Long before San Francisco was known as the home of technological innovation, it was feared and revered the world over as the home of liberation – a place where freaks and fairies found the freedom to let their spirits soar. Countercultural heroes from San Francisco’s Summer of Love in the late 60s didn’t often break out of the Bay Area. The mainstream couldn’t handle their fierceness, but one local legend who defied and shattered every gender, racial and sexual boundary was disco and dance music legend Sylvester.
Utterly extraordinary is how Sylvester still gives life to San Francisco, thanks to his dying wish to give something back to the charities that were there for him when he died tragically in 1988, due to complications from AIDS.
Nearly three decades after Sylvester’s passing, an unbelievable discovery resulted in a windfall donation on behalf of his estate, even though he had died deeply in debt. To this day, every time one of his songs is heard, royalties are donated to AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand, keeping the extravaganza days of disco and his loud-and-proud legacy alive.
Born Sylvester James, Jr., the singer who was synonymous with the word “flamboyant” put San Francisco and the sound of the 70s on the map. His unique falsetto voice, emanating from his larger-than-life persona, was rooted in the gospel choir of a Pentecostal church in his hometown of Watts in Los Angeles.
Not surprisingly, the church disapproved of his homosexuality, turning him into a homeless runaway at age 15, and giving rise to what can only be described as Sylvester’s transcendence. He first found his tribe with the Disquotays, a group of black cross-dressers and trans women in LA known for “masquerading” in Supremes-era Diana Ross drag, before he moved to San Francisco in 1970 at the age of 22.
He later admitted to being scared of San Francisco upon first arriving, shocked not just by the city’s tolerance, but by its aggressive acceptance of brazen sexuality and unapologetic individuality. But it wasn’t long before these traits became the hallmarks of his outsized contributions to music, and to a trailblazing noncomformity that inspired gender-bending generations to come, including a young RuPaul.
Shortly after he found his way to San Francisco and never looked back, Sylvester joined the city’s famously outlandish psychedelic theater troupe, The Cockettes. Specifically, he was one of the Chocolate Cockettes, and quickly became the group’s star, with virtuoso solos of torch songs by Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker.
On and off the stage, he cultivated rich fantasies of being related to or even living as reincarnations of these blues and jazz icons. His dazzling performances and stunning vocal gifts created buzz among the the same critics who panned the Cockettes, and Sylvester was hailed as a breakout success.
Initially, Sylvester tried to take a rock-n-roll route with his solo career, forming The Hot Band. But the act never took off, despite having The Pointer Sisters as backup singers. However, the Hot Band did land a gig as the opening act for David Bowie, a kindred spirit in androgyny who commented that San Francisco “didn’t need David Bowie because they had Sylvester.”
Such was the level of Sylvester’s inimitable style. Both he and Bowie were seemingly from their own fabulous planets, with such tremendous talents and audacity as to be in categories of their own. This was particularly challenging for Sylvester, who faced the additional taboos of being black and gay, which led to violent threats when The Hot Band toured more conservative parts of the United States. Eventually, the band broke up, leaving Sylvester without much commercial recognition, nor a recording contract.
Sylvester tried to reinvent himself musically a few different times and ways, but had no luck with adding various drag queens to his ensemble. He traveled abroad in search of new inspiration and eventually found a new manager, the late Harvey Fuqua, who set him up with auditions for a new set of backup singers.
Then Martha Wash stepped into that audition, changing Sylvester’s life and career forever. Serendipity prevailed when Sylvester asked Wash if she knew of another black singer, equal in size and vocal force. She and Izora Rhodes came to call themselves the Two Tons of Fun (later known as the Weather Girls), and musical magic resulted.
Sylvester found his groove and his iconic look in between two women who took him back to his gospel roots. They matched his vibe in a way that resonated beyond their gigs at local clubs like The Stud and The Endup, and soon caught the attention of Fantasy Records.
In the late 70s, Sylvester started moving away from cover songs and began recording the dance music that became the definitive sound of his fearless originality. But his uncompromising artistry wasn’t always met with the rousing reception he had come to expect and appreciate in San Francisco.
On his first solo album, Sylvester was briefly convinced to adapt his image to be more like the typical R&B singers of the time, but his glittery gay star had begun to supernova. He performed regularly in the Castro and became a friend to Harvey Milk, performing at Milk’s birthday party and at Castro Street Fairs.
Sylvester hit his stride with disco, finding a musical home alongside divas like Donna Summer and Grace Jones, and gained notoriety as “The Queen of Disco,” though his diverse influences and bold presence borrowed from and evolved upon many diverse genres.
Singer Jeanie Tracy was eventually added to the Sylvester mix, at Honey Records. Theirs was a special sisterhood – in friendship as well as in the studio and on stage – that would last until the last of Sylvester’s days.
Perhaps Sylvester’s most potent and certainly his most emblematic hit came in 1978, with “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” a song that has been dubbed a cornerstone of gay disco. “Dance (Disco Heat)” came from the same album, which enjoyed global success. Also that same year, Sylvester made a cameo appearance in “The Rose” with gay icon Bette Midler.
Sylvester’s passion and personality took him all over the world, but he always returned to San Francisco, having transformed the musical, social and political landscape with his unrepentant realness. In 1979, he performed on the main stage of San Francisco Pride, which back then was called the Gay Freedom Day Parade. The year also marked a high point for him personally and for his career, with a sold-out show at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
It was an epic homecoming for the star, an unforgettable scene that John Waters later described as “Billie Holiday and Diana Ross on LSD.” Sylvester donned his highest drag and twirled with handfuls of glitter for a house packed with over-the-top characters ranging from raucous leathermen to staid politicians. Sylvester acknowledged his mother in the audience, and raised the roof with songs like Patti Labelle’s “You Are My Friend.” Then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein even sent an aide to the event to award Sylvester with the key to the city, and to proclaim March 11 “Sylvester Day.”
“Oh he was one of a kind, honey!” says Tracy. “He brought so much joy to the city. People knew that when he was gonna do a show in town, it was gonna be some kind of show. That opera house will never be the same!”
Little-known was how Sylvester continued to struggle mightily with publicists who still wanted him to tone down his image to appeal to conservative music executives. He could barely butch himself up, and quickly gave up trying, allegedly donning a pink chiffon gown to declare his defiance at a corporate photo shoot intended to make him palatable to audiences beyond the visibly queer disco scene.
“You couldn’t contain him,” Tracy says, laughing as she tells the story of her introduction to Sylvester. At first, she assumed he was a woman, until he told her his name. Sylvester refused to let her apologize for the confusion, which delighted him.
It was Tracy who later helped Sylvester find his way back to to the church, which had been the birthplace of his most authentic self and sound. “The church can be really hard on people,” she says. “But he felt the need to go back. He used to tell me he wanted to go to church so bad.”
She encouraged him to attend services at The Love Center, an Oakland ministry that had revolutionized gospel music through its founder, Bishop Walter Hawkins, and that embraced worshippers from all denominations and all walks of life, regardless of race, creed or sexual preference. (It was The Love Center choir that backed Sylvester up in the video of Stevie Wonder in 1986, “Living for the City.” Tracy joined Lynette and Tramaine Hawkins on the album version.)
“You can just be Sylvester there. You don’t have to be anything else,” Tracy told him about The Love Center, and they began attending services together, sharing dinners together at Tracy’s home after. Sylvester hadn’t gone back to church to be spotlighted as the musical idol he had become, but rather to be truly real. It was there the he found peace with his family and his community, as he grieved the loss of his partner to AIDS and faced his own struggle to live with the disease.
Tracy was close with Sylvester during the most celebratory and the most difficult of times, as his caretaker and confidante. “A lot of people didn’t realize back then that, when you’re dealing with AIDS, sometimes you’re fine, and sometimes you’re looking at death’s door,” she says.
While Sylvester didn’t publicly acknowledge his battle with illness, he boldly insisted on joining San Francisco’s Pride parade in 1988, knowing full well the impact his emaciated presence in a wheelchair would have on an event that had honored him so many times before as a larger-than-life performer.
“I was sitting on the back of a pink Cadillac behind him as we progressed down the street,” Tracy recalls. “There were tons of people, and it was just the most devastating thing to watch them all recognize him and then to see their hearts breaking as they realized how frail he was. There were people crying all the way to the end of the parade, but what a courageous thing it was that he did.”
“He was just a force,” Tracy continues. “I was in awe of him, even though he became my friend.
“That he used to call me ‘Sister Jeanie’ and that that he would call me from wherever he was all over the world, it amazed me for him to think about me in that way. Singing with him was just like a dream.”
She recounts a time when she and Sylvester opened for Dionne Warwick’s concert in San Carlos, and she was so excited that she asked Sylvester to sign her copy of his hit album. “Girl, you don’t need an autograph, you have me,” Sylvester told her, inscribing her album with the words “Stay fabulous, but please stay.”
Tracy, who had joined Sylvester and the Two Tons of Fun as Wash and Rhodes had begun pursuing a separate act as a duo (in which they would go on to record the gay anthem “It’s Raining Men”), recalls Sylvester’s love of singers like Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin, and treasures her memory of singing with him on Aretha’s 1985 album, “Freeway of Love.”
And it was Tracy who told Sylvester’s hero Patti Labelle that it would mean the world to Sylvester if Labelle would visit him when he was too sick to perform. Labelle obliged, just before Sylvester died and was memorialized at The Love Center in an open coffin wearing a lavish red kimono with matching red lipstick. At Sylvester’s request, Tracy sang the gospel classic “Never Grow Old.”
“He was never ashamed of being who he was, and he let the world know,” Tracy says, adding that she doesn’t often listen to Sylvester songs anymore, because the loss of her friend remains so raw. “I was at the beauty shop once and they played Sylvester’s night at the opera house, and I just started sobbing when I heard Patti Labelle’s ‘You Are My Friend.’ ”
Years later, Tracy broke down into tears again, sitting next to Sylvester’s sister when she heard the overture to “Mighty Real: The Musical.” She thought she might not make it through the show, but found joy in the scenes featuring the Sylvester character enjoying Tina Turner songs on the radio. “It looked like Sylvester and sounded exactly like him, and I’m so happy that people are now embracing Sylvester’s story,” she says.
Tracy continues to cultivate and embrace her own Sylvester story. She laughs as she describes a time when Labelle borrowed this story on her own tour. Tracy was listening back stage as she heard Labelle tell the audience about a little gold box that belonged to Sylvester. Tracy had given it to Labelle, who said on stage that the box was where she keeps her tears for Sylvester.
Tracy’s story, and she’s sticking to it: “I feel like Sylvester is just on tour and I’m gonna get a phone call… I haven’t buried him yet.”
And thankfully neither has San Francisco, which hosts Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at the Brava Theater Center February 17 through March 13. The show tells “the life story of Sylvester through HIS music and HIS point of view. Beyond all the trials, tribulations, glitz and glamour of his lifestyle, he was a symbol for being FABULOUS, but, also, a symbol for unapologetically being who he was. The words and music of this show will enter your ear, soar through your heart and inspire your soul.”
The Sylvester story that never grows old and never stops inspiring is the angelic fundraising that continues in the wake of Sylvester’s passing. His directive to donate future royalties – a generous gesture completely typical of Sylvester but completely atypical of most celebrities – was unthinkable at the time of his death.
In 1988 there was little interest in Sylvester’s music and no money was coming in to pay off the advances he had taken from his royalties. But by the early 1990s, the debt had been paid and a sizeable balance was building.
“It turned out that disco, had in fact, never really died, and the use of Sylvester’s songs…had produced a steady stream of revenues,” The Bay Area Reporter wrote in 2010. “But the record company had no idea where to send the money.”
In 2005, around the time Sylvester was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame along with Chic and Gloria Gaynor, author Joshua Gamson published his biography, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco. It was then that lawyers began the work of researching and designating beneficiaries for Sylvester’s estate. Project Open Hand was chosen as the modern-day equivalent of the organization founded by Rita Rockett, who ran a program at San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86 to donate food to AIDS patients.
Some $140,000 in accrued royalties were split between Project Open Hand and AIDS Emergency Fund, and the money keeps on rising, particularly following the 2013 release of a tribute album showcasing 11 remixes, Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits, and the continued touring of the Mighty Real, A Fabulous Sylvester Musical.
It is an enduring legacy befitting Sylvester, who was exceptional in every way. “Sylvester James was an unlikely star: an androgynous, cross-dressing, openly gay, African American, falsetto-singing, unapologetically flaming man-diva influenced primarily by church women, black blues singers, drag queens, hippies and homos,” writes Gamson. “Like very few before him, and quite a few after, Sylvester rode his marginality right into the mainstream.”
“Decades later,” Gamson continues, “even as strides have been made in the fight against the disease that has taken so many lives, Sylvester’s music lives on, a call to be fabulous against the odds.”
Suzan Revah is a writer and creative consultant, philanthropist, self-identified fun-raiser and is simply in the business of making magical moments, by any means necessary. She’s an advocate for San Francisco and the LGBTQ Community. She also knows her way around a dance floor. Find out more at SuzanRevah.com and at Facebook.com/suzanrevah