For those who like to say “disco sucks” I say, listen to Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and get back to me. Possessing a loud and piercing falsetto, Sylvester was a true talent, who made some of the greatest dance records in the 1970s. Like Nico, Klaus Nomi, or Arthur Russell, Sylvester’s legend has outgrown his music, and he’s become more than just an important part of pop culture during the 1970s: to many he was a saint and a martyr, cut down prematurely at the age of 41 from AIDS. He was a pioneer who forced the mainstream to embrace gender nonconformity, queerness, and black culture with a singular artistry and a single-minded ambition. In Joshua Gamson’s moving biography The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco, Sylvester’s story takes place at a time when gay rights progressed into a new stage, spurred on my the Stonewall riots in 1969. The book chronicles the famed singer’s tumultuous life in the context of the growing awareness and acceptance of homosexuality in the United States, and Gamson also writes about Sylvester’s tragic death at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. Far more than just simply a biography, The Fabulous Sylvester works as a history of queer culture as it took its place in the mainstream in the 1970s.
In a time when we’re gifted with people like RuPaul, Laverne Cox, or Grace Jones, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Sylvester was. Eschewing the smooth lover man R&B crooner image, Sylvester reveled in androgyny, wearing makeup, wigs, and sparkly caftans. Though he had a pleasing baritone, he was far more original and compelling a vocalist when he sang with his glass-shattering falsetto – and it wasn’t the smooth falsetto popular among male soul singers, but a sometimes harsh, gospel-hewed shriek that made his records distinct and stand apart from the oft-faceless disco acts that glutted the airwaves and dance floors. But as Gamson shows, Sylvester wasn’t necessarily a spontaneous performer, blind to commercial concerns. In fact, much of the image and sound that Sylvester projected was a careful creation. What Gamson does with his writing is make the case for Sylvester as not only a vibrant performer but a canny and astute artists.
The best biographies not only tell the stories of their subject, but also let the readers know why the lives matter. Sylvester’s story on its own, while interesting, is hardly different than the countless other black queer kids of the 1960s who had to carve out their own identities in the face of public condemnation and ridicule. Gamson also highlights the legal obstacles that queer folks faced, with clubs being regularly raided and their patrons routinely thrown into jail cells. But what makes Sylvester’s story so interesting is that it seems to act as a perfect platform for the evolution of the gay rights movement. When San Francisco celebrated gay pride or when it mourned the death of its openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, Sylvester’s voice often provided the soundtrack to these important events. Though the title The Fabulous Sylvester is apt, Gamson could’ve called his work Living Gay History, because Sylvester’s journey from fledgling drag queen to mainstream disco diva ran alongside the progression of gay equality.
Click here to buy The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco by Joshua Gamson on amazon.com.