How the World Caught Up to Sylvester

Clay Geerdes, Sylvester - Rings and Bracelettes, 1971.  (Courtesy of David Miller, from the estate of Clay Geerdes.)

The year was 1972 and David Bowie had just released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, his concept album written from the perspective of an androgynous, bisexual alter-ego. With a fire-red mullet and rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits, he ushered in an era of glitter-spangled, tight-clothed rockers who came to define the aesthetic of the decade.

But as influential as Bowie was, when he came to San Francisco in October of 1972, he didn't feel that his audience was too impressed. In fact, Bowie wouldn't return to the city until four whole years later, in 1976. "They don't need me," he told a reporter at the time. "They've got Sylvester."

Most might recognize Sylvester, Bowie's opening act for those 1972 San Francisco tour dates, from his falsetto-laden "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." The 1978 disco hit has soundtracked thousands of Pride parades and drag shows. Before his mainstream success, however, Sylvester was notorious in the Bay Area as a gender-nonconforming counterculture icon—and one that clearly left an impression on Bowie.

Now, over three decades after his death in 1988, Sylvester's trailblazing legacy is prominently featured in Queer California: Untold Stories, a new exhibit running April 13–Aug. 11 at the Oakland Museum of California.

From Haight-Ashbury to stardom

Decades before terms such as "genderqueer," "genderfluid" and "nonbinary" came into popular use, Sylvester lived comfortably outside of the categories of male and female without a label, and expected the world to accept his fluid form of self-expression. He occasionally slipped from "he" into "she" pronouns, wearing makeup, wigs and sequins one day and a three-piece suit the next. When Joan Rivers described him as a drag queen in a 1986 interview on The Tonight Show, he rejected the label, turning up his nose and replying, "I'm Sylvester."

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"This idea that people had to catch up to him was always part of his mindset," says University of San Francisco professor Joshua Gamson, who published the biography The Fabulous Sylvester in 2005. "He was not going to be waiting for permission from people to do what he wanted to do, or for the mainstream culture to say it was OK."

Gamson adds, "He was certainly genderfluid before anybody named that, and really queer before anybody named it the way people talk about 'queer' in the last 25 years."

Clay Geerdes, Cockettes go shopping, 1971.
Clay Geerdes, Cockettes go shopping, 1971. (Courtesy of David Miller, from the estate of Clay Geerdes.)

Raised singing gospel in the church choir, Sylvester spent his adolescence in Los Angeles partying with a clique of black trans women, drag queens and gender-nonconforming people who called themselves the Disquotays. When Sylvester moved to San Francisco in 1970, he quickly fell into the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene. He joined a mostly white drag-theater troupe called the Cockettes, who spent their days taking LSD, dressing up and living their lives as one long, bizarre piece of performance art.

Sylvester had a falling out with the Cockettes after upstaging them at a New York show that was supposed to be their big break in 1971, Gamson describes in his book. (The Cockettes blew off rehearsals to gallivant about town, and it showed.) Meanwhile, Sylvester poured himself into his performance and garnered national press as an up-and-coming blues-rock star.

"Sylvester was ultimately really driven to be an excellent performer and an excellent singer, and that's what I really love,"  says Christina Linden, the curator of Queer California at the Oakland Museum.

During the early '70s, Sylvester regularly opened for big-name acts at concerts promoted by Bill Graham, winning over the longhair rock crowd with his captivating voice, unusual appearance and live show that took audiences to heights of spiritual ecstasy. Bowie wasn't the only star he eclipsed; Gamson notes that the Los Angeles Times once reported that Sylvester "outrocked" Billy Preston. Sylvester and his Hot Band got a record deal with a label called Blue Thumb, where he counted the Pointer Sisters, old friends from the Bay Area scene, as labelmates.

Sylvester's comeback as a disco star

By the mid '70s, Sylvester's Blue Thumb albums had stopped selling well, and he'd blown through his royalty advance. Broke and without a band, he started from square one as a solo act in the Castro district's newly thriving gay club scene.

With two church-raised gospel singers, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (who eventually became the Weather Girls of "It's Raining Men" fame), Sylvester assembled a new band and began recording new music at places like Berkeley's famed Fantasy Studios. Meanwhile, disco had crossed over into the mainstream, and conditions were ripe for Sylvester to make it big.

Clay Geerdes, Sylvester in Braids, 1971.
Clay Geerdes, Sylvester in Braids, 1971. (Courtesy of David Miller, from the estate of Clay Geerdes.)

Sylvester had been toying with a gospel-tinged piano track called "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" when Patrick Cowley heard it. Cowley's synth-driven sound came to define the West Coast gay club scene of the '80s. Impressed, he offered to produce a more uptempo remix of the song.

The look, the voice, the pulsing beat—it all came together at the right time. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" reached No. 1 on Billboard's dance music chart and became an anthem for disco's promise of liberation.

"He's a figure of a certain kind of self-creation and self-determination that is very powerful. He's an icon of queer freedom," says Gamson. "He is a soundtrack for those things—soundtrack for a collective self-determination, and a certain kind of collective 'fuck you.' A celebration of being real and fabulous and all the things society denied you. He provided music that reminded people of that, that still feels like that when you hear it."

The success of "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" brought international tours and opening gigs for Chaka Khan. Sylvester even sold out the 3,000-seat War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and was presented the keys to the city by the office of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein.

But within the year, it became fashionable to hate disco, due in part to white, straight industry gatekeepers who objected to its popularity. Still, Sylvester remained a star of the Castro, even as Fantasy Records executives pressured him to make his presentation more masculine in a bid to sell records.

He spent his last years working with Cowley at his label, Megatone Records, where they made another dance hit, "Do Ya Wanna Funk." That same year, in 1982, Sylvester's hard rock single "Hard Up" became the third video by a black artist to be featured on MTV.

The Castro scene and the AIDS crisis

In the early '80s, AIDS ravaged the gay community and, sadly, Cowley died from it in 1982. When Sylvester's boyfriend Rick Cranmer succumbed to the disease as well, in 1987, Sylvester knew he was next. In his final years, he used media interviews to advocate for AIDS victims and performed at some of the earliest benefits for victims of the disease. He even appeared at the Castro's Gay Freedom Parade in a wheelchair.

Sylvester's blue sequined jacket, made by Pat Campano circa 1985.
Sylvester's blue sequined jacket, made by Pat Campano circa 1985, from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society, as seen at the Oakland Museum of California. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

"Known as 'the Queen of Disco' here in the late 1970s, Sylvester delighted audiences of every race and sexual persuasion with his funky, spiritual-style singing in his nightclub routine in which he wore exotic costumes," the New York Times wrote after his death.

Over 30 years later, Sylvester remains an icon. His life inspired an Off-Broadway musical called Mighty Real in 2014. This year, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" was added to the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and numerous photos from Sylvester's Cockettes days and solo career—as well as his blue sequined jacket—are featured in the Oakland Museum's Queer California.

"There's greater and greater recognition of queer culture, a lot more room and less shame and embarrassment," says Gamson. "There's more of an appetite for [learning about] the people who helped make this happen, and the people who've been overlooked because of intersectional racism, homophobia, anti-femme—all the things that've kept Sylvester somewhat on the margins."

"In his own terms," Gamson adds, "it's like the world caught up."

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'Queer California' is on view at the Oakland Museum of California from April 13–Aug. 11. Details here

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