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What a star he would be today
The extraordinary musical legacy of Sylvester


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Sylvester - You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)

"Long before RuPaul sashayed onto the Billboard charts in the early '90s, drag diva Sylvester was paving the way for queens everywhere with his hi-energy club tracks."

Though the fabulous Sylvester is no longer with us, his incredible legacy and his music will always live on forever. Nearly 25 years after his passing, Sylvester's first official website, created on behalf of his estate, is getting ready to launch. You can become an Official Sylvester Fan by leaving us your email (we will keep your information private and we will never use it for spam). You'll be the first to know to when the site launches and to hear news about several upcoming official projects about Sylvester that we have in the works.

Sylvester: Mighty Real (Music Doc Short)
The feature-length documentary Sylvester: Mighty Real will bring back to life the pioneering performer John Waters calls a combination of "Billie Holiday and Diana Ross on LSD." Sylvester began as a child gospel singer and sashayed past barriers of race and sexual identity to become the definitive anthemist of disco and dance soul. With a vibrant falsetto and genderbending persona, he redefined what it means—on stage and in life—to be "mighty real." This documentary will restore to the spotlight a pivotal performer whose music defined an era and whose influence is still felt by dozens of current vocalists.

On the most basic level, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) has lasted because it’s an incredible, timeless pop record, strong enough to transcend its era. But perhaps there are other, deeper reasons, too. “Where does the power of that song come from? Why has that power lasted?” says Gamson. “I think it has to do with Sylvester and Patrick’s ability to bring together these things that were on the margins – traditionally excluded from value – and bring them right into the centre.”

And perhaps it has something to do with what a curiously modern figure Sylvester seems, proudly genderqueer before anyone used that term: a man one day and a woman the next, depending on his mood. “More than just a drag queen or a gay guy or a transsexual – he was all of that,” one friend recalled. As Sylvester himself told a New York audience in November 1978, while basking in the first flush of fame that You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) brought him: “Sometimes, folks make us feel strange, but we’re not strange. And those folks – they’ll just have to catch up.”

Disco legend Sylvester's greatest dance hits to be released 25 years after his death

May 1st, 2013 by SDGLN Staff /

Twenty-five years after his untimely death at the age of 41, the iconic legacy of Sylvester, the “Queen of Disco,” will be resurrected with “Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits,” due out June 25 (international release dates vary) on Fantasy Records.

Official Sylvester "Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits" Album Release Event

This collection will celebrate the life and music of the artist who once danced his way into the hearts and minds of the disco and LGBT communities.

A quarter of a century after his passing, Sylvester will make a fabulous debut back into a prolific time in the LGBT community just the way he would have liked it – through dance music. This 11-track release, available on CD and on double pink vinyl, will feature a number of original album tracks and 12” mixes that are rare or no longer available on CD, as well as the brand new remix of the iconic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Grammy-nominated remixer and DJ, Ralphi Rosario (Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Madonna).

As a dear friend of Harvey Milk and an icon to the LGBT community, Sylvester has long held a special place in music and socio-political history. Sylvester was not only one of the first disco stars to stand openly gay, but bravely crossed beyond the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality to become a proud figure of the gay liberation movement.

“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,” liner notes writer Joshua Gamson said. “Like very few before him, and quite a few after, Sylvester rode his marginality right into the mainstream.”

A Los Angeles local, Sylvester found his home in the vibrant subcultural scenes of San Francisco in the late 1960s. As the community around him became devastated with AIDS, Sylvester’s music took on a sort of weary determination, becoming a call to live, to keep dancing and to keep loving.

Sylvester died on Dec. 16, 1988 and bequeathed royalties from the sale of his music to benefit two charitable organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area: the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand.

“Decades later, 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,” Gamson said.

“Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits” was produced by Tom Cartwright and Chris Clough on Fantasy Records with liner notes written by Gamson, author of “The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco.”

The collection will be available across two formats:

• The Single CD edition features 10 previously issued Sylvester tracks plus the brand new dub remix of “Mighty Real” by Ralphi Rosario.

• The Double Pink Vinyl edition features all 11 tracks on two 12” pink vinyl LPs.

• “Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits” will also be available digitally.

Sylvester’s “Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits” tracklist

1. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” [Ralphi Rosario Dub Remix]
2. “Dance (Disco Heat)”
3. “Stars”
4. “Can’t Stop Dancing”
5. “Changes”
6. “Over And Over”
7. “I Need Somebody To Love Tonight”
8. “Sell My Soul”
9. “I Need You”
10. “Body Strong”
11. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

More details

A portion of the proceeds from this compilation will go to:

• The AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF), founded in 1982, was one of the nation’s first responders to the AIDS epidemic, helping AIDS patients live with dignity in their final days. Thirty years Later, AEF is still providing annual housing and utility payment assistance to more than 2,000 people battling HIV/AIDS. Sylvester’s bequest remains one of the few examples of a major artist donating their royalties to charity in perpetuity. To this day, Sylvester’s thoughtful gesture provides tens of thousands of dollars each year to help low-income people with HIV/AIDS who have nowhere else to turn for help.

• Project Open Hand is a nonprofit organization that provides meals with love to seniors and the critically ill. Every day, it prepares 2,500 nutritious meals and provides 400 bags of healthy groceries to help sustain our clients as they battle serious illnesses, isolation, or the health challenges of old age. The organization serves San Francisco and Alameda Counties, engaging more than 125 volunteers every day to nourish our community



Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits | Sylvester

Though the falsetto-voiced San Francisco singer Sylvester cut a pair of eccentric soul- and R&B–steeped albums for the small Blue Thumb imprint in the early ‘70s, his career started in earnest when he hooked up with Fantasy Records and began recording disco anthems that evoked the political and sexual liberation of the late-‘70s club scene. Most exciting were Sylvester's collaborations with innovative producer Patrick Cowley, whose pioneering synth work and affection for electronic textures lent a previously undreamt-of air of icy futurism to Sylvester’s recordings. The 11-track compilation Mighty Real takes its name from Sylvester’s biggest hit: a storming affirmation of pride and self-assurance that appears here twice, first in the form of a house-influenced remix by Chicago producer Ralphi Rosario and finally in the extended mix that graces the original 12”. The remainder of the set features equally infectious disco floor-fillers, the best of which are minimal, synth-saturated Cowley-produced numbers like “Stars” and a spooky ode to nocturnal lust, “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight.”

**** 1/2 rating Available on



Director's Notes

At his yearly, highly anticipated Gay Pride Day Concert in San Francisco in the late 1970's, Sylvester, reveling in his role as a local superstar, ignited the crowd. As shown in the Academy Award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, Sylvester inspired all the clones, fairies, leather guys, and even the preppies, to dance like they were one big, happy, multi-racial family of queens. He even lured a surprisingly demure Harvey Milk onto the dance floor as seen in Gus Van Sant's much praised biopic Milk.

The documentary Sylvester: Mighty Real will explore Sylvester's role as a reluctant political activist and gender-bending powerhouse. At a time when the rallying cry of the gay liberation movement was "Come out of the closet," to see a black queen on stage, "being real," altered perceptions, changed attitudes and helped many thousands of fans feel better about themselves. What's more, Sylvester helped all gay people of color gain a measure of visibility that was often elusive in the world of muscled white men. Today Sylvester endures as an inspiration- and still shows all of us that we all have the power to pursue our own "realness."

Director's Notes on Sylvester's early years:

Sylvester had enough of gay life in his native Los Angeles when a friend suggested he travel to San Francisco for the weekend. Sylvester instantly fell in love with The City by the Bay. By the following Wednesday he was completely moved in to the city that would be his home for nearly 20 years. Some say he arrived on Easter Weekend 1970, but whatever the exact date Sylvester had found a home where he  could live the life he wanted exactly the way he wanted . He found the freedom exhilarating and in no time  found himself surrounded by like minded friends. 

Sylvester moved around from flophouse to flophouse in The Haight-Ashbury section where he enjoyed his status as a black hippie. One day he found his way to a rehearsal of a  radical drag performance group The Cockettes. While surronded by the typical chaos that passed for a rehearsal  Sylvester sat at the piano and tapped out a tune. Soon everyone on stage was standing around the piano listening to the androgynous 22-year-old black hippie deliver a Gospel version of The Mickey Mouse Club theme song.   Sylvester quickly found acceptance.  Soon he was singing as a featured performer every Saturday night in The Cockettes Show at the Palace Theater in North Beach.

Sylvester quickly learned how it felt to have the total attention of 1500 people, and he loved it. To see the audience stand on their feet and hear the roar of applause after hearing his falsetto renditions of "Summertime," "Stormy Weather" and gospel songs like "God Bless The Child." It has been said that Sylvester had not sung in public for eight years and it was here he grew into his own as a performer. Soon his love of creating a fantasy for an audience was born. 

All of The Cockettes including accompanist Peter Mintun were completely amazed at the library of songs Sylvester had in his head.  Peter could just play the first few notes of a song and Sylvester could take it from there. Sylvester's popularity grew and as Peter Mintun said "It took a very short time for him to become famous in an underground sort of way."


Sylvester VHS RuPaul




July 26, 2010 - NUY Tisch School of the Arts
New York, NY

Sylvester fans and distinguished guests gathered to talk about the life and work of Sylvester and how his work continues to influence artists today. Musicians  Ari Gold and Sarah Dash both shared new tracks with the audience, while A&R Universal Music Vice President Harry Weinger talked about a discovery of some of Sylvester's earliest tracks. The panel was filled out with Dr. Jason King and Tim Smyth Sylvester: Mighty Real's producer and director sharing some incredible footage from the documentary.


Sylvester - Epilogue



Bigger Than Disco, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' Is A Celebration Of Self

October 8, 2018
Heard on Morning Edition


Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Sylvester performs with his band at the Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go in 1972.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action.

Dick Clark couldn't get his American Bandstand crowd to stop cheering. It was early December, 1978, around the peak of disco's popularity — and Clark's studio audience had just heard Sylvester and his backup singers, Two Tons O' Fun, perform their first hit, "Dance (Disco Heat)".

After Clark got the crowd to pipe down and conducted an awkward interview, the gender-bending singer — wearing makeup, a loose kimono and leather pants — performed his follow-up single. The song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," hit the top of Billboard's dance chart that year. Forty years later, its greater legacy is as an LGBTQ anthem.

"It's a song of freedom," says Joshua Gamson, Sylvester's biographer. In his book The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco, Gamson makes the case that the artist became a kind of folk hero for many young LGBTQ people, because his life was theirs.

"You've come out of the closet. It's been difficult," he says. "Many people [at the time] have moved out of their homes of origin, their families of origin, with great pain, and moved to a more liberated place, like San Francisco. And then ... this person comes out into public life that sounds like what you were feeling when you made yourself free.

"For him to be celebrated for all of his strangeness and all of the ways he inhabited who he wanted to be — who he felt himself to be — felt like you being celebrated for that."

And it wasn't just how Sylvester looked and sounded. The song's lyrics openly celebrated that liberation:

When we're out there dancing on the floor, darlin'
And I feel like I need some more
And I feel your body close to mine
And I know, my love, it's about that time
Make me feel mighty real

"You've got the words of a person who is just matter-of-fact about their sexual desires, about the freedom to do with their bodies and their desires whatever they want to do," Gamson says. "And you can dance to it!"


Sylvester - You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) - 1978 (By Lázaro)

Sylvester James grew up singing in a Pentecostal church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a devout member of the church and couldn't accept the early signs of her son's sexuality.

"When I was little, I used to dress up, right? And my mother said, 'You can't dress up,' " Sylvester told Joan Rivers when he appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986. " 'You gotta wear these pants and these shoes. And you have to, like, drink beer and play football.' And I said, 'No I don't!' And she said, 'You're very strange.' And I said, 'That's OK!' "

"The [Pentecostal] church was oppressive," says singer Jeanie Tracy, who shared Sylvester's religious background and became his friend and collaborator. "They just didn't tolerate gayness. They didn't tolerate a lot of things. They didn't allow you to wear makeup. You couldn't wear toeless shoes or sleeveless dresses. It was just real ... controlled."

Too much so for Sylvester. At 13, he left the church. Two years later, he left home. He lived with friends and his grandmother, who accepted him as he was.

In his early 20s, Sylvester moved to San Francisco to join an avant-garde theatre troupe called The Cockettes, whose fans included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. But he left the group soon after — to front his own act. Jeanie Tracy remembers being introduced to him by friends in the music industry.

"They said, 'Oh, Jeanie, this is Sylvester,'" she says. "And I said, 'Sylvester? I thought you were a woman.' And then I said, 'Oops! I'm sorry!' He goes, 'Oh, no, girl, that's okay!'"

When guitarist and songwriter James Wirrick saw the singer for the first time, Sylvester was backed by a tight three-piece band and flanked by two drag queens — "in full drag, with full neck-beards," he laughs.

Wirrick became Sylvester's bandmate and collaborator a few months later. By then, the drag queens had been replaced by backup singers Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash, aka Two Tons O' Fun. (They went on to record another anthem — "It's Raining Men" — as The Weather Girls.) Wirrick and Sylvester wrote "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" together. Getting the rest of the band on board was a challenge.

"At first the band didn't wanna play it as a dance tune," Wirrick says. "They were kinda snotty about it. 'We don't really wanna do that,' y'know? And Sylvester and I kept saying, 'No, you have to do that because that's what's on the radio.' "

Sylvester strikes a pose

Sylvester strikes a pose, circa 1975. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

More than on the radio, the song was a huge it in discos — and its falsetto vocals, four-on-the-floor beat and bouncing synthesizer influenced generations of electronic dance music producers to follow. Eleven years after the original came out, vocalist Jimmy Sommerville of the British band Bronski Beat paid tribute with a cover. The following decade, Chicago House vocalist Byron Stingily's version once again took the song to the top of the U.S. dance chart.

The song also went on to become the centerpiece of a 2014 off-Broadway musicalthat tells Sylvester's life story. It's appeared in ads, films, and TV shows. So far this year, James Wirrick says he's gotten eight requests for permission to use the song he co-wrote: a video game, three television commercials, three movies and an episode of The Simpsons.

Sylvester never had a mainstream hit after "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)". A year after it came out, Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl made "Disco sucks!" a rallying cry with his "Disco Demolition" promotion between the games of a White Sox doubleheader; the ensuing melee forced the Sox to forfeit the second game.

Joshua Gamson says the event was a reaction by straight white fans of classic rock against a music that they saw as too black and too queer — and that that backlash is partly why he missed the anthem's power when it first came out.

"In a way, if I had felt that earlier, I'd have come out earlier," he says. "Embracing who you are, celebrating who you are, being as fabulous as you could possibly be, I think that's the message that he's preaching in the song. And I could've used a dose of that as a teenager."

But Sylvester remained popular among dance music fans, and he leveraged that popularity to raise AIDS awareness. He played benefit shows and distributed safe-sex information to his audiences. When he appeared on The Tonight Show, he thanked Joan Rivers and guest Charles Nelson Reilly for their early support of what was becoming a movement. "I was there trying to do whatever we could at the time to get it together. And now it's like a national thing to do," Sylvester said. "I want to thank you myself."

Less than 10 years after "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" came out, Sylvester's husband died of complications from AIDS. The singer was never tested for HIV — he told friends there was no point, because he knew he had the virus. Within a few months, his own health was deteriorating. But, Jeanie Tracy says, his senses of style and humor stayed intact, even as he was planning his own funeral. "He looked at me and he says, 'I wanna be buried in a pearl-colored casket,' " she recalls. " 'Don't bury me in a white casket, 'cause I don't wanna look like I'm lyin' in a white refrigerator!'"

A few months before he died, Sylvester appeared in the 1988 gay pride parade in San Francisco. He was emaciated and weak and rode in a wheelchair. But he didn't want to hide, Gamson says — he wanted the crowds along Castro Street to see him.

"It was part of the same almost philosophy of realness — like, this, this is being real," Gamson says. "This is mighty real, to be marching in the Gay Freedom parade looking, like, 40 years older than you are. And people, knowing that they've seen this icon of their freedom, they see him [as] a symbol of the devastation that AIDS took on the community."

Sylvester made sure to champion that community even after he died. In his will, he left his share of future royalties for "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" to two San Francisco nonprofits: the AIDS Emergency Fund and the meals program Project Open Hand.

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