Sylvester James, Jr. better known as just Sylvester, was an openly gay disco and soul singer-songwriter. Known for his flamboyant appearance Sylvester was responsible for a string of hit singles in the late 1970s and became known in the United States under the moniker of the “Queen of Disco.”
Born in Watts, Los Angeles on September 6, 1947, Sylvester developed a love of singing through the gospel choirs of his Pentecostal church. Leaving the congregation after being persecuted for his homosexuality, he was an early founder of a group of black cross-dressers and trans women known as The Disquotays, who disbanded in 1970. Moving to San Francisco, he embraced the counterculture and joined drag troupe The Cockettes, eventually producing solo shows heavily influenced by female blues and jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. During their critically panned tour of New York City, Sylvester left the Cockettes to focus on his solo career.
Fronting Sylvester and his Hot Band, he released two commercially unsuccessful albums on Blue Thumb Records in 1973. Gaining new backing singers in the form ofTwo Tons O’ Fun and Jeanie Tracy, he obtained a recording contract with Harvey Fuqua of Fantasy Records. His first solo album, Sylvester (1977), was a moderate success, and was followed by acclaimed disco album Step II (1978), which spawned the hit singles “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” He recorded four more albums, including a live album, with Fantasy Records before signing to Megatone Records, the dance-oriented label founded by friend and collaborator Patrick Cowley, where he recorded four more albums, including the Cowley penned and produced hit Hi-NRG track “Do Ya Wanna Funk. (1982)”
An activist who campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS, Sylvester died from complications arising from the virus in 1988.
On September 20, 2004, Sylvester’s anthem record, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. A year later, on September 19, 2005, Sylvester himself was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his achievement as an artist.
Shortly before his death Sylvester had bequeathed his future royalties of his music to local AIDS groups, but Sylvester died deeply in debt there was no money to distribute until the late 1990’s. Once his advances were repaid, his early-career label Fantasy Records then kept the money in an account until its proper recipient could be legally determined.
In 2010 The AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand split a check from Sylvester’s estate totaling nearly $140,000.