September 6, 1947– Sylvester James Jr.:
“I know you must’ve had someone in your life that made you feel real.”
John Waters said of the great falsetto-voiced Disco legend:
“Sylvester was a gay, black diva who never really fit into any minority but managed to achieve his dreams of stardom. Now that’s what I call a man.”
Sylvester’s fabulous life as a musician began as a youth at his Pentecostal Church in Los Angeles. Sylvester was an effeminate kid with a stirring voice who sang in the church choir and at regional Gospel Music events. For years, he was molested by one of the church’s ministers. The church blamed the victim, shunning Sylvester.
His relationship with his mother and new stepfather was troubled over his gayness and when he was 14-years-old, he went to live with his grandmother who had been a Blues singer in the 1930s. He idolized her, and she accepted his gayness.
When he was a teenager, he began hanging around with gay boys and transgender women on the Sunset Strip. They called themselves The Disquotays and shared a love of music, glamour, make-up and outrageous fashion. The often found themselves in trouble for being in drag. In the 1960s, a man dressing as a woman was a criminal offense.
In 1969, Sylvester smartly moved to San Francisco where he lived for the rest of his short life. At Chinatown’s Rickshaw Lounge, he dressed in drag and sang Blues and Jazz using the name Ruby Blue. He soon became the talk of the town. Sylvester:
“My life started when I moved to San Francisco.”
He made quite an impact as a singer. The gender-bending cabaret troupe The Cockettes invited Sylvester to be a member. He was given a star spot in their revue Hollywood Babylon singing The Big City Blues.
The Cockettes’ show was campy mayhem, but Sylvester’s act was authentic Blues/Jazz in the tradition of Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. He became The Cockette’s main attraction. The troupe took their revue to NYC, performing Off-Broadway in 1971. Critics and audiences did not go for The Cockettes’ brand of stage insanity, but they embraced Sylvester, and he decided to make a go of it as a solo act.
He released two albums that sold poorly, but in 1976, Sylvester had the bright idea to hire two plus-sized backup singers, Martha Wash and Izadora Rhodes. They went by the name Two Tons Of Fun. Sylvester and his girls were a big hit in San Francisco and in Europe.
At a dance club, Sylvester was introduced to Patrick Cowley, a gay board-mixer and synthesizer player. Cowley was an Electronic Dance Music pioneer, and he added synthesizer on top of Sylvester’s next singles You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Dance (Disco Heat). Both records were massive hits and made Sylvester a star. He appeared on The Dinah Shore Show, American Bandstand and The Merv Griffin Show. He was featured in magazines and played a Diana Ross female impersonator in the film The Rose starring Bette Midler.
Sylvester gained the moniker of the “Queen Of Disco” and toured all over the globe, but he always came home to San Francisco where he was loved. Sylvester appeared with Harvey Milk at the Castro Street Fair and played a significant role of the early Gay Liberation Movement. In 1979, Sylvester received the Key To The City from Mayor Dianne Feinstein. March 11 was declared “Sylvester Day“, and that night he played to a packed house at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House with Two Tons Of Fun, his band and a full symphony orchestra. The stage was filled with gladiolas and a huge banner read: “Flowers While You Live”. The evening was recorded live and was released as an album titled Living Proof. It proved that he could sing not only his Disco hits, but also the Blues and Jazz ballads that he loved. That year, Sylvester also performed on the mainstage of SF’s Gay Freedom Day Parade and released another Disco hit, Can’t Stop Dancing.
Before taking the stage, Sylvester liked to take a hit of Acid with a Champagne and Quaalude chaser, just to take the edge off.
By 1982, Sylvester signed to Megatone Records, a new label created by Cowley. He wrote Sylvester’s next big dance hit, Do Ya Wanna Funk?. Cowley dropped out of Sylvester’s world tour because he wasn’t feeling well. It was 1982, and no one knew that the 32-year-old Cowley had the new plague. HIV/AIDS still didn’t have name. Within a year, it was killing an entire generation of gay men. Sylvester bravely volunteered at the hospital AIDS ward, at a time when doctors didn’t know how it was spread. He performed at the first AIDS benefits.
Disco, in the 1970s, was the friendliest form of music for gay performers. That welcoming of gay people created a violent backlash against Disco by some rock fans. Bruce Springsteen wrote a Disco tune, Protection, for Donna Summer to push against: “The subtle homophobia and racism of the anti-disco movement.” Sylvester recorded traditional R&B albums, including one that had him dressed as a dude on the album’s cover, but he could never match the success that he found in Disco. He was also a great Rock singer. His first album, recorded as Sylvester And The Hot Band, has ferocious covers of songs by Neil Young, James Taylor, and Lieber And Stoller. Promotor Bill Graham booked Sylvester to play a Rock show, but never booked him again after he showed up on stage in silver sequined chaps. After that, he refused to perform as anyone but his over-the-top, flamboyant, drag wearing self.
The Disco era began to ebb, but Sylvester continued to tour. He continued to have Dance Music hits with the prophetically titled All I Need, Too Late, Take Me To Heaven, Living For The City and Someone Like You. He also sang on Aretha Franklin’s Freeway Of Love.
Sylvester appeared on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers in December 1986. He sang and then matter-of-factly talked of his marriage to his partner, showing his wedding ring for all of America to see. When Rivers described him as a “drag queen”, Sylvester corrected her with:
“I’m not a drag queen… I’m Sylvester.”
Sylvester’s husband was Rick Cranmer, a tall blonde, blue-eyed architect that he met backstage in 1984. Cranmer was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. The night after Carnmer passed, Sylvester performed at the Gay Softball World Series Party, singing a new song, You Are My Friend.
Sylvester was diagnosed soon after. He was put on the experimental anti-viral drug AZT, but it made him sicker and he stopped taking it. Sylvester went public about his diagnosis, and at that year’s Gay Pride events, speaking from a wheelchair, he said:
“Down the line, I hope I won’t be in a lot more pain. But I don’t dwell on that. I’ll be fine, because my spirit is fine. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
During the 1988 Castro Street Fair, the crowd was told to chant Sylvester’s name so he could hear their tribute while he was in bed two blocks away at his apartment.
Sylvester left this world on December 16, 1988, taken by the plague at just 41-years old. His memorial was held at the Love Center Church in East Oakland and he is buried in L.A.’s Inglewood Park Cemetery.
Sylvester is honored with a panel on the AIDS quilt and an engraved boulder at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.
Royalties from his music still go to a pair HIV organization in San Francisco. Two Tons Of Fun achieved mainstream success as The Weather Girls and had a mega-hit with It’s Raining Men. They continued to work with Sylvester until his passing.
Sylvester’s soaring falsetto marks him as one of America’s greatest singers, performing songs in nearly every genre. From an early age to the final years of his short life, he personified strength and courage. Sylvester was a rebel. He was black, but didn’t really identify with the Black Community. He was gay, but didn’t quite fit in with the Gay Community. He wore drag, but didn’t consider himself a Drag Queen. He was a Christian, but did not fit in with his church. Sylvester used his considerable talent as a radical visionary of music, identity, and authenticity. Sylvester was a rebel. I love him for that.