Rolling along with Black History month, it gives me so much pleasure to write about this legendary icon. Sylvester James Jr., born September 6th 1947 in LA, was an American singer/songwriter. Known by his stage name Sylvester, he is recognized as one of the great Queens of the disco era reigning along side the likes of Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor.
Sylvester grew up in Los Angeles with his mother and siblings. He became aware of his sexuality from a young age and by the age of 15, he left home, mostly in part to his somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his mother and stepfather. Dysfunction that was centred around their inability to accept his sexuality. Now homeless, Sylvester spent a great deal of time with his grandmother, who unlike his mother, accepted his sexuality. It’s said that she had many gay friends in the 1930’s and so was able look past the thing that stood out the most about her grandson. He soon befriended a gang of other gay black men from his community and they called themselves the Disquotays. Known for wandering the town decked out in women’s attire, they were a fierce bunch often throwing posh house parties with good friends like the legendary Etta James.
Sylvester graduated high school at the age of 21. Instead of the usual drab graduation attire, he donned a blue chiffon prom dress and rocked a beehive hair style. The Disquotays soon disbanded and Sylvester began to grow bored with life in Los Angeles. He met a fellow black gay man who was blown away with his androgynous appearance and encouraged him to move to San Francisco to join a drag troupe- The Cockettes. Drawn by San Francisco’s reputation for being welcoming to gays and other social outcasts, he moved to the city by the Bay and joined the Cockettes. As a member of the group, Sylvester stood out from the rest; mainly because where the rest of the group opted for risible attire and outlandish facial make up, Sylvester’s choice was classier and lady like- like a pretty woman. Sylvester soon gained the attention of the manager of the Palace Theatre and was cast in a spoof film, Tricia’s Wedding, followed by his own show entitled Sylvester Sings. Despite his one man show he remained with the Cockettes. After the group started gaining ground with media attention, Rolling Stone magazine singled out Sylvester’s performances and appearance compared to that of a ‘beautiful black androgyne‘.
With this new found media attention, the group took their show to New York City in November of 1971. There they engaged in lavish parties thrown by celebrities like Andy Warhol. The critics didn’t take well to the groups performances with Sylvester’s act being praised as the highlight of the show. He soon began to distance himself from the group often apologizing for the mess that followed prior to each show. The group disbanded the following year. Upon his return to San Francisco, musical prospects started to materialize. Rolling Stone editor Jane Wenner presented an opportunity to Sylvester record an album. The album wasn’t released; it was considered incapable of commercial success. His backing band for this project was unique in that the members were all white heterosexual males called the Hot Band. After a few local gigs they were asked to open for androgynous english rock star David Bowie. The event didn’t sell well and Bowie proclaimed that the people of San Francisco had no need for me since they had Sylvester.
Through a friend Sylvester aligned himself with a new manager. She suggested that in order for him to attain a recording contract he should don more masculine attire. She set up auditions for him to find new backing singers. It was at these auditions that Sylvester noticed a large black woman by the name of Martha Wash. Taken with her appearance and talent he asked her if she knew of any other large black women like herself. She said yes and introduced him to fellow singer Izora Rhodes. An instant connection was formed with “the girls” as he often called them. Soon the girls went by the new name Two Tons O’ Fun or just Two Tons. Two Tons would go on to change their name to the Weather Girls and scored a hit single and timeless gay anthem with “It’s Raining Men”
With his new line up Sylvester gained a regular gig playing at a night club where he caught the attention of Nancy Pitts, wife of Motown producer Harvey Fuqua who offered Sylvester a solo recording contract with Fantasy Records in 1977. There he released his third album, entitled Sylvester, which produced a minor hit- “Over and Over”. In 1978 on the heels of his success he started to gain popularity soon scoring a reoccurring gig at the Elephant Walk- a gay bar in the Castro, one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the U.S. He befriended Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold public office in the state of California and performed at his birthday bash later that year. As part of his rising success he snagged a cameo role as a drag queen in the film The Rose starring Bette Midler. He began working on his follow up album, Step II, which was heavily influence by the emerging disco genre. This album produced the mega hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”
Sylvester’s success followed and from 1979 to 1986 he recorded and released 6 albums, changing record labels after being robbed by Motown producer Harvey Fuqua. In 1986 in the midst of a major global health crisis that plagued the gay community initially known as GRID– Gay Related Immune Deficiency or HIV/AIDS as it’s now known, Sylvester’s partner Rick Cranmer discovered that he had the virus. Cranmer soon succumbed to the disease leaving Sylvester devastated. Refusing to take a blood test he knew that there was a chance that he too was infected and noticed a persistent cough- one of the first symptoms of the disease. He chose not to take the antiretroviral drug that was used to treat the disease at the time due to the serious side effects it caused. He attended the 1988 Gay Freedom Parade in Castro in a wheelchair. The Castro street fair that year was deemed “A Tribute to Sylvester” and though too ill to attend, it is said that he heard the crowd chanting his name from his bedroom.
He became an AIDS activist and continued to give interviews in which he highlighted the havoc the disease was wreaking on the African American community. He’s quoted as saying that “I don’t believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God.” By Thanksgiving 1988 Sylvester had become almost bed ridden and dependant on morphine to ease his pain. He died on December 16th 1988 at the age of 41. Remaining true to himself he planned his own funeral and as per his wishes, he was buried in a red kimono with full make up.