When choosing what to write for the “Into the Past” column this month, I felt conflicted. With Juneteenth so close to the writing date and Pride month ongoing throughout June, I didn’t know what I should focus on.
I decided I wasn’t going to skimp on either Black history or on LGBTQ+ history: there’s plenty that clearly fits into both categories. I chose one of my favorites.
Also, up front: I’m going to apologize for the lack of pictures, but I had difficulty finding royalty-free images for this.
Why Should I Care About Sylvester James?
The first time I finished listening to the seminal disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and saw the accompanying music video, I turned to my husband and said, “That may have been the gayest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” So we watched it again, just to confirm. (Warning: the video tends to be on the loud side).
And I wasn’t wrong. It turns out that “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” has an enduring legacy in Pride month, and Sylvester was a gender-defying person who embodied a whole gamut of LGBTQ+ experiences. One of Sylvester’s friends, when trying to describe the singer, couldn’t put him in a box. His song, while not sexually explicit, still clearly describes a gay relationship as satisfying. He inspired many LGBTQ+ people to acknowledge the ways they “feel real” through “You Make Me Feel”, and he contributed to the long process toward LGBTQ+ liberation and normalcy.
When interviewing with NPR about Sylvester’s legacy, historian Joshua Gamson said:
“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.”–Joshua Gamson, for NPR
Even if you want to ignore the Pride elements of the song, the sound itself was revolutionary and inspiring. The electronic, synthesized sound and rapid beat were popular in dance music and – along with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn Song” – could have been seen as the inspiration and start of electric music overall.
It Wasn’t All Dancing and Stardom
Sylvester James was born in Watts in 1947. Though Watts has been considered an impoverished area of the Los Angeles metropolitan area since the 60’s, in the 1940’s it was an area where working class black people were allowed to live. Until the 60’s, L.A.’s laws limited what property you could buy depending on your skin color, not just the size of your bank account.
Sylvester gained his love of singing the same way many American singers do: through church choir. Unfortunately, churches contain people, and many times people don’t necessarily treat LGBTQ+ folks right. Though we often conflate black and LGBTQ+ issues today due to the way party politics have aligned, churchgoing black folks often have the same misgivings churchgoing white folks do. Sylvester eventually left the church. Unfortunately, too, is the fact that parents are people, and people don’t necessarily treat their children – especially LGBTQ+ children – right. Sylvester left home at 15, living instead with his grandmother or friends until he moved to San Francisco in the late 60’s.
Though Sylvester had several experiences in niche, LGBTQ+ bands like the Disquotays and the Cockettes, neither of these bands made the mainstream. He sang soul and what was, at the time, considered “Black Music” (what is now known as the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was known as “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990, and at one point was called the somehow even worse “Race Records”). According to a profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the music industry at the time wasn’t interested in selling “black music” to white people or “gay music” to black people. Sylvester and his music failed to fit into the industry’s pre-defined labels, and his bands floundered in what could have been eternal obscurity.
Then: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” happened. Electronic music with Black vocals was viable.
Disco was all the rage. Sensing that he needed a hit, Sylvester worked with James Wirrick, who wrote the start of an R&B song called “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Sylvester decided it needed to be disco-fied, so he took it to Patrick Cowley who introduced the electric elements inspired by “I Feel Love”. Despite any of the R&B band’s misgivings, the song became a smash.
After “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, Sylvester continued to stick around with other modest dance hits, all without sacrificing who he really was. It was a pretty big deal to manage that in the 70’s and 80’s as a black, genderqueer person, and yet he did. He even managed to land a spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (American Bandstand was a TV show and the white version of Soul Train) and an interview with Joan Rivers in the 80’s. (I found this video through the aforementioned NPR article).
But being fabulous, openly gay, and sexually active in San Francisco during the late 70’s and early 80’s came with a terrible, unknowable, unpredictable risk: HIV had just appeared on the scene. Despite many early warnings and cries for help, the government, several doctors, and many other important people who could have otherwise done something failed to protect the people most at risk. At his shows, he encouraged safe sex practices and brought awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Yet, it wasn’t enough to escape.
Death and Legacy
On December 16th, 1988, Sylvester died from complications due to AIDS. He was buried as requested, in a red kimono and a pearl-colored casket. His estate’s future earnings would go to help the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand.
Despite making hit dance music and doing so much for the LGBTQ+ community and combatting HIV/AIDS, Sylvester only got a small obit in the New York Times. If you click on this link, the NYT will ask you to subscribe and get a better image, but you don’t need it. Right above the tiny block announcing Sylvester’s death at 41 is a bigger block and a picture for a white football player, and right below is an ad saying “buy more NYT” or something equally stupid.
Only as LGBTQ+ issues have become more mainstream has Sylvester been remembered more fully, more fondly, and more accurately.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.