In Sickness and Health, Sylvester Keeps Mighty Real
TWO IMAGES OF SYLVESTER:
It’s 1978, and disco rules. Donna Summer may be acknowledged as one Queen of Disco, but for gay men, Sylvester is the Other Queen. The falsetto singer has suddenly gone from drag infamy to hit records without giving up the gowns. “Dance (Disco Heat)” is hustling up the pop charts, and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” isn’t far behind. Sylvester and his background singers the Two Tons o’ Fun are whipping up audiences of every race and sexual persuasion with spiritual voices and sinful rhythms. Whirling and twirling and shrieking out gospel-inflected dancefloor exhortations like Little Richard’s kid sister, this San Franciscan man in glittering couture looks and sings as if he’s just seen God … boogie.
Now it’s 1988, and Sylvester has AIDS. He’s joined the People With AIDS group of the San Francisco Gay Pride March in a wheelchair. Although he’s just 40 years old, his thinning gray hair, sunken features, and frail body make him look 25 years older. This is Sylvester’s first public acknowledgment of his illness, and the transition from glamour maven to out-patient has made him almost unrecognizable. The few who spot him cry, or gasp in shock, or applaud his bravery. For almost 20 years, Sylvester has been an icon of San Francisco nightlife: outrageous, bold, proud. Today, Sylvester is a symbol of a totally different San Francisco — a gay man struggling to stay alive.
“Sylvester is as he was then,” says San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin, “one of the few gay celebrities who never renounced his gayness along the ladder of success. He’s allowing us to celebrate his life before his death, and I don’t know a single star who has the integrity to do that. In sickness and in health, Sylvester has carried on with the identical spirit.”
LIKE SO MANY BLACK SINGERS, Sylvester learned how to sing in church, at the Palm Lane Church of God and Christ in South Los Angeles. But from the very beginning, there were factors that made this familiar rite of passage unusual. Sylvester’s mother, Letha Hurd, introduced the young Sylvester James to a minister, Jerry Jordan. Under Jordan’s guidance, Sylvester performed at gospel conventions around California. His showstopper was his interpretation of “Never Grow Old,” the first record by the woman who has remained Sylvester’s idol and major influence, Aretha Franklin. Already, Sylvester was being groomed for divadom.
“Sylvester was so small,” recalls his mother, “he used to stand on a milk box while he sang. He would tear up the church, people would be screaming and hollering, and then he’d go play in the parking lot.”
The Pentacostal church was also where Sylvester had his first homosexual experience. “I was abused by an evangelist,” says Sylvester, “when I was seven, eight, and nine! He really did a number on me, but it never made me crazy. But you see, I was a queen even back then, so it didn’t bother me. I rather liked it.”
“I wanted to take a shotgun to that evangelist,” says Sylvester’s mom.
Sylvester’s precociousness made him a difficult child. His father didn’t like him, and he fought constantly with his mother. After living awhile with his wealthier grandma, Sylvester ran away to live with friends while still in junior high. He did finish school, and two years at the Lamert Beauty College in L.A., where he studied interior decorating. It was then in 1970, that the 20-year-old Sylvester was invited to San Francisco to teach the Cockettes how to sing gospel.
“What we did came out of smoking pot, dropping LSD, and watching old movies on TV,” recalls Kreema Ritz, one of the original dozen drag queens that made up the Cockettes.
The Cockettes grew out of a group of hippies who belonged to the Food Conspiracy food co-ops. George Harris, son of an off-Broadway actor, took his new moniker, Hibiscus, in 1969, when he was picking drag out of dumpsters and making food deliveries to hippies in the communes. Hibiscus was invited by filmmaker Steven Arnold and Bill Graham’s accountant Sebastian to appear with her friends at a special New Year’s Eve edition of the Nocturnal Dream shows at the Palace Theater, a deco building that showed Chinese movies by day. To ring in the new decade, the Cockettes danced the cancan to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” The crowd approved, and the Cockettes became a regular Palace attraction.
“The term gender-fuck was coined to describe the Cockettes,” says Martin Worman, a/k/a Philthee Ritz. This former drag queen is now an NYU performance art doctoral student writing a dissertation on his Cockette past. “We were a bunch of hippie radicals. We’d wear our trashy drag in long hair and beards and sprinkle glitter everywhere. Rather than trying to reproduce an image of women, we’d do our take on the image. You must remember that we didn’t have the money to do faithful reproductions. We did our drag on welfare and food stamps.”
Sylvester made his Cockette debut in 1970 as an island mammy in Hollywood Babylon wearing a ’30s bias-cut dress and singing “Big City Blues.” For the next year, Sylvester played crucial roles in ever more elaborate and deranged Cockette stage shows. Opening for the Cockettes’ New York debut in 1971 was Sylvester and the Hot Band, a white guitar group fronted by the singer in a new glitter incarnation. It was about this Cockettes performance that Gore Vidal made the often-quoted statement, “Having no talent is no longer enough.”
In early ’70s San Francisco, it was hip to be a homo, and if you couldn’t be it, you approved. “That whole peace and love thing sounds so corny now, but it really happened,” says Worman. “The hippie atmosphere bred tolerance for everybody, and being gay meant an exploration and a celebration. Even the earliest bathhouses were playful. People hadn’t yet compartmentalized their sexuality.”
The Cockettes’ influence blossomed. When David Bowie’s San Francisco debut failed to sell out, he explained, “They don’t need me — they have Sylvester.” Ken Russell saw the Cockettes and borrowed their imagery for The Boyfriend. Future mainstreamers like the Manhattan Transfer, Bette Midler, and the Pointer Sisters — soon to become Sylvester’s backup singers — all followed in their high-heeled footsteps.
The Cockettes bridged the gap between hippies and glam-rockers, between dirty denim and gold lamé. Sylvester and the Hot Band, which included future Oingo Boingo bassist Kerry Hatch and future Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon, garnered more attention from Sylvester’s glitter drag than the backup band’s bland boogie. Their two 1973 LPs flopped. Sylvester skipped town, hung out in London and Amsterdam with Bowie and Elton John, and marked time until returning in ’75.
During this period the influx of gays into San Francisco began, and the number of gay establishments boomed. Sylvester would now have a larger audience to draw on, and more clubs in which to stage his comeback. The hippie do-your-own-thing philosophy was gradually replaced by a kind of conformity — and separatism — introduced by people from small towns.
“I moved to Florida in the winter of ’74-’75,” remembers Kreema Ritz, “and when I returned, the second half of the decade had begun — grocery stores had turned into bars and bathhouses. Then I noticed all these men with mustaches, and I thought, where are these people coming from?”
THE POST-STONEWALL GAY MAN wanted heroes he could call his own. In the absence of other role models, gays have traditionally taken to singers like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich because they embody conflicts similar to their own — these women take male songwriters’ fantasies of feminine passivity and sing them against the grain, in anger. For the generation of young men who grew up with the Supremes and discovered gay lib, r&b singers became the new divas of choice. Early ’70s soul sisters had one major thing in common with gay men — their suppression exploded in a torrent of sensuality. These aggressive black women provided the nighttime dancing soundtrack while they captured both the alienation and the fervor that gay men understood.
The female singers in Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, and in Faith, Hope and Charity (the names say it all), Lyn Collins, and Patti Jo were among the women to make their mark in gay clubs without approaching the pop charts. Before disco reached the masses, gays asserted their identity in the marketplace as consumers of black dance music — if few gay people were allowed to declare their sexuality on record, then records would become gay when enough gay people bought and sold them. For both blacks and gays, the new nightlife was a frontier where identity and sexuality could be explored within a protective arena. But for straight white America, which already had such institutions, disco translated into mainstream escapist entertainment: a barely sublimated outlet to experience the sexual revolution without actually living it. Before white-picket-fence America was ready to listen to homosexuals, they learned how to shop and dance like them.
SYLVESTER’S DISCOIZATION came in time for the genre’s commercial peak in 1979; according to Sylvester, “the year when queens ran the music business.” The disco department of Casablanca Records, the hugely successful independent label behind Donna Summer and the Village People, was run by many gay men like Marc Paul Simon, who died earlier this year from AIDS. The most famous disco promoter, Warner Bros.’s Ray Caviano, was also among the most open about being gay, and every major company had their own gay-dominated disco departments. The world wanted to party, and no one knew how like gay men.
But not for long. San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated in ’78, and the mood of gay San Francisco shifted. Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal gay rights ordinances had already brought the cult of respectability into gay politics — no one wanted to look or carry on as if they might be taken for a queen. Gay sexuality fragmented. It wasn’t enough to try everything: you had to declare yourself into leather, Levis, cowboys, or chicken, or something.
Then the media announced that “disco sucks,” a catchphrase that attacked the music scene while making a homophobic slur. The record business was only too happy to give up on what they couldn’t control. Disco departments turned into dance departments, or were phased out altogether. As far as Sylvester was concerned, there wasn’t a reason for alarm. Unlike many disco artists, the singer had an identity that could transcend trends. People would continue to like Sylvester for reasons that went beyond the beat.
BEFORE HE MADE HIS DISCO MOVE, Sylvester himself was no fan of the music. Harvey Fuqua, veteran Motown producer and former lead singer of the Moonglows, had signed Sylvester to Fantasy, a jazz oriented label. Sylvester, in 1977, presented a far more conventional soul singer, and by that time, he had acquired his background weapons, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons o’ Fun. “I was just not into those skinny black girl singers who would ‘oooooh’ and ‘aaaaah,’ ” Sylvester recalls. “I wanted some big bitches who could wail.”
But there was still something missing in Sylvester’s new r&b approach. He got what he needed from Patrick Cowley, lighting man at the City disco, the Bay Area’s largest and most important gay venue. Cowley had kept his songwriting and synthesizer experiments secret until his homemade remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” became the local rage. Impressed, Sylvester asked Cowley if he wouldn’t mind making similar synth additions to what was originally a ballad, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and another uptempo cut, “Dance (Disco Heat).” The two songs became top forty singles and turned the next album, Step II, into gold. Sylvester had finally arrived in the lap of mainstream America, stiletto heels and all.
But when the disco market crashed, Fantasy Records panicked. They wanted to force him in the direction of black male vocalists like Teddy Pendergrass. First to go was Cowley’s synthesized European (which in clubs means gay white) influence. As time went on, Sylvester had used more and more of Cowley’s input — both his synthesizers and his songs — until Fuqua barred Cowley from recording sessions.
The resulting Cowley-less LPs, 1980’s Sell My Soul and ’81’s Too Hot To Sleep, were blacker and straighter — they sounded more like the kind of r&b played on black radio and less like the disco heard in gay clubs — but didn’t do well in either format. “I told them, ‘You can change my image, but I ain’t changin’ shit!’ ” says Sylvester. “So I went to the office in a negligee and a blond wig and ran up and down the halls. Then I terrorized their studio until they had to give up.”
Fantasy did relent, but only after preventing Sylvester from recording until his contract expired in 1982. By then, two things had happened to Cowley. Since he could no longer play with Sylvester, Cowley started his own recording career in ’81. His first single, “Menergy,” alluded to street cruising and backroom sex. Nevertheless, it became a No. 1 dance record in America, a pop hit internationally, and defined the future sound of gay clubs — hi-NRG. But before all that, Cowley started falling ill to unexplained things.
“We had gone on a tour of South America around 1979 or ’80,” Sylvester recalls, “and during the tour, Patrick got sick. We all thought it was the food. When we got back, he never could get completely well again. Soon he was coming down with everything you could imagine, and no one knew why.”
Some assumed that Cowley’s illness was a psychosomatic fear of success. In truth, the possibility of never recovering drove Cowley to produce more. But he kept getting sicker, and eventually pleaded with Sylvester to unplug his life-support machines. To give him something to live for, Sylvester told Cowley that he had to recover so they could record together again. Miraculously, Cowley pulled through, and for $500, the pair made “Do You Wanna Funk?”
Shortly after “Do You Wanna Funk?” became one of the biggest dance hits of ’82 and gave Sylvester the needed career boost, Cowley’s death became one of the first publicized as resulting from AIDS. “At the end, he really got bitter,” Sylvester says. “The doctors didn’t know anything — he died of some kind of pneumonia.”
After losing his friend, Sylvester kept his musical collaborations to a minimum. He helped write, produce, and mix three albums for Megatone, the local disco indie, and because they were recorded cheaply, all turned a profit. The Two Tons o’ Fun went solo, became the Weather Girls, and scored big with “It’s Raining Men.” In 1986, Warner Bros. licensed Mutual Attraction, which included the black radio and club hit “Someone Like You,” and then signed the singer. A hacking cough cut recording sessions for the next album short. Sylvester was hospitalized with pneumonia, and diagnosed with AIDS.
SYLVESTER LIVES IN A MODEST apartment in San Francisco’s still tangibly gay Castro district. Aside from a few gold records on the wall, there’s nothing in his home that registers more than middle-class opulence; a big bed, a big TV. A few things do clue you in on its owner’s personality — a framed collection of gloves, Aunt Jemima pepper shakers, a giant Free South Africa poster hanging above the bed.
Sylvester and his manager Tim McKenna greet me. McKenna looks like most people’s idea of a San Franciscan gay man — blond, mustachioed, trim. Only he looks a little too trim, and his eyes seem a bit sunken. I think, “Another sick person.” (McKenna, I find out later, does have AIDS, and has already lost his boyfriend to the disease.) Sylvester has the nurse pull out a portable TV, and asks if we wouldn’t mind watching it for a few minutes. Drag queens are on Donahue.
I ask all the difficult questions first. November of last year, the fevers began. He started taking aeresolized pentamadine, a drug prescribed to prevent people at high risk from coming down with pneumocystis pneumonia, the most life-threatening disease associated with AIDS. But Sylvester had missed his treatment while on tour near the end of the year. On December 4, the last show of the tour, Sylvester appeared at a Philadelphia AIDS benefit. Once he got offstage, he couldn’t catch his breath. That night marked the end of his performing days and the beginning of trouble.
“When I came home from the hospital, I weighed 140 pounds,” says Sylvester. “Now I’m at 167, but my normal weight was 190 to 200 pounds. Thank God I always had a great fashion sense and I knew how to make myself look thinner. I was always on a diet. This wasn’t quite the way I wanted to do it.”
AIDS once again hit too close with the loss of Sylvester’s lover Rick Cramner, an architect with whom he lived for two years. As with Cowley, Cramner’s illness was shrouded in mystery.
“Rick never told me he was sick — his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for help. He was here one moment and gone the next. He went and died on me after promising he would never leave me. He promised me this. There were many things that only Rick knew. They’re gone now. I’ll never know them unless I see him someplace.
“It was two days before my 40th birthday, and we had to turn off his machine. He was gonna die that weekend anyway. But if he had died on my birthday, honey, ooh, what a mess I would’ve been for the rest of my life. I need a boyfriend so bad. I’ve been in mourning for a year now and haven’t had sex for longer than that. It would be so nice to have somebody to wake up to in the morning. But where am I gonna find a boyfriend, hobblin’ around and lookin’ strange? I guess I’m destined not to have one again, and that saddens me. I really believed that Rick and I were gonna be together in sickness and in health. We were, weren’t we?”
Sylvester’s fame alone can’t pay the doctor’s bills. Although he says his insurance covers most medical expenses, he needs more than the revenue from back catalogue royalties. McKenna says the singer has virtually run out of money.
“A lot of people wanted us to put out a greatest-hits LP,” says McKenna. “I’ve been resistant because those albums can be so tasteless. But we had to put out something, because Sylvester has nothing to live on. (Megatone will release 12 by 12: Sylvester’s Greatest Mixes.) Right now I’m planning a benefit for him sponsored by the National Gay Rights Advocates that Warner Bros. is underwriting. There were times when I thought I could bring a mobile recording studio to his home, but I realized that was just me trying to continue like nothing has changed. It’s hard to let go sometimes.
“Everywhere I go, I run into people who want to know how Sylvester is. I get a little crazy sometimes because it’s the only thing I’m allowed to talk about. And there’s the impending void that I still don’t know how to deal with.”
True to his exceptional self, Sylvester has the traits of many who live years beyond their diagnosis: he has a fighting spirit, he refuses to see himself as helpless, and he can talk openly about his illness. But AIDS is a great leveler, and like his music, he sometimes leaps from hope to despair.
“Who was I gonna hide the disease from?” says Sylvester. “I’m gonna die from it — if indeed that’s what will happen. If I kept it a secret, what good would that do? I’ve been doing AIDS benefits for many, many years, long before it became fashionable. It would be ridiculous to be secretive about it now.”
But get him on a topic that spurs his feisty sense of humor, and he’ll straighten his back and make a little effort to lean forward. His hands will start dancing in the air, and expressions like “honey,” “child,” and “Miss Thing” will slip into the conversation. His eyes will light up, and then you can get a glimpse of the disco diva that lies behind the mask of illness.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to think the worst,” says Sylvester, “because I’ve been a queen long enough. I’ve been gay for 41 years — I’m 41 years old. I didn’t need to take the AIDS antibody test. I know what I’ve done. Why would I waste those $90 when I could go shopping?”
SYLVESTER HAPPENED AT A TIME when disco had gotten too plastic,” says Andrew Holleran, author of Dancer From the Dance, the classic novel about the early gay days of disco. “But he mixed celebration and sadness in a way that I felt hadn’t been done in years. I hate to use the ‘f’ word, but Sylvester was fabulous.”
Disco is often remembered as a wildly — and sometimes annoyingly — upbeat music. But during its early formulative years in the gay clubs, disco encompassed everything from joy to pain, often in the same song. The disco classics that underground DJs now reach for in the early morning after a night of acid house or Latin hiphop are most often those records that took the bittersweet approach. Because his past encompassed both the emotional lows of blues and the spiritual highs of gospel, Sylvester became a major part of that melancholy party tradition.
The ultimate meaning of Sylvester’s voice lies in its ability to convey both the joy of the party and the horror that lies behind it. With the same phrase, Sylvester could evoke the delirious escape the party gave you, and the fear of what you’re partying to avoid. For gay people, the party began at that moment after Stonewall when they refused to hide anymore — it was both a celebration and a defiance. Through his voice and his success as an openly gay man, Sylvester embodied both of these things. That he could pull it off was understood by his audience as a harbinger of greater triumphs to come. For if he could be that wild, glittery, unreal thing up there, you could simply be you.
Just as his recording of “Do You Wanna Funk?” with Cowley was an attempt to give his dying friend the courage to stay alive, the second wave of success Sylvester had from that song was a symbol of the struggle to keep the party alive despite AIDS. And for awhile, the politics of dancing shifted from moving ahead to holding onto the small freedoms of pleasure. Now the party lives on in picket lines, in benefits, and in rallies to keep those like Sylvester alive. ❖
THE SINNER’S GOSPEL SINGER
He didn’t learn to sing like that,” says Gladys Knight. “His talent was a gift. I am very critical, but my mom is even more critical than me, and she was the one who insisted I listen to him. She used to play his records all the time.”
When Sylvester took on disco, he found the music that his voice was made for. Disco grew out of multitrack recording technology, which allowed for a greater amount of instrumentation to be heard more distinctly. The classic Motown Sound was meant to be heard as one sound. Disco, on the other hand, was a structure of interlocking parts. The new way of making music brought out new elements of style — the hissing high hat, the guitar that scratched and plucked, the bass drum on every beat, the Barry White strings that would go up, up, up. Vocals, too, had to be approached as another component in the mix.
Contrary to myth, disco generated more than its share of great singers. Disco was all about excess; with all the instrumentation going on around them, singers had little room left for subtlety. Since most disco was speedy, the singer often sang twice as slow as the beat, and therefore needed the breath control to sustain long notes or complete a lengthy phrase without coming up for air. And because the average disco song was low on lyrical content, a singer had to communicate through the voice what the lyricist didn’t have the words to say.
Good disco singers navigated all the changes in the musical structure and created some of their own. Not only did disco require singing about sex, one had to simulate it. The singer took an audience through a musical climax, and the task called for technique and control, as well as total abandon. The best parts of disco records are often in the final moments, when the singer vamps up a torrent of screams, swoops, and shouts to squeeze out every last drop of feeling before the DJ cues up the next record. To be remembered after a night of multiple musical orgasms, a disco singer has to get under your skin, as well as in your pants.
Disco’s magnitude of sound demanded two approaches to singing. Either the vocalist was just another element in the mix — the passive, anonymous, breathy tones of Silver Convention and early Donna Summer — or one had to soar above it all — the aggressive, almost operatic assault of Loleatta Holloway and First Choice. Much of the Philly soul featured smooth, high-pitched male vocals, and the Bee Gees turned into pale falsetto imitations. When Blondie went disco, Debbie Harry mimicked Summer’s confrontational pillow talk. Just as many disco songwriters avoided gender-specific nouns so as to appeal to both straight and gay audiences, the disco singer often embraced androgyny or its opposite, an exaggerated and traditional sexual identity. Both tacks were central to the gay aesthetic.
It was Sylvester who brought the passive/aggressive vocal approaches together in one voice. Like Luther Vandross, another singer Fantasy wanted to model Sylvester after, Sylvester worships Queen Aretha. But whereas Vandross sings in a manly register and reaches for Franklin’s sweetness, Sylvester assumes a heavenly tone while expressing it with Lady Soul’s hellfire ferocity. Through his falsetto, Sylvester became simmering blues diva, wailing gospel mama.
“I thought that we were really the same person,” says Patti LaBelle. “We perform alike. We look alike. We even sound alike. I really like me — I like the way I sound. But I feel exactly the same about him.”
Disco was the gospel music of sinners. What Sylvester could convey better than any other male singer of the late ’70s were the final moments of sex — the ecstasy, the release, the explosion. Rather than reminding you of the body, Sylvester’s music captured that instant when your soul jumps out of its skin. When Sylvester describes a lover’s caress, it’s as if he’s feeling the mighty surreal touch of God. There are two poles of Sylvester’s world — the disco and the church — but unlike Little Richard, Al Green, and Prince, Sylvester doesn’t see the pleasures of the body and the spirit as opposing forces, like sin and redemption. For Sylvester, God is on the dance-floor as He is in Heaven.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 22, 2020