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Sylvester

Sylvester

Disco singer

Disco-era vocalist Sylvester was one of the first openly homosexual performers to achieve bestseller status. More than that, he was enthusiastically, flamboyantly gay, with an elaborate cross-dressing stage presence that he maintained on many of his recordings and in mainstream interviews on venues such as the Tonight show. On top of these innovations, Sylvester was a highly creative figure and a musical trailblazer. His outrageous stage show, noted New York Times writer John Rockwell, "might be of mostly sociological or psychological interest, except that Sylvester also sings extremely well in a high tenor or in falsetto." Sylvester was identified with disco music and worked with several of that genre's most important figures.

Sylvester himself often expressed the wish to be known as a great ballad singer. He idolized not only the hyper-energetic, sexually ambiguous rock and roller Little Richard, but also soul queen Aretha Franklin, and his own art grew from deep roots in gospel and blues. Sylvester, originally Sylvester James, was born probably on September 6, 1946, in Los Angeles, into a middle-class family, and was raised by his mother and stepfather, Letha and Robert Hurd. Many of the facts of his early life are uncertain, and birth dates from 1944 to 1948 have surfaced. One thing is certain, though: Sylvester was a child gospel star.

He was first encouraged to sing by his grandmother Julia Morgan, who had had some success as a blues performer in the 1920s and 1930s. His talent first surfaced at the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in South Los Angeles, and soon he was making the rounds and stirring up audiences at churches around southern California and beyond, sometimes billed as the "child wonder of gospel."

Sylvester's home life disintegrated when he was a teenager. He clashed with his mother and stepfather, finally running away from home at age 16. For several years he lived on and around the streets of Los Angeles, but he managed to finish high school and enroll at Lamert Beauty College. He also claimed to have worked at the city's La Brea Tar Pits for a time. Sylvester found his spiritual home when he moved to San Francisco in 1967.

Taking a job as a hair stylist, Sylvester began bringing together the strands of his musical personality. He joined a gospel choir in Oakland, and even at the height of the hedonistically-oriented disco era, he often would devote a segment of his stage show to gospel music. He began performing in drag in a Chinatown nightclub under the name Ruby Blue, modeling his show on what he knew of his grandmother's career. In 1970 he was invited to join an experimental theater troupe called the Cockettes, which featured transvestite performers and outrageous satire.

The Cockettes recruited Sylvester for his vocal skills, hoping that he could instill in the group something of the power of his gospel vocals. In turn, the group unleashed Sylvester's creativity. He elaborated on his Ruby Blue alter ego in a "Harlem Theater" segment, where he dressed in gowns and feather boas and began to give solo performances. Sylvester formed his Hot Band in the early 1970s, performing the likes of classic blues, Ray Charles songs, and rock numbers by Neil Young. Future Journey guitarist Neal Schon was a Hot Band member at one point.

With the Hot Band, Sylvester recorded his debut album, Sylvester, released on the jazz-oriented Blue Thumb label in 1973. It was sometimes known under the title Scratch My Flower, because of a scratch-and-sniff gardenia imprinted on its cover in honor of another of Sylvester's influences, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. The album and its successor, Bazaar, featured the Hot Band's typical mix of rock, blues, and classic pop, but by the mid-1970s a new musical style was coming to symbolize the culture of San Francisco's gay nightclubs: disco music merged with high-tech European production techniques and African-American dance rhythms, in a sensual new brew that quickly gained popularity beyond gay circles.

Signed to the Fantasy label by the influential African-American producer Harvey Fuqua, Sylvester had moderate success with his 1977 debut that, like his Blue Thumb debut, was entitled Sylvester. But it was the singer's second album on Fantasy, Step II, that brought him to national prominence. The music on Step II was both high-tech and earthy, with synthesizer arrangements by disco studio wizard Patrick Cowley. The arrangements perfectly set off the impassioned, gospel-drenched vocals of Sylvester and his two plussized backup vocalists, Two Tons o' Fun, later to be known as the Weather Girls when their song "It's Raining Men" became an international hit. Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" dominated dance-club playlists in 1979, were awarded gold records (for sales of 500,000 copies each), brought the singer several Billboard Disco Forum awards, and landed him in a GQ magazine photo spread.

At a concert at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House in March of 1979, Sylvester, attired in a sequined outfit, was given the key to the city by the city's mayor, Dianne Feinstein. Music from the concert was released on Sylvester's Living Proof album, and at this point his renown extended well beyond that of gay record buyers. His popularity slipped slightly, along with that of the disco genre, in the early 1980s. But Sylvester signed to Cowley's Megatone label and continued to record dance hits such as "Do You Wanna Funk," and a cover of Freda Payne's "Band of Gold." Sylvester's three albums for Megatone, the last two recorded after Cowley's death from AIDS, drew attention from major labels, and in 1986 his Mutual Attraction album was released by Warner Brothers. Sylvester also sang backup vocals on Aretha Franklin's hit album of that year, Who's Zoomin' Who, and on its hit single "Freeway of Love."

Mutual Attraction brought Sylvester a second turn in the spotlight. During an appearance on television's Joan Rivers Show, he proudly displayed a wedding ring given him by his architect partner, Rick Cramner. By the end of 1986, however, Cramner had begun showing symptoms of AIDS, and Sylvester too had tested positive for the virus. Soon he began losing weight, and his condition deteriorated steadily. In the last two years of his life he worked to raise awareness of AIDS in the black community.

Sylvester died on December 16, 1988, in San Francisco. Writer Armistead Maupin, according to Completely Queer, eulogized him as "one of those few gay celebrities who never renounced his gayness along the ladder of success." Sylvester's musical influence was already apparent in the work of cross-dressing British pop star Boy George and his band Culture Club, and his reputation continued to grow after his death. A display of Sylvester materials was shown in 1998 at the San Francisco Public Library, and in 2004 the singer was the subject of a New York University academic symposium, Sylvester: The Life and Work of a Musical Icon.

For the Record . . .

Born Sylvester James on September 6, 1946, in Los Angeles, CA; died on December 16, 1988, in San Francisco, CA; lived with partner Rick Cramner (an architect). Education: Attended Lamert Beauty College.

Formed the Hot Band, early 1970s; signed to Blue Thumb label, released Sylvester, 1973; signed to Fantasy label; released disco LPs including Sylvester (1977) and Step II (1978); signed to Megatone label; released All I Need, 1982; signed to Warner Brothers label; released Mutual Attraction, 1987.

Selected discography

Sylvester (also known as Scratch My Flower), Blue Thumb, 1973.

Bazaar, Blue Thumb, 1973.

Sylvester, Fantasy, 1977.

Step II, Fantasy, 1978.

Stars, Fantasy, 1979.

Living Proof, Fantasy, 1979.

Sell My Soul, Fantasy, 1980.

Too Hot to Sleep, Fantasy, 1981.

All I Need, Megatone, 1982.

Do Ya Wanna Funk, Unidisc, 1982.

Call Me, Megatone, 1984.

M-1015, Megatone, 1985.

Mutual Attraction, Warner Bros., 1986.

Sources

Books

Aldrich, Robert, and Garry Witherspoon, eds., Who's Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History, Routledge, 2001.

Hogan, Steve, and Lee Hudson, Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, Henry Holt, 1998.

Periodicals

Independent (London, England), January 10, 1989.

New York Times, December 18, 1988, p. 60.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 10, 1998, p. E1.

Times (London, England), January 3, 1989.

Washington Post, December 18, 1988, p. B16.

Online

"Sylvester," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 19, 2004).

"Sylvester," Queer Cultural Center, http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/Sylvester/Syl_Bio.html (December 19, 2004).

"Sylvester," Roctober.com,http://www.roctober.com/roctober/greatness/sylvester.html (December 19, 2004).

—James M. Manheim

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Sylvester

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