Day three of the Letters of Pride Open Letters series
The first time I met Sylvester I was just a baby gay. A friend of mine had somehow finagled a satellite dish that broadcast a signal from a public access signal in San Francisco. The show he was fond of was called Lavender Lounge, a very queer and low-budget version of American Bandstand, with dancers and a kooky host. The particular episode he wanted to show me was a tribute to Sylvester, featuring rare concert footage and live performances from the ‘70s.
I had heard “Do You Wanna Funk” for the first time in Sandra Berhard’s “Without You I’m Nothing” but didn’t clue in to the significance of the song, let alone how much of a game changer Sylvester was in the world of disco, dance and pop music.
If you’ll permit me to mythologize for a moment, I can imagine that when Sylvester came out of the womb, his wail was probably a musical one. The young man became a gospel wunderkind at a tender age, and at 16 he moved to San Francisco, a time he recalled as the true beginnings of his life. Sylvester became part of the Cockettes and performed with them at a few of their shows. But it was in the late 1970s that his career really took off with the release of Steps II, an album that featured “Dance (Disco Heat)” and the disco anthem “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” It was also at this time that he met producer and remixer Patrick Cowley. This was a musical union made in disco heaven.
Sylvester matched his previous success with “Do You Wanna Funk,” another track recorded with Cowley.
It has been argued that it was that record that sparked the commercial and artistic fire that would become hi-NRG music, a sound that has its roots in San Francisco.
I remember watching this man, stunned by the voice that came out of him and equally stunned by the fact that here was a black man in drag, on television, and that this performance had taken place in the ‘70s. That a man in drag could rule the charts was unbelievable to me (however much I respected and admired it). It would take 15 years for RuPaul to do the same thing in the 1990s.
And as much as Sylvester was known for his strong performances on dance and disco records, it was how strongly they were steeped in gospel tradition that made them shine. His songs were gospel revivals brought to life in a club, moments of reverential ecstasy amidst the insanity of a dancefloor. Do yourself a favour: find a copy of Steps II. Dance to the disco beats but then stop and listen to the short reprise of “You Make Me Feel” at the end of the album. It’s probably one of the greatest and most subdued performances of his career, but it is also, perhaps, his most stellar.
If you’re wondering what to do for today’s Pride events, check out the Funny HaHa Funny Queer show at the Atlantica Hotel. Show starts at 8pm and is $5 at the door.
If you’re looking for something a little more sensual, Hot Times is putting on an event as SeaDogs. This event is for women, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, non-binary, genderfuck, genderfluid, bi-gender, trans women, trans men, third gender, agender and further gender expressions. See Hot Time’s WordPress for more deets.