when the record took off. I had to go along with it. Now, I’m lucky enough to be doing what I want and I’m singing still because it’s fun.”
Although this feisty creature became a stranger to our shores and charts, he continued to perform in America, until the news broke that he’d been struck down with AIDs. It was a long and painful haul for someone who had grabbed life with both hands. He told the San Francisco Sentinel in a rare interview that he’d done it all. “Been, had, lost and given away everything, but my life has always been spared…God has been good to me. In my stupidity, my awfulness, you know, raging, raving and carrying on, He has always taken care of me.” But by late 1988 Sylvester couldn’t walk and cried in pain if anyone touched him. When that pain became totally intolerable, morphine was administered allowing him to die in peace on 16 December 1988, twenty years ago this month. He was about 40 years old.
The funeral service was held in the Love Centre church in a large converted theatre in Oakland, and Sylvester was buried in the family plot in Inglewood cemetery. His body was dressed in a gold-embroidered red kimono, his hair was bright red and his lips bright pink. Sylvester looked as fabulous in death as he did in life.
Words SHARON DAVIS