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    Music Megastar Sylvester Brought Realness and Depth to Disco

    rainbowguyA true superstar, Sylvester represented the black and gay cultural origins of disco to mainstream America and made it possible for RuPaul’s success. His body of work includes crucial contributions to the disco songbook, but his ballads proved he was a versatile stylist who brought a realness and depth to all material.

    Sylvester James was born to a slightly bourgeoisie family in Los Angeles that included the blues singer Joan Morgan. After moving to San Franscisco, he spent time in the experimental troupe Cockettes, where he really began his performing career. Things took off after he met Harvey Fuqua, a one-time producer at Motown who was then a scout for Fantasy Records.

    Fuqua signed Sylvester, who began work on an album. In a stroke of luck, Izora Whitehead and Martha Wash were discovered singing background vocals at a concert and Sylvester jumped at the chance to hire them. He renamed the hefty pair the Two Tons of Fun, and they were an integral part of Sylvester’s success, adding stage presence as well as reminders of his gospel roots. The self-titled Fantasy debut dropped in 1977 without much fanfare, but it did gain cult status via the remake of the Ashford and Simpson’s “Over and Over.”

    rainbow2Sylvester’s greatest achievement was the later released LP Step II. As it was being recorded, Sylvester let Patrick Cowley, then an up and coming re-mixer, hear an early version of “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” Cowley’s synth overlays transformed the former ballad into a disco tour de force. The driving beat and keyboard flourishes reflected the intensity of gay disco at its best, while Sylvester’s impassioned vocals communicated the anticipation of sex. Arriving at the height of discomania, the combination proved irresistible. Much to the horror of disco haters and homophobes (who were largely one and the same), he was launched into the mainstream. The accompanying video made a mockery of Fuqua’s attempts to tone down his flamboyance, as Sylvester strolled around a disco in full drag.

    “Mighty Real” won several Billboard disco awards, placing Sylvester in disco’s stratosphere. The other single from the album, “Dance (Disco Heat),” featured the Tons on lead vocals. Their performance was pure gospel spirit, so powerful that all Sylvester could do was come in halfway through the song with a scream that anybody familiar with the black church will recognize as the “happy shout.”

    Despite the obvious magic he had with dance material, Sylvester never viewed himself as a disco act. He was more inspired by performers such as Patti Labelle, who were known for different types of music. Sylvester therefore announced that an upcoming compilation, Stars, would be his only pure disco album. A celebration of nightlife, the four tracks dared you to sit down as he and the Tons worked the hell out of “I Who Have Nothing.” It’s a classic.

    rainbowDisco crashed among the popular audience in 1980, so Fuqua figured now was the time to branch out into other styles. He soon had Sylvester doing strange versions of “Ooh Baby Baby” and “Cry Me A River,” while actually banning Cowley from entering the studio.

    Creative differences led to Sylvester signing with Cowley’s Megatone label after he did the lead on Cowley’s “Menergy.” The timing was impeccable, as the label had a completed album sitting in the vaults that they couldn’t previously release. Sylvester simply cut new vocals and All I Need was born. The record was highlighted by the driving “Do You Wanna Funk,” a more aggressive sequel to “Mighty Real” that was a huge hit and set the template for hi-NRG.

    Call Me and M-1015 were his other albums for the label, but with Cowley’s death at the age of 32 from AIDS, Sylvester had to work with producers Ken Kessie and Morey Goldstein, who couldn’t match Cowley’s standards. “Take Me to Heaven,” “Sex” and “Band of Gold” were all dance hits, but didn’t quite compare to the Fantasy material.

    Oddly enough, after years of paying dues with small companies, Sylvester found himself on Warner Brothers for the LP Mutual Attraction. “Someone Like You” had a Larry Levan mix, but Sylvester was unable to take full advantage of his new resources as he was diagnosed with AIDS. He stopped performing, yet stayed in the spotlight to raise awareness about the disease. Sylvester died in 1988, only 40 but with a legacy that will forever endure.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.