During disco’s late ‘70s popularity peak, Donna Summer reigned supreme. She landed 14 singles in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100, four of which reached No. 1. She had three consecutive No. 1 albums on The Billboard 200 album chart.
Summer’s music and legacy are celebrated in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which played Morsani Hall last week, closing Sunday. The dancefest showcased the woman rightfully regarded as the “Queen of Disco.”
Summer, though, wasn’t the only singer graced with that title. She shared it with Sylvester, a San Francisco-based singer with far fewer hits but a legacy that is just as important as Summer’s, for different reasons.
Sylvester James already had a colorful resume′ before he lit up radio and dance floors with his 1978 hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” As a Los Angeles teenager he was a member of the Disquotays, a group of young drag queens that a former member described as “somewhere between a street gang and a sorority house.” Sylvester claimed that during the 1965 Watts riots, the Disquotays joined in, looting stores for wigs, lipstick and hairspray.
After high school, he moved to San Francisco and joined the Cockettes, a cross-dressing performance art troupe fans of which included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. His tenure with the Cockettes was brief, and he soon parted for a solo career. Backed by musicians known as the Hot Band, he recorded two albums of serviceable funk-rock that sold zilch.
Dropping the Hot Band from the billing, Sylvester recorded an album under his own name that sold about as well as its predecessors. His second Sylvester album, 1978’s Step II, was another matter entirely, thanks to its opening track, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”
Written by Sylvester and his guitarist James Wirrick, the song picks up where Summer’s “I Feel Love” left off, its electronic pulse practically inventing the Hi-NRG subgenre over its six-and-a-half minutes. It nosed into the Top 40 at No. 36 but was No. 1 on the dance charts. Listen and it’s easy to hear why. The irrepressible beat practically carries you onto the dancefloor, while the chorus is sheer, ecstatic joy. It is one of the best disco tracks ever and a great record regardless of genre.
Sylvester never had another mainstream hit although he remained popular with dance music fans. Sylvester’s impact was felt far beyond the stage and dancefloor.
Sylvester was openly gay at a time when few if any gay celebrities were publicly out of the closet. He rejected the term “drag queen,” but often performed in full drag. For Sylvester, it wasn’t just a performance. An article on kqed.org said he “occasionally slipped from ‘he’ into ‘she’ pronouns, wearing makeup, wigs and sequins one day and a three-piece suit the next.” He was genderfluid decades before most people ever heard the term.
Also, Sylvester was part of San Francisco’s vibrant gay community at a time when the city by the bay was a gay Mecca. Mayor George Moscone appointed gay men and women, along with women and members of other minority groups, to city commissions and boards. Harvey Milk was elected to the city’s board of supervisors, the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. Although not overtly political, Sylvester, simply by being himself, was a living, breathing monument to gay rights and inclusion.
As AIDS began to ravage the gay community, Sylvester took an active role in raising awareness about the disease, playing benefit shows and providing safe-sex information to fans. He also volunteered in a local hospital’s AIDS ward. Sadly, he contracted the virus, and soon after his boyfriend passed from the disease in 1987, Sylvester’s own health began a downward spiral, and he died a year later.
Subsequent generations have discovered Sylvester through cover versions of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” or use of that tune in commercials. He’s been the subject of a biography (The Fabulous Sylvester by Joshua Gamson) and a musical (Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical) and even an interdisciplinary academic conference (University of Sussex, 2018). Sylvester might look on all this attention with amusement, but he’d almost certainly feel it was deserved. He knew he was a star long before he had a hit single, and if he ever doubted his own fabulousness, it didn’t show. More than ego, though, Sylvester’s belief in himself reflects the courage of a man who was true to himself regardless of what anyone thought.
It cost him. He was rejected by his mother and by the Pentecostal Church where he first wowed audiences with his voice. It likely cost him greater success: His label grew squeamish about promoting a gay, black, cross-dressing performer. The homophobia and racism that undergirded the anti-disco backlash didn’t help either.
Through it all, Sylvester stayed true to himself. He resisted any effort to rein in his flamboyance and his blurring of gender lines. More than 30 years after his death, Sylvester is an inspiration for anyone trying to be fabulous in the face of society’s norms. He was, and remains, mighty real.