Sylvester, sometimes known as the Queen of Disco, was famous for an androgynous look and a fierce falsetto voice. Born in the Watts section of Los Angeles on September 6, 1947, he grew up singing in a Pentecostal church but left the church at age 13 and soon after left home after being shunned by the congregation and his mother for being gay.
Refusing to bow to pressure to conform, for his high school graduation photo Sylvester wore a blue chiffon prom dress and his hair in a beehive. He moved to San Francisco in 1970, where he performed for a couple of years with the infamous group of drag performers “The Cockettes.”
He released in a solo album in 1977, performed regularly in gay bars in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, and was cast in a cameo singing role in the Bette Midler film, The Rose. It wasn’t until his third album in 1978 that Sylvester found success including his best-known hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. That album, with background vocals from the Two Tons of Fun, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, went gold, topped the dance charts in the U.S., and led to major talk show performances and promo tours in the US.
On March 11, 1979, while Sylvester recorded his Living Proof live album in a sold-out show at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein awarded him the key to the City and proclaimed it “Sylvester Day.”
Never forgetting his community roots, Sylvester performed at gay pride festivals that year in San Francisco and London. Another dance hit, “Do You Wanna Funk,” released in 1982, was co-written with Sylvester’s frequent collaborator, writer-producer Patrick Cowley, who died of AIDS that year when the disease was still known as GRID.
Sylvester, along with Joan Rivers and Charles Nelson Reilly, did the first-ever AIDS fundraiser at Los Angeles’ Studio One nightclub in 1982. He called his 1983 song “Trouble in Paradise,” an AIDS message to San Francisco, and performed benefit concerts to raise awareness and money about the epidemic.
Sylvester’s boyfriend at the time died of AIDS in 1987, and Sylvester’s own health began to decline later that year. In the spring of 1988, Sylvester was hospitalized with pneumonia but managed to attend the Gay Freedom Parade in June in a wheelchair.
The Castro Street Fair in October of that year was dubbed “A Tribute to Sylvester.” Although he was too ill to attend, he heard crowds schanting his name from his bedroom and continued to give press interviews, openly stating that he was dying of AIDS and trying to highlight the impact of the disease on African-Americans.
Sylvester James, Jr., died on December 16, 1988 at age 41. At his direction, his body was dressed in a red kimono in an open casket. In his will, he bequeathed all future royalties to two AIDS charities.
In 2005, Sylvester was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame and in 2019 the Library of Congress chose “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to be preserved in the National Recording Registry.