| TOM QUEEN
RECENTLY, I WAS in the audience at a Glamazons’ drag show at Wall Street Nightclub, and was fortunate to see Diamond Hunter’s performance of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). As someone who lived the disco era (yep, I had a disco dancing outfit with extra-wide bell-bottom pants in care-free polyester!), I knew that the soaring falsetto voice in this song belonged to the legendary Sylvester. However, I’m willing to bet that most of the “youngsters” that were in attendance that night knew little, if anything, about this mega-talented, ground-breaking singer, often referred to as “The Queen of Disco.”
Sylvester James, Jr. was born on September 6, 1947 in the Watts section of Los Angeles. His grandmother, Julie Morgan, was a well-known gospel singer, and inspired him to sing in the choir of his Pentecostal church. Sylvester was referred to as the “Child Wonder of Gospel” due to his remarkable talent. As he entered his adolescence, he embraced his homosexuality, resulting in persecution by his church. He lived on the streets of LA for a while, but in his early 20s he moved to San Francisco, where he became a member of the legendary avant-garde gender-bending performance troupe, The Cockettes (coincidentally, Divine was also a member for a short time).
There is a Columbus connection to the Sylvester story: Corbett Reynolds, who many will remember as the creator of the Red Party, (which some credit as the birth of the gay circuit party), had a nightclub in a converted theater in Franklinton from 1977 until 1985 called Rudely Elegant. For one special occasion in 1982, Corbett booked Sylvester to perform. As former Columbus resident Kirk Donnan recalled to me: “Sylvester was an amazing singer who put on an unforgettable performance.”
Sylvester’s career continued to soar. He pushed the boundaries of gender by wearing make-up and “big hair.” While the suit-and-tie types in the music industry didn’t know what to do think about this, he continued to record popular disco hits like Do Ya Wanna Funk. Often his live performances channeled the energy of his Pentecostal upbringing, and he would remark after especially good shows that “we had service.”
Sylvester’s hugely successful career was cut short when he succumbed to complications of the AIDS virus early in the days of the plague, passing away on December 16, 1988 at the age of 41. His best recordings remain fresh and deliciously danceable, and his legend continues to rise with the recent Off-Broadway show, Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical, as well as a similarly-named documentary film in the works, Mighty Real.