“i get this conformist shit from queens all the time. they always want to read me. they always want me to do it their way. i am not going to conform to the gay lifestyle as they see it and that’s for sure.” – sylvester
sylvesterjames jr. september 6, 1947 – december 16, 1988 black, queer, and a visionary who bent gender, musical genres and eventually time.
born in watts, losangeles, sylvester crafted his vocal stylings in the church. he often said his entire being was inspired by black women in the church. after spending a few years in the sylvester and the hot band, sylvester scored his first hit in 1978, when the lead single “disco heat”, featuring two tons of fun aka the weather girls, from his successful album “step II” became his first top 40 hit.
it was just a few months later in january of 1979, sylvester became an ICON when “you make me feel (mighty real)” set dance floors on fire. originally recorded as a mid-tempo piano driven gospel song, but patrickcowley, electronic dance music pioneer, offered to remix the song. changing the sound of dance music forever.
after a few years of battling with his record label over creative differences, (they even had him record an album w/o his falsetto voice), sylvester signed to megatone. in 1982, sylvester returned to the top of the dance charts with the patrickcowley produced “do you wanna funk.”
patrick cowley & sylvester built the foundation of high n-r-g music. sadly, their partnership did not last. while touring with sylvester in europe, patrick fell ill and returned the united states. with the AIDS epidemic just beginning and medical providers knowing close to nothing, patrick was diagnosed with food poisoning. his health began to deteriorate and when he was finally diagnosed with HIV (called GRID then), patrick was sent home after doctors could do no more for him.ith the AIDS epidemic just beginning,
on november 12, 1982, cowley was one of the first gay artists to die from what would later be called aids. he was just 32 years old.
after signing with warner bros. records, sylvester released “mutual attraction” his last album in 1986. the lead single “someone like you” became a hit at r&b radio and topped the dance charts.
on december 31, 1986, sylvester appeared on the late show starring joan rivers. after performing “someone like you”, he sat down to interview with joan. after noticing his wedding band, she asked, “who are you married to?” on live tv, sylvester answered, “rick.” ICONIC!
during the same appearance, sylvester mentions AIDS and the importance of taking action. he also let miss joan have it when she asks, “what did you say when your family found out you wanted to be a drag queen?” sylvester, responds, “i’m not a drag queen. i’m sylvster!”
in sept of 1987, sylvester’s husband, rick cramner died due to AIDS complications. the night after rick died, sylvester performed at the victory party for the softball world series. he sang his now legendary cover of patti labelle’s “you are my friend.”
in june of 1988, sylvester attended san francisco’scatro gay freedom parade in a wheelchair in front of the people with AIDS banner. sylvester was guant and at first the cheering crowd did not recognize him. once word got around that the person in the wheelchair was sylvester, the crowd fell silent. then the large crowd began to cheer and shouting his name, “sylvester! sylvester!”
later that year, with his mother by his side, sylvester became an ancestor when he too died due to AIDS complications.
even in the end, sylvester was committed to never hiding his extraordinary light. he planned his own funeral and insisted that he be dressed in a red kimono in an open top coffin.
today, we remember sylvester, who taken from this world far too soon, on this day 30 years ago.
“i don’t believe that AIDS is a wrath of god. people have a tendency to blame everything in god.”