"You make me feel mighty real"! This phrase taken from the #1 dance single in the late seventies would become synonymous with the era of "free love" and the androgynous singer with the gospel infused falsetto millions would come to know and love simply as Sylvester.
Taken from the world far to soon at the age of 42 from AIDS-related complications on December 16, 1988, the years leading up to his death were filled with the highs and lows often reserved for the imaginations of Hollywood screenwriters.
Black, gay, androgynous, talented, and outspoken with a weakness for jewelry, and white men. Sylvester was the exact opposite of what the world told him he should be as a black man and also of the people who worshipped what he represented in the heavily white gay Castro district of San Francisco. He reveled in being different and scoffed at the idea of conforming to make others more comfortable.
There wasn't a club in the world during the late seventies and early eighties that didn't feel the floor shake when a Sylvester record came on from tracks like "Do You Wanna Funk" and his signature song "You Make Me Feel"(Mighty Real). Most club goers during the disco era, either high off acid or cocaine likened his music to a "spiritual experience". Having grown up singing in the black Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, the comparison isn't that far-fetched with his musical sermons of love, lust, and freedom; Sylvester was part minister and part musician.
He refused to live in the closet and his appearance reflected his knack for "dressing up" and blurring gender lines and he was often mistaken for a woman.
Sylvester was a flamboyant artist who was openly gay, "married", and unapologetic during a time when it was considered career suicide to tell the truth to middle America, and he never retreated back into the closet despite demands from his record label to "butch up" his appearance.
A few weeks before his transition he managed to march in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade, wheelchair bound, emaciated, with an oversized black hat on his head, white jeans, and a denim jacket- he was unrecognizable. Behind him marchers held a banner that read " PEOPLE LIVING WITH AIDS/ARC: IF YOU ARE ONE, PLEASE JOIN US."
During his final days he'd given away much of what he owned and the modest apartment he lived in overlooking the city was mainly occupied by a hospital bed in which he spent most of his time because he was to weak to walk.
In one of his final interviews a reporter asked Sylvester how he wanted to be remembered and without skipping a beat he retorted, "I want to be remembered for being fabulous". And fabulous he was.
Relive the fabulousness of Sylvester in the video for his signature song here and in rare footage from an appearance on The Late Show with Joan Rivers below.
Get into this excerpt from the interview:
Joan: What did your family do when they found out you were going to be a drag queen?
Sylvester: I'm not a drag queen!
Joan: Well you are sometimes.
Sylvester: I'm Sylvester.
Thanks Craig and Joshua