“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… Sylvester rode his marginality right into the mainstream: a star not despite the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality he eagerly crossed but because of them.”
Joshua Gamson, ‘The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco’.
I can close my eyes and it’s 1982 with an image of hundreds of dancing, shirtless gay men, in a shabby gay disco in a Northern industrial city in England. Arms in the air, they’re screaming ‘Do you want to fuck?’ while Sylvester’s ‘Do ya wanna funk’ booms out from the speakers. It was a challenge to the world where gay rights and sexual freedoms were growing but AIDS was emerging out of the darkness and it was a middle finger to the censors, who never imagined the word ‘funk’ to mean anything else but a quirky dance genre. As ‘the good old days’ always are, they were anything but, but Sylvester and the rest of the HI-NRG disco movement provided us with a few primal scream moments, in which we could dance together and ignore the rumours circulating the scene.
Sylvester was just something else! I have a strange feeling he would meet more resistance today than back in the days when HI-NRG, was our music and hadn’t yet hit the mainstream. He was other-worldly in some way; a glittering reflection in the disco ball and most people’s first experience of cross-dressing glamour and high camp but he fitted the high-powered, tinny, dance groove music like a glove.
What very few knew was that he was far more talented than the Patrick Cowley produced disco hits showed. He was a Billy Holiday, Bessie Smith-inspired soul singer and like so many others, started off in gospel choirs and church music but he’d also paid his dues and worked his way through every grimy club known to man to become a star.
Born in Watts, Los Angeles in 1947, he came from a family who had moved to L.A. as part of the black migration from the southern states to the west coast in the 1930s. His mother, Letha Weaver was born in Palestine, Arkansas and because her mother, Gertha was too sick, her aunt Juju, took the decision to try to find a better life with her husband Egypt Morgan and took Letha with them. The names alone are evocative of the times but there was little romanticism attached. It was a hard life in the South but in many ways, even harder in Los Angeles. Sylvester’s always gave his grandmother Juju the credit for being his biggest influence:
“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.”
It seems that the young Sylvester was somewhat of a singing prodigy in the family’s Pentecostal church community and travelled the gospel circuit with a growing reputation as a child gospel star but he was effeminate and allegedly fell prey to abuse from the church organist. He always insisted that it was consensual but he was only eight at the time! Can that ever be consensual? In the end, however, he ended up with anal injuries from this man and as a result, the doctor informed Letha that her son was homosexual.
His mother had real problems with this news. It clashed with her beliefs and she found it unnatural and a perversion. As these things do, the news leaked out into the church congregation and the resulting pressure and stigma led to him abandoning the church when he was 13. However, as with so many great soul singers, the gospel training and public performances stood him in good stead and formed the basis of his future career.
“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…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.”
However in between, the teenage Sylvester became a bit of a wild child. Undoubtedly influenced and probably scarred by rejection and very early sexual activity, he hung out with a random and changing group of young black boys attracted to the world of drag and gender-blending. He was known as ‘Doony’ in those times and the group called themselves the Disquotays and they spent their time learning the art of drag and showing off at frequent all-night parties.
After that small collective inevitably broke up, Sylvester moved up a notch, at least in terms of excess and became a member of the Cockettes. These were anarchic hedonists who explored LSD and anything else they could lay their hands on and created theatrical extravaganzas for their own community and curious hangers-on. Sylvester was reputed to be one of the more ‘normal’ members of the troupe.
“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.”
It was all part of the learning curve though. He developed his own performance persona called ‘Ruby Blue’ who was a chanteuse, basing her act on the rich catalogue of soul and blues from Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday and the other great black divas of times past. On stage, he could indulge his love of that sort of music, create and refine his transvestite persona and practise his craft and especially his falsetto that became such a trademark later.
If you mix in those circles, you’re pretty much in sync with the scene and the musical trends that are taking over the disco clubs at that time but he was able to distinguish himself from the herd and become a performer in his own right. It was a question of making the right choices and meeting the right people and that’s exactly what happened. In the mid-70s, he became simply ‘Sylvester’.
In 1977, he signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records and worked with the old Motown producer, Harvey Fuqua, who produced his first relatively unsuccessful album, ‘Sylvester’ in 1977 and the ‘Stars’ album of 1979. Sylvester later accused him of cheating him out of millions but the best contact he made was with frequent collaborator, Patrick Cowley. Cowley’s synthesiser sound and Sylvester’s voice moved him closer to dance-based music and produced by Cowley, his second album ‘Step 11’ gave him 2 massive disco hits; ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat)’.
In the autumn of 1978, these two simultaneously-released, songs dominated the US dance charts and made Sylvester, if not a household name at least one which young club and disco goers instantly recognised. His striking appearance helped establish his growing reputation as an artist to be reckoned with. Eventually, in 2004, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, along with Sylvester himself a year later.
At the same time, he’d met Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, two larger than life women who were his backing singers on tour and in the live shows, as well as on disc. They went by their own name of Two Tons of Fun, (largely due to their self-celebrated size) and later went on to become gay icons and international stars in their own right as The Weather Girls, (who can forget, ‘It’s Raining Men’!)
In 1979, Sylvester received three Billboard awards and he even appeared in the Bette Midler movie, ‘The Rose’. Sylvester was seemingly suddenly big business but he’d worked his ass off to get there. He recorded four more albums with Fantasy Records and then signed to Megatone Records, founded by Patrick Cowley. It was at that label that the mega hit, ‘Do You Wanna Funk’ (1982) emerged, as a track from the soundtrack of the film ‘Trading Places’
Of course, the record companies and the business men behind them tried to get him to ‘man up’ his image to which he’d respond by appearing in full drag but this may have been the reason why (along with increasing ill-health), when his restless nature led him to switch to Warner Brothers, his only album was ‘Mutual Attraction’ in 1986. It did provide them with another number 1# hit with ‘Someone Like You’ though (with a Keith Haring record sleeve).
Sylvester; Sex and HIV/Aids
As you can imagine from reading about his teenage years, Sylvester was no stranger to sex and like most people at the time, took full advantage of the new freedoms to explore sexual identity. Those pre-AIDS decades were a time of exploration and many people were just kids in candy stores when it came to sex. Sylvester never pretended that he was anything else but promiscuous and even in his early teens, he dressed in full female attire, despite that being illegal in the state of California. That said, he was also a hopeless romantic and frequently fell in love.
“In 1971, as a Cockette he had "married" a boy named Michael Lyon in a public double gown ceremony. When he toured England he told Melody Maker how he longed for his boyfriend John. On the "Living Proof" album he dedicates a song to his lover. In his interview with Barry Walters he sadly stated, "I need a boyfriend so bad." That romance helped him find the passion in his songs, but it also increased his loneliness and desperation towards the end.”
He lived with Rick Cramner, an architect, for two years and proudly showed off a wedding ring to Joan Rivers in a TV show. However, when Rick started to become sick Sylvester was worried. A short while after, while recording tracks for a follow-up album, he was plagued by bouts of coughing that wouldn’t stop. He checked into hospital and discovered he had pneumonia and that he too was infected with the virus. Rick died in the autumn of that year and Sylvester was devastated.
So many people were succumbing to AIDS in his circles. Patrick Cowley was among them (died 1982). It must have seemed a foregone conclusion to everyone affected and there’s little doubt that Sylvester must have feared the worst.
Nevertheless and contrary to what you might imagine, he was a Christian. In an interview with the San Francisco Sentinel during those times he said:
“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.”
He also added:
"I don't believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God."
He began to suffer from fevers and was frequently winded after performing, so treatment was started. It didn’t really help and he was often chronically fatigued. In a phone interview from his home, he said:
"I can't walk very well anymore…I have problems with my feet and sometimes the pain is unbearable. But I don't like to take pain killers because of the side effects."
Many people’s last visual memories of Sylvester were in June 1988, when at 40, he led the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, in a wheelchair. He insisted that he wanted to march with the People with AIDS contingent and although it wasn’t officially known, this gesture confirmed what many already suspected. Sylvester was very unwell with AIDS and people who saw that were shocked but applauded his courage. That morning he called on all his friends to support all the Aids organisations they could, insisting:
“The love between us all is so important in this crisis.”
The next few months were a series of physical struggles and he was confined to his house as his body broke down. He even had difficulty paying his hospital bills but perhaps mercifully, that problem was solved by his death in December, 1988. At the end, he was in such pain that he couldn’t bear anyone to touch him. His best female friend, Jeannie Tracy looked after him during the last few days.
Shortly before his death, the 1988 Castro Street Fair in San Francisco was named a “Tribute to Sylvester”. Despite being too ill to attend, he could hear crowds of people chanting his name from outside his bedroom window. At his funeral, he was dressed in a gold-embroidered red kimono, with bright red hair and bright pink lips. Even in death, nobody was going to take the ‘fabulous’ out of Sylvester.
What set him apart from many others and perhaps foresaw a problem that exists still today, is that he looked at the bigger picture and saw that HIV/AIDS was still seen as predominantly a white man’s problem.
"It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a white male disease…The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we've been so hard hit by the disease. I'd like to think that by going public with this I can give other people courage to face it."
He spent a great deal of his waning energy in spreading AIDS awareness. Even in 1988, he tried to tell people that although black people were 12% of the population, more than 25% of all reported cases of AIDS came from that group. He made sure that royalties from the sale of his music would benefit two charitable organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area: the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand. He was one of the very few artists who gave their royalties away to charity in perpetuity.
"I've never been a crusader, but I've always been honest. I may not volunteer details to the media, but I've never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone."
Perhaps Sylvester’s biggest contribution to the LGBT stride against the virus was his music. It’s still frequently played and TV clips are still frequently shown. He symbolised that moment in time before the crisis struck but he still symbolises why we can’t be beaten by HIV. His disco anthems are still a middle finger to threats from outside and the elements of stigma and intolerance that still plague us today. ‘Do ya wanna funk?’ You bet we do!
The following Youtube videos are, an episode from BBC’s ‘Queens of Disco’ and of course, 6 minutes of glorious disco in ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk’.
Jake Austen’s fascinating article from roctober.com.