Disco sucked. Except for gay artists who wanted to own it with pride on the stage. Enter Sylvester, the legendary “Queen of Disco” who lit up the dance floors of San Francisco in the 1970’s on his way to stardom. With his striking looks, gender fluid sense of style and flamboyant falsetto, Sylvester was not only the cultural avatar of a specific time and place but also redefined the rules about who could be music idols. He broke barriers for gay artists in his short-lived but bright career, serving as an icon for future LGBTQ performers and a symbol of his adopted city’s pride movement.
Few artists have brought such a diverse musical background to their work. Raised in a gospel church, Sylvester discovered his passion for music in this environment and embraced his obvious talent as a singer. Yet when his equally obvious sexuality began to emerge at a young age, he fled his family’s disapproval. Eventually, he would find a new home in the friendlier climes of San Francisco, where he joined the city’s avant garde queer performance troupes that had emerged towards the end of the hippie movement. In the burgeoning disco scene, Sylvester combined the traditions of gospel choir such as call and response with his androgynous falsetto vocals and fearless male diva persona.
Sylvester’s friends in San Francisco’s gay community included the influential politician and activist Harvey Milk.
Sylvester died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 41.
The history of popular music is relatively young, and Sylvester’s place in the canon of American artists will undergo some much needed revision. Disco itself deserves a second look both for its origins in gay culture and its influence on the dance-oriented rhythms that have come to dominate contemporary pop music. Indeed, Sylvester’s music speaks for itself just as loudly and proudly today as it did in his time. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” has earned its status as a disco classic and LGBT anthem, yet what shines through today is the earnestness and sincerity in his voice as he sings about basic human emotions like the need to be loved. Maybe disco doesn’t suck after all.