BEFORE THERE WAS RUPAUL, THERE WAS SYLVESTER
Written by ZenKC on December 20, 2018
Story by: Chuck Tackett
BEFORE THERE WAS RUPAUL, THERE WAS SYLVESTER.
“There’s nothing worse than a fallen star who still has illusions of their continuing fame.”
A little over 20 years ago, I was at Sidekicks Saloon during happy hour. I was sitting at the front bar enjoying the music and sipping on my favorite beverage. Next to me, close by were two young Gay men commenting about the groundbreaking new artist on the scene named RuPaul, and their excitement about there has never been an entertainer like him.
I had just started writing Chuck’s Chat for the Current News LGBTQ magazine before I moved my weekly articles to KC Exposures magazine, whom I still write for now. Presently, in addition to KC Exposures magazine, for the past year and a half, and thanks to Kaci Jacobs of the Kansas City LGBTQ online resource page kcpride.com. Kaci has brought Chuck’s Chat into the 21st Century, Y’all. I am a blogger! Every Thursday or Friday a new Chuck’s Chat comes out with photos and videos that inspire me for the particular article I am writing, but I digress. (lol)
The basis of this article I am presently writing about, sitting at that barstool at Sidekicks, was the conversation with those two young men I had that forever changed the way I wrote my weekly articles. When they claimed that there has been no other artist like RuPaul, I told them of Sylvester. They looked at me perplexed and said they never heard of him. That was a “hello lights” moment for me. I thought, if these Generation X LGBTQs have never heard of Sylvester and his importance and contributions to LGBTQ history, some Baby Boomers like me may also be unaware of the contributions the LGBTQ Greatest Generation trailblazers have done as well. It was then I decided not to write just pop culture, but teach myself, and share with others the importance of how politics affects our everyday lives, and unsung LGBTQ trailblazers. During the 1990s, I was President of 90.1FM KKFI. I wanted to share news and information I learned that either was not mentioned on mainstream media or just glossed over
Years ago, I wrote an article about Sylvester for my Generation X readership. They were in their 20’s then, but now in 2018, they are in their mid to late 40’s. I thought that since I have some Millennials and Generation Z readership, I should address it again, especially since this week is the 30th anniversary of his death.
The disco-era singer and songwriter was born Sylvester James on September 6th, 1947, in Los Angeles. At a very early age, Sylvester had such a fondness for singing that he joined the Gospel Choir of the Pentecostal Church he belonged to. When Sylvester became older, he suffered much bigotry and abuse from his congregation because of his homosexuality. Sylvester as a teenager was very unapologetic about his flamboyance and androgynous attire; he left the church at the age of 13. Sylvester hooked up with a group of Black drag queens and Transgender women who called themselves “The Disquotays.” He found friendship and camaraderie.
In 1970, at the age of 22, Sylvester moved to San Francisco to embrace their counterculture movement. He joined an avant-garde drag troupe known as “The Cockettes.” Sylvester produced solo segments of their shows. The troupe was influenced by female Blues and Jazz singers such as Etta James, Josephine Baker, and Billie Holiday. During their tour in New York City, Sylvester left them to pursue a career elsewhere. He came to be the front man for a rock group called “Sylvester & His Hot Band.” IN 1973, they disbanded after two very unsuccessful commercial albums on ” Blue Thumb Records.”
Focusing on a solo career, Sylvester signed a contract with Harvey Fuqua of Fantasy Records and discovered Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes who, at the time, called themselves, “Two Tons of Fun” and Jeanie Tracy. All three of his background singers remained close friends with Sylvester. Sylvester’s first album named “Sylvester” had a smidgen of commercial success. It was released in 1977. His follow up album entitled “Step II” is a disco classic which spawned two worldwide known disco classics, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” Like Donna Summer, Sylvester tried to distance himself from disco and try other genres without much success. He released three albums, including a live one, but folks were not having it. Sylvester left Fantasy Records and joined Megatone Records, which was owned by his friend Patrick Cowley. He recorded four albums with him, including his dance club hit with Patrick “Do You Wanna Funk?”
In the 1980s even though Sylvester was an extremely talented singer and songwriter, the same mainstream audiences who embraced him completely in the 1970’s Disco era, treated him like ju-ju because of his flamboyance his androgynous look and the fear and demonization of LGBTQs during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. When very little was known about it. Sylvester tried his best to make it in other major record labels, but with no success. Sylvester became a partner with Patrick Cowley at Megatone Records. They tried to cater mostly to the LGBTQ club scene. Although they both continued to work, Cowley was suffering from the recently discovered HIV/AIDS virus. And his physical health deteriorated exceptionally quickly. Sylvester continued to tour in Europe where he learned his best friend died. When he went onstage, he informed the audience of Cowley’s death and sang “Do You Wanna Funk?” in his memory. In 1983, Sylvester released a single called “Trouble In Paradise” that made the Top 20 of the U.S. dance charts. Sylvester said it was his AIDS message to his beloved San Francisco.
In 1984, Sylvester met his boyfriend, an architect named Rick Cramer. They moved to an apartment up in the hills. Sylvester decorated his powder room with photos, posters, and memorabilia of Divine, who was a member of “The Cockettes” at the same time Sylvester was. Divine had enjoyed underground and commercial success as a movie actor. Open LGBTQ film director John Waters discovered him.
In 1985, Sylvester’s boyfriend, Rick, discovered he became infected with HIV/AIDS and passed away in September 1987. Sylvester knew he was infected, but refused to take a blood test. Eventually, after suffering from a sinus infection and being hospitalized, he was diagnosed with AIDS. He moved to another apartment where his mother, and lifelong friend Jeanie Tracy, cared for him. In 1985, Sylvester fulfilled a lifelong dream, when he and Jeanie were invited to sing background vocals on Aretha Franklin’s album “Who’s Zooming Who?”
During his final years, when his health allowed it, Sylvester was a very outspoken activist on how AIDS was devastating the African American and LGBT communities. He had no qualms about appearing on TV and informing viewers he was dying and tried to educate them on prevention. Sylvester’s friend Divine died on March 7th, 1988. Sylvester passed away on December 20th, 1988.
Sylvester’s legacy lives on. His backup singers, “Two Tons of Fum” enjoyed an album they released which produced two hits. One was a disco hit called “I’ve Got The Feeling,” and an R&B hit named “Just Us.” Later, they renamed themselves “The Weather Girls” and had a worldwide dance anthem which is still popular today called, “It’s Raining Men:” Unfortunately Izora Rhodes passed away in 2004. Sylvester’s protégé, Martha Wash, has enjoyed a very successful solo career that has spanned generations with her unique voice, sometimes to her own detriment, but that’s another article. An off-Broadway musical about Sylvester debuted in 2014 which now is playing on stages nationwide. There has been a full-fledged documentary on Sylvester’s life. There have been stirrings about a big screen movie about Sylvester’s life being considered. Sylvester, you are timeless. There was not enough space to do Sylvester’s life justice. This was just my condensed version.
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