I recently did a lecture and DJ’d a party for Brian Cassidy’s Cave Cast series where I discussed some of the foundations of philaDELphia music.
During the podcast, I mentioned the impact that AIDS had on the arts and music industry. It was particularly personal for me in that my brother Jimmy, an award-winning light man for two of the seminal clubs in the country, The Second Story and Catacombs, had his life ended too early by the disease. It also cut the life of the first two DJs that worked with him in Second Story, the legendary Walter Gibbons and eventual Studio 54 resident Richie Kaczor.
What would our music and club life be like today had these and other musical icons not fallen prey to the insidious disease?! Pause to reflect on these names: Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Arthur Russell, David Cole (C+C Music Factory), Freddie Mercury, Fela Kuti, Dan Hartman, Patrick Cowley, Paul Jabara and Richard Long (club sound system genius). If complete, the list would unfortunately span the entire length of this column.
Another name, Sylvester James, really stands out for me. He was an artist and gay advocate who like Prince and Madonna became a mononymous star. His body of work had incredible impact during the foundational ’70s and is still relevant today. Rolling Stone magazine noted that his Step II LP was “as good as disco records get”. His self-proclaimed moniker was FABULOUS! His light also burned out too early… he was Sylvester!
And here was another case where a grand-mom was influential in the formative years (in this case a jazz singer). Ditto for his gospel/church-inspired experience as a teen. For Sylvester, there was then the non-traditional path as his inspiration from Bessie Smith (the “Empress of the Blues”) and Billie Holiday (no intro needed here) helped shape a young boy into becoming a DIVA. In fact, he would later impersonate both – along with Lena Horne!
While he was born in LA, it was in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Sylvester would set the stage (literally and figuratively) for the future change in music and club culture! Actually it wasn’t “Sylvester”. It was “Ruby Blue”, his pseudonym as he lived in San Francisco as a woman. At the time, he was part of a transvestite vocal group called The Cockettes (not too much subtlety there).
His eventual “break” came via Harvey Fuqua’s Honey Records (then licensed to Fantasy Records). Harvey was a musical genius and had played a role with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross.
Sylvester’s group was also another great example of the role, impact, and eventual independent success that great background singers used to have. In this case they were Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, not diminutive in any sense… their bodies or voices. You probably know them best as Two Tons o’ Fun (“I Got the Feeling”) and the Weather Girls (“It’s Raining Men”). Martha and Izora were the perfect foil to Sylvester’s slightly lispy falsetto.
The final piece that took them over the top was when Patrick Cowley was added. His game-changing synthesizer work was masterful and created a new upbeat yet still “cosmic disco” style for the dance floor.
Their live acts were over-the-top and flamboyant but mainstream audiences loved them! Just like the Village People, disco was so hot that audiences that would consider themselves straight in every respect didn’t bat a conservative eye when Sylvester paraded out in a dress over leather jeans! After all, they didn’t even understand the double entendre of songs like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. People just wanted to dance!
Here was Sylvester, being embraced by the music-loving community at large despite talking about wanting to marry Prince Charles to become the “queen” of England! (After all, Sylvester was known as the “queen of disco”, for real!)
Often after giving great live performances, Sylvester used to exclaim that “We had service!” So it was no shock that when Sylvester James’ final chapter came to an end in late ’88, that his funeral services were unrelentingly “fabulous”. It is also worth noting that his strong Christian faith and Pentecostal upbringing were a large part of that final celebration as he used his faith as a measuring stick of sorts as he raced (sorry – sashayed) through life.
You’ve probably heard about the “butterfly effect”. It’s the concept that even a small change in one area can have a large impact in another area downstream in time. One can only imagine the impact to the music, club, dance and really “the arts” overall had so many young talented lives not ended prematurely due to AIDS. Luckily and selfishly for us, artists like Sylvester produced such incredible work that it still had/has impact today. I just wonder, what would… what could… have been?
Related: Foundations: The Essential Sylvester Playlist
Essentials: Foundations is a series published in print in each issue of 5 Magazine. This profile appeared in the July 2013 issue, which can be ordered here.
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