disco queen and black queer visionary, sylvester james died on december 16, 1988. two months before his death, one of his favorite singers, legendary patti labelle paid him a visit to say her final goodbye. this is that story.
every time r&b legend patti labelle performed in san francisco, sylvester made sure he was there. sylvester loved himself some patti! he loved patti labelle the way the beyhive loves beyonce. the love was deep! perhaps it was patti’s flare for the dramatics during live performances. maybe it was patti’s fashion forward style. or it could have been patti’s dynamic vocal range that enamored sylvester. i am almost certain that it was all of those wonderful things that made sylvester one of patti labelle’s biggest fans.
in 1979, sylvester was defying every expectation of a pop/disco artist. he was a black and very unapologetic queer singer whose brilliant gospel inspired falsetto helped him garner international stardom with the dance genre defining “you make me feel (mighty real).” like patti, sylvester had also mastered the ability of captivating a crowd during live performances. this is evident on “living proof”, the 1979 live album sylvester recorded at the san francisco war memorial opera house. the set list included a cover of patti‘s 1977 single, “you are my friend.” both versions would later become musical forms of solace during the height of the aids epidemic in the 1980’s.
patti admired sylvester’s style. “whenever i met him, it was pleasant to my eyes.” she later said about him. in the mid 1980’s, patti invited sylvester up on stage to sing “you are my friend” with her when she was performed at the warfield in san Francisco.
on september 7, 1987, sylvester’s longtime partner,rick cranmer died from AIDS complications. the next day sylvester made the announcement during his headlining performance at the gay softball world series, right before singing “you are a friend.”
by the fall of 1988, sylvester had been diagnosed with aids and was in the process of making final life arrangements. patti got word from friend and fellow singer, jeanie tracy that sylvester was ill. on the day that patti came to visit sylvester, jeanie prepped her just as she did other visitors – “just go in and give him the latest dirt. don’t cry until you’re out of his sight.” patti and sylvester gossiped, sang and laughed during her visit. they posed for a photo. she held his hand for the last time. that day, patti was not the diva he long admired. she was his friend.
sylvester james died on december 16, 1988. about two months later, jeanie gave patti a little gold boxy pocketbook that had belonged to sylvester. “i’m going to put my tears in this little box.” she said. patti still carries that little gold purse.
patti labelle continues to champion HIV/AIDS awareness. she was one of the first r&b artist to participate in a national HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in 1988. both her and sylvester’s versions of “you are my friend” continues to provides solace.