Sylvester performs with his band at the Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go in 1972. (Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
Dick Clark couldn't get his American Bandstand crowd to stop cheering. It was early December, 1978, around the peak of disco's popularity — and Clark's studio audience had just heard Sylvester and his backup singers, Two Tons O' Fun, perform their first hit, "Dance (Disco Heat)".
After Clark got the crowd to pipe down and conducted an awkward interview, the gender-bending singer — wearing makeup, a loose kimono and leather pants — performed his follow-up single. The song, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," hit the top of Billboard's dance chart that year. Forty years later, its greater legacy is as an LGBTQ anthem.
"You've come out of the closet. It's been difficult," he says. "Many people [at the time] have moved out of their homes of origin, their families of origin, with great pain, and moved to a more liberated place, like San Francisco. And then ... this person comes out into public life that sounds like what you were feeling when you made yourself free.
"For him to be celebrated for all of his strangeness and all of the ways he inhabited who he wanted to be — who he felt himself to be — felt like you being celebrated for that."
And it wasn't just how Sylvester looked and sounded. The song's lyrics openly celebrated that liberation:
When we're out there dancing on the floor, darlin'
And I feel like I need some more
And I feel your body close to mine
And I know, my love, it's about that time
Make me feel mighty real
"You've got the words of a person who is just matter-of-fact about their sexual desires, about the freedom to do with their bodies and their desires whatever they want to do," Gamson says. "And you can dance to it!"
Sylvester James grew up singing in a Pentecostal church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a devout member of the church and couldn't accept the early signs of her son's sexuality.
"When I was little, I used to dress up, right? And my mother said, 'You can't dress up,' " Sylvester told Joan Rivers when he appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986. " 'You gotta wear these pants and these shoes. And you have to, like, drink beer and play football.' And I said, 'No I don't!' And she said, 'You're very strange.' And I said, 'That's OK!' "
"The [Pentecostal] church was oppressive," says singer Jeanie Tracy, who shared Sylvester's religious background and became his friend and collaborator. "They just didn't tolerate gayness. They didn't tolerate a lot of things. They didn't allow you to wear makeup. You couldn't wear toeless shoes or sleeveless dresses. It was just real ... controlled."
Too much so for Sylvester. At 13, he left the church. Two years later, he left home. He lived with friends and his grandmother, who accepted him as he was.
In his early 20s, Sylvester moved to San Francisco to join an avant-garde theatre troupe called The Cockettes, whose fans included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. But he left the group soon after — to front his own act. Jeanie Tracy remembers being introduced to him by friends in the music industry.
"They said, 'Oh, Jeanie, this is Sylvester,'" she says. "And I said, 'Sylvester? I thought you were a woman.' And then I said, 'Oops! I'm sorry!' He goes, 'Oh, no, girl, that's okay!'"
When guitarist and songwriter James Wirrick saw the singer for the first time, Sylvester was backed by a tight three-piece band and flanked by two drag queens — "in full drag, with full neck-beards," he laughs.
Wirrick became Sylvester's bandmate and collaborator a few months later. By then, the drag queens had been replaced by backup singers Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash, aka Two Tons O' Fun. (They went on to record another anthem — "It's Raining Men" — as The Weather Girls.) Wirrick and Sylvester wrote "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" together. Getting the rest of the band on board was a challenge.
"At first the band didn't wanna play it as a dance tune," Wirrick says. "They were kinda snotty about it. 'We don't really wanna do that,' y'know? And Sylvester and I kept saying, 'No, you have to do that because that's what's on the radio.' "
More than on the radio, the song was huge in discos — and its falsetto vocals, four-on-the-floor beat and bouncing synthesizer influenced generations of electronic dance music producers to follow. Eleven years after the original came out, vocalist Jimmy Sommerville of the British band Bronski Beat paid tribute with a cover. The following decade, Chicago House vocalist Byron Stingily's version once again took the song to the top of the U.S. dance chart.
The song also went on to become the centerpiece of a 2014 off-Broadway musical that tells Sylvester's life story. It's appeared in ads, films, and TV shows. So far this year, James Wirrick says he's gotten eight requests for permission to use the song he co-wrote: a video game, three television commercials, three movies and an episode of The Simpsons.
Joshua Gamson says the event was a reaction by straight white fans of classic rock against a music that they saw as too black and too queer — and that that backlash is partly why he missed the anthem's power when it first came out.
"In a way, if I had felt that earlier, I'd have come out earlier," he says. "Embracing who you are, celebrating who you are, being as fabulous as you could possibly be, I think that's the message that he's preaching in the song. And I could've used a dose of that as a teenager."
But Sylvester remained popular among dance music fans, and he leveraged that popularity to raise AIDS awareness. He played benefit shows and distributed safe-sex information to his audiences. When he appeared on The Tonight Show, he thanked Joan Rivers and guest Charles Nelson Reilly for their early support of what was becoming a movement. "I was there trying to do whatever we could at the time to get it together. And now it's like a national thing to do," Sylvester said. "I want to thank you myself."
Less than 10 years after "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" came out, Sylvester's husband died of complications from AIDS. The singer was never tested for HIV — he told friends there was no point, because he knew he had the virus. Within a few months, his own health was deteriorating. But, Jeanie Tracy says, his senses of style and humor stayed intact, even as he was planning his own funeral. "He looked at me and he says, 'I wanna be buried in a pearl-colored casket,' " she recalls. " 'Don't bury me in a white casket, 'cause I don't wanna look like I'm lyin' in a white refrigerator!'"
A few months before he died, Sylvester appeared in the 1988 gay pride parade in San Francisco. He was emaciated and weak and rode in a wheelchair. But he didn't want to hide, Gamson says — he wanted the crowds along Castro Street to see him.
"It was part of the same almost philosophy of realness — like, this, this is being real," Gamson says. "This is mighty real, to be marching in the Gay Freedom parade looking, like, 40 years older than you are. And people, knowing that they've seen this icon of their freedom, they see him [as] a symbol of the devastation that AIDS took on the community."
Sylvester made sure to champion that community even after he died. In his will, he left his share of future royalties for "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" to two San Francisco nonprofits: the AIDS Emergency Fund and the meals program Project Open Hand.
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