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/.
I have been educated once again by your thoughtful and careful research. I grew up partly in Greenwich Village in Manhattan in the early mid 1960’s. Being different was accepted there. Just as was most religious beliefs and differences in skin color. I really only listened to the same music that was finally worn to shreds on 8 track tapes – what might be folk or Golden Oldies now. I don’t know much about music or its artists. I was too young really for Elvis or even the Beatles. I really don’t know much about actors either.
What I was always told (though I think it was even hard for my parents in some regards – even though they taught it) was to accept people for what is in their hearts. Again, thanks for sharing. I honestly never heard of Sylvester. I’m glad though that he was able to provide encouragement to those who were emerging into themselves – perhaps not always the person their families wanted or accepted.
Golden oldies? I thought that included things like Elvis or the Beatles – do you mean something else?
Thank you for sharing your feelings! It’s always good to know that my article was insightful. Sylvester and I never overlapped – he died before I was born – but I like to think I’m 65 at heart. 🙂
Maybe more like the Monkeys, The Doors, The Mama’s and the Papa’s… I did say folks stuff too. Like music that you can sing too and understand the words where the beat doesn’t knock you down. I am nearing 65, but I still never heard of Sylvester. But then there is quite a bit I don’t know. 🙂
Do you do Joan Baez?
I’m sure I’ve heard some of her stuff, but selected songs as I wasn’t an album collector. I’m familiar with ‘Me and Bobby McGee. But that’s more folksy I think.
I listen to this station that plays 60’s 70’s and 80’s… though I’m not even familiar with all the 80’s stuff. Give me some Broadway show tunes… I’m still not good with who played what or all the words to the songs.
I’m really not good with lyrics. Thanks for asking though. I wish I had learned an instrument. I tried guitar, and even violin. But I think its the math I’m not good with. Even in poetry I dislike sonnets and forced rhyming.
Reblogged this on Die Erste Eslarner Zeitung – Aus und über Eslarn, sowie die bayerisch-tschechische Region!.
Thank you for the information, Charli! The song is great, but i never before had heard about the singer. Great to know more about him, and his life. Have a good week! Michael
H. is a terrific historian and I’m glad she selected Sylvester for her column. Thanks for sharing! You have a great week, too, Michael!
Thanks for reading! I see Charli up there already responded (all too graciously, I see), and I would like to thank her for inviting me to the ranch!
Thanks for that H. Even this disco despising curmudgeon enjoyed that spirited song. I appreciate how Sylvester James lived his artist’s life and am glad he is remembered for it. Everyone deserves to feel real.
I agree! It’s been far too long that people have had to remain hidden.
Perhaps I can interest you, the disco despising curmudgeon, in the true story of the Day Disco Died? It’s true – July 12, 1979 is the definitive, actual day that Disco ended. It’s a wild story. Though, of course, you may already know. 🙂
I don’t know, and remember, it’s likely I wouldn’t have cared. This is not a bye bye miss america pie day of real music dying… and yet, because it’s you, I will check this day out
I remember Sylvester, Two Tons of Fun and The Village People, all loved by gay and straight folk alike. I, for one loved all three groups but I remember all of them having songs you might call gay anthem songs. “It’s Raining Men” by Two Tons of Fun; “YMCA” and “In the Navy” had messages that all people could learn from. I loved them, regardless, because they all had infectious beats. 😁
Another good disco-ish group with over-the-top costumes was Imagination. A song they were known for back in the 80’s was “Just an Illusion”.
I was hoping someone would remember Sylvester (and Two Tons O’ Fun!? I’m so glad you remembered them!)
I looked up “Just an Illusion” – I’d heard that song before on the radio, but I didn’t know the band (or, at least not for certain, the title). It’s right on the border of disco though, isn’t it? It has the gated reverb-clap rather than the hi-hat, even though it has the right rhythm otherwise.
I like to classify Disco into grades. A-level is stuff like Donna Summer’s MacArthur Park, and then you have F-grade like Wilton Street Band’s cover of the I Love Lucy theme song.
The I Love Lucy them song?? What the heck…?! I’ve never heard of the Wilton Street Band.
I was stationed in the UK during the 80’s so it had a kind of discoish flavor to me, as it pertains to the end of that era. But the 70’s was the real disco decade–The Hustle by Van McCoy; That’s the Way I Like it by K.C. and the Sunshine Band; most of the stuff from The Bee Gees–I could go on and on!
I will never stop anyone from reminiscing on Disco. It’s these sorts of convos that help me find new stuff!
What a brilliant piece about Sylvester James, Dr. G. I remember him and all the other greats from the disco years. I was in the Air Force by 1976 and the LGBTQ community was alive and well in the military. Shhhh… if you ever got found out in those days, they discharged you. I think everyone should be their authentic self. I’m glad Sylvester decided to be who he was.
I was in the Air Force during the 80’s. There was a member who was gay and it was an open secret throughout the installation but the higher-ups never said or did anything about it. I think that was even before don’t ask, don’t tell was instituted. It was kind of funny because I don’t know if they were intimidated by her. 😆
LOL! I had quite a few gay female friends back in the day-aircraft mechanics. Those girls worked harder than the guys. 😛💪
Exactly!! Although I can’t remember what career field she was in. 🤔
Haha, let’s imagine they were, regardless. =P
To be ourselves is the greatest gift we get and give!
Absolutely… and love is love in my book. <3
Haha, I admittedly know little about the military – and no matter how I study, I don’t think it’s the same as living through it!
Also, I didn’t know you’d been in the Air Force! Sounds very interesting, especially given how the Air Force was always ready for communist threat at the time!
Ahhh, the good old “Cold War” days. When I was stationed in England, I had a war-skill job as an admin assistant. I delivered the print copies of “secret” messages (sealed envelopes) to the base commander during exercises with NATO. That is my only claim to fame. The military gave me a sense of family that I didn’t grow up with. It was an awesome experience. <3
I’m glad you had a great experience!
Well, not all of it was good, but it’s what you make of it that counts. 😀
This takes me back to gymnasium dances and the coming out of several gay friends. Even those who weren’t gay felt the need to help those who were find their expression. H., thank you for bringing Sylvester’s legacy to us with such thoughtfulness. I enjoyed learning about the singer behind the dance song.
No problem! I hope it was enjoyable for some people. My favorite comments are from people who were reminded of Sylvester’s existence and had good memories of the times. Reminds me that one’s present is another’s history.
I featured ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) by Sylvester on my blog last month. I played this record a lot when I was a D.J in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was always a floor-filler. Alas, I didn’t know very much about Sylvester, but I do now (thanks to your post H).
Did you know that the record also came under the ‘Hi-NRG’ music genre? It was very popular in the 1980s and 1990s with gay men and has made a bit of a comeback over the last few years. Other artists who released ‘Hi-NRG’ recordings are Miguel Brown, Evelyn Thomas, Patrick Cowley, Lime, Hazel Dean, Boys Town Gang and Laura Branigan.
I learned about Hi-NRG during my research of this article! Patrick Cowley wrote the music (or at least adapted it) for “You Make Me Feel”, so he and his style did come up.
What a fascinating article, H. My husband is a big music person and he had not heard of Sylvester James, and neither had I. It’s good to know what a valuable contribution Sylvester made, and that he is still making after his death. Thanks for sharing.
Haha, glad to share something new! I learned about him through the YouTube algorithm. I’d just listened to “I Feel Love”, as one would expect!
I, also, hadn’t heard of Sylvester James. So sad that he passed early of AIDS. I hope his legacy continues to make a positive impression on people.
I think it is! He’s getting discovered again by historians, anyway.