Heroes of the Revolution: Sylvester

Art by Rob Goldstein

Sylvester James, Jr. (September 6, 1947 – December 16, 1988), was the first openly gay recording artist to gain international fame.

His first hit, Disco Heat, peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the fall of 1978.

It also reached #29 on the UK Singles Chart.

Sylvester was born in Watts, Los Angeles, to a middle-class family.

He first sang as a child with the gospel choir of his Pentecostal church.

Sylvester knew that he was gay while still a child.

At the age of eight Sylvester had sex with an older man.

His Mother could not accept his homosexuality and neither could his church.

He left the church because the congregation disapproved of his homosexuality and he found friendship among a group of cross-dressers and transgender women who called themselves The Disquotays.

He moved to San Francisco in 1970 at the age of 22 where he found acceptance and fame.

“I’ve never been a crusader, but I’ve always been honest. I may not volunteer details to the media, but I’ve never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone.” Sylvester, September 10, 1988

The English journalist Stephen Brogan described Sylvester as “a star who shined brightly. He only happened once. He was a radical and a visionary in terms of queerness, music and race.”

Sylvester was a man of integrity and courage and that courage is clear in this interview with the Los Angeles Times in September of 1988:

Sylvester learned three months ago that he has AIDS, and he has spent most of the last few weeks at home, trying to regain his strength.

While often plagued by fatigue, the singer, 40, was well enough last June to lead a gay pride parade in San Francisco, albeit from a wheelchair.

“I can’t walk very well anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “I have problems with my feet and sometimes the pain is unbearable. But I don’t like to take pain killers because of the side effects.”

Despite the physical setbacks, Sylvester insists that his outlook remains positive.

“I’ve been in situations I shouldn’t have been in. We all have. But I still think that I’m a good person and I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life,” he said.

“Down the line, I hope I won’t be in a lot more pain. But I don’t dwell on that. I’ll be fine, because my spirit is fine.”

Sylvester says that while black people are 12% of the population, more than 25% of all reported AIDS cases in this country involve blacks.

“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer, who has long been openly frank about his homosexuality.

“The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”

Sylvester, who rose to international fame during the late ’70s with such disco hits as “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” had been hospitalized three times before being diagnosed as having the AIDS virus.

“I’d been having throat problems and I thought it was bronchitis. I wasn’t worried. Having AIDS hadn’t even crossed my mind.”

Since that time he has spent five weeks in a hospital with pneumocystis, during which time he confronted his own mortality. “I was ready to go,” he said. “I made peace with that and I never thought, ‘Why me?’ I just accepted it.”

Disco Singer Sylvester Confronts AIDS Without Any Regrets

Sylvester died in his bed on December 16, 1988.

For a more complete biography of Sylvester I recommend this one at  Pop Matters.

Sylvester with Patrick Cowley: Don’t Stop
Community Audio

17 thoughts on “Heroes of the Revolution: Sylvester

  1. R, excellent article about the Disco Scene (a much missed period of time) and Sylvester. I didn’t know much of what you revealed and moreover, totally agree that this was perhaps the first chance to really express yourself if LGBT. This does all of that credit and schooled me quite a bit on our history. xo

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  2. Great article! The Disco genre really allowed artists to express themselves through Club remixes, extended versions, single mixes and radio edits. Sylvester was never boring and a true musical genius. Now, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! Not to mention, the value of his social contributions cannot be overstated. Definitely a hero!

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  3. Why was his sexuality such a talking point? Lots of musicians have been openly gay without that affecting their music. From Richard Penniman onwards Rock has been full of peacocks and how many of them were gay? I’d say most of them and be right. Doesn’t make any difference to the music. If it’s good it’s good, don’t bring a person’s sexuality into the equation since it has no bearing on their art.

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    1. If sexuality doesn’t have a bearing on the perception of a persons art now, then the gay rights and liberation movements are successful. When Sylvester first began to perform gays lost their jobs, watched their careers whither and were often sent to jail. If you recall, Rock Hudson did not ‘come out’ as gay until he had AIDS. There was a reason for that. If he had been publicly gay at the beginning of his career we would never have known about Rock Hudson.

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      1. Robert, I have long fought for the rights of everyone. I know Sylvester was the first black artist to come out but David Bowie had said in 1972 he was bi-sexual before proclaiming himself gay. I know it wasn’t true but he also worked harder for the rights of everyone. Now diversity is welcomed everywhere but it’s too late for the likes of Kenny Everett, Freddie Mercury and Sylvester. Still it shows how successful our campaigning was. Long way to go still for black rights and equality for women but we’re getting there.

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      2. I agree with you…David Bowie is and was brilliant…And he may have been bi-sexual.It’s not my intention to diminish Bowie’s contribution and I pray that in the future questions about sexuality will be a incidental as breathing. We can thank the Beatles for bringing male androgyny to the U.S. (long hair and pretty boy looks) and Mick Jagger was wildly androgynous and effeminate when he performed.

        But Sylvester wasn’t playing a role or camping it up to shock and please the fans.

        He was being himself. His androgyny was part of his psyche.

        Sylvester was the first unambiguously out gay performer to achieve main stream success in the U.S.

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      3. And well done for bringing it into focus. I hope that sexuality won’t be an issue worth commenting on in the near future but think, in the aftermath of Orlando we still have some way to go.

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      4. Of course, it’s just a sign of the times that the ones able to make the biggest noise are entertainers. If there is a God, and he promotes love, why is who we love such a big deal? Surely we were all made in His image and He decides whether we love others and can look beyond imperfections to see another human being? After all perfection is an ideal but not one of us can achieve that.

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      5. I wish I understood the answers to these questions. I suppose that the academic answer is the rise of mass media and entertainment as a kind of consumer item In a sense what we love is a brand that may bear no relationship to the one that wears the brand. But emotionally I find most of life and the times we live in confusing. I hope that the links I found were helpful, Dave.

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  4. I have loved Sylvester for a long time. I fell in love with him when I saw the “Mighty real ” video. Baby when he started singing as a dashing gent then twirled around and transformed into a full- on diva I was hooked.
    Thanks for this post!
    More people need to know about this creative, talented, beautiful and courageous man.

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