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What is disco, if not a call for yearning? What is gospel, if not a call for redemption? What is praise, if not a call back home? It is in Step II’s murky waters of gospel, Blackness, queerness and Black performance that we find Sylvester, a legend of other worlds.
The deepest corners of the late 1970s New York City club scene birthed a new genre of music that would shift the lives of queer people globally, but for a young boy from Crenshaw with an undeniable falsetto, it would be the beginning of it all. Some might say that the Parisian club scene of the ’60s began the flow that eventually made its way to NYC: “...none of this really mattered until the early 1970s, when gay underground dance clubs in New York — the Loft, Tenth Floor, 12 West, Infinity, Flamingo, and, later, the Paradise Garage, Le Jardin, and the Saint — spawned a disco culture that brought with it open drug use, on-site sex and ecstatic, nonstop, all-night dancing,” Vanity Fair’s Lisa Robinson later wrote in 2010.
Disco began trying to get white celebrities and elites of the NYC club scene to dance to Black sonics without knowing the origins. The icons of the genre are the same subsets of society that always help the world propel forward: Black women, queer folks and undergorund worlds that are romanticized in the years to come. Donna Summer, Grace Jones and David Mancuso’s time as the manager of The Loft on Lower Broadway set the world ablaze, embracing a new core of experience and erotics.
Calling Sylvester “ahead of his time” would be an erasing of history. It would be trivial to say that Sylvester, and his sound, were meant to be archived before he left this earth. It’s impossible to discuss the genre of disco without evoking his name and legacy. The soundtrack of queerness in any major city cannot be held accurately without the sounds of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” ringing off in the distance at least once. Sylvester was more than this lifetime, and his lesson was to remind us what it means to feel past the limits of this earth.
The history of how Sylvester, known by his grandmother as Sylvester “Dooni” James Jr., came to be is a common story of loss, identity and growing through the muck of this world. Sylvester grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during the Civil Rights Era with his grandmother in a strict Pentacostal household. As Joshua Gamson writes in his book The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco of the importance of Black women in Sylvester’s early life: “Dooni was not a drag name; Sylvester’s little brothers named him that ... In later life, although friends met and heard about his mother, grandmother and sisters, few of his closest friends recall Sylvester mentioning male family members at all … Dooni was raised by fierce women.”
As a teenager, Sylvester was a part of an eccentric group of young, Black drag queens called The Disquotays. After dealing with homophobic harassment both in the church and at home, he left in 1969, in search of a city that could hold both his queerness and his blinding talent as both a singer and a songwriter. He landed in San Francisco at the height of the gay rights movement.
After arriving in the Bay area, Sylvester suffered through years of homelessness and instability. While exploring the nightclubs and underground music halls of the city, he found community with other genderfluid folks. In the early ’70s, he joined the now-legendary drag performance troupe The Cockettes as a full-time member. Two of Sylvester’s musical heroes were Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker, and his time with The Cockettes allowed him to simultaneously showcase his falsetto and the lows of the blues that he faced in the Pentecostal church. But it wasn’t a perfect fit.
“Sylvester shared the Cockettes’ affinity for outrageous flaming, their celebrations of sex and of gayness, their love of acid and good hash, and their bent movie-musical fantasies. Like them, he was making himself up, fantasizing a self into existence. But he usually stood a few feet back, among the Cockettes but never quite of them,” Gamson wrote.
As Sylvester was entering a newly signed deal with Blue Thumb Records, he was still in the midst of defining his rock-funk sound in a way that made him stand out. It wasn’t until his signing with Harvey Fuqua at his label Fantasy that Sylvester jumped into the world of disco without ever looking back. His self-titled 1977 album Sylvester was just a small sampling of his 1978 sophomore album Step II would be, which solidified his status as the legendary voice for disco that we understand him as to this very day. When Sylvester began to work closely with producer Patrick Cowley, his music channeled the energy of Sylvester’s canonical live shows. Their dynamic relationship coincided with disco’s massive popularity, a genre and culture that allowed room for Sylvester’s range of both songwriting, tone and gender expression. The highlight of their partnership was “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” which cast Sylvester, a Black queer kid from The Watts, into international stardom.
It is often stolen, repackaged and misinterpreted, but “feeling real” is a term used colloquially in ball culture, specifically the Black queer and trans scenes of NYC and LA that spoke to the grayness of passing and being unable to cloak your true self in a world where trans folks must, at all times, protect themselves from the violence of the cisheterosexual world. It is a term that holds deep meaning to the reality of trans folks globally.
Sylvester, in his 1978 classic disco record, gives voice to the joy of infatuation. Setting us back in the club scene, putting us skin-to-skin with the elusive paramore of that moment, someone whose name we don’t fully remember. The night continues on to the falsettos of Sylvester’s register. We are there with him: sweating our lives out, drinking with friends and flirting across the dance floor with that special someone. The exuberance of the moment keeps us moving; we are fully invested in being in a liminal space, where the crimes of this world against Black queer and trans folks cannot exist. In “You Make Me Feel,” Sylvester is building that world — an escapism we can almost taste and a “realness” that keeps us held just in the four minutes of his unstoppable synthed classic. The play of the chords, the unstoppable funk bassline and glittering synth make for a sound that guides us out of this world and into the next over. It would be easy to lose sight of the brilliance of this record’s creation off of the glamor of Sylvester alone, but behind it all is the songwriting of Patrick Cowley, his life-long partner in music and writing genius. Together, the two wrote Step II with a sharpness for disco, funk and gospel vocal play that still sets Sylvester apart from his other colleagues of the disco era.
“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” are the stellar jewels of Step II, as the two songs speak to the broad range of the songwriting and arrangement genius on the album. Working with guitarist James “Tip” Wirrick, the singer wanted to create a traditional ballad and, instead, ended up producing two charting hits for the masses that still have resonance.
Step II’s grittier points arrive in “Make Me Feel (Epilogue),” where the project’s pulse takes a dip, and we hear Sylvester’s true roots in Black gospel. “I Took My Strength From You” and “Was It Something I Said” follow shortly and in the same vein: two songs that cry of a particular type of loss and love which can get lost in the glittering, dance-worthy legacy of Sylvester’s body of work. He shines brightest in his reverberating choruses; he — very much like his gospel background — plays with sonics of yelling, pleading and speaking in a way that runs effortlessly. In “Was It Something I Said,” we also see the unbridled kinship between Sylvester and his background singers. Above all, his own love for Black women as his closest confidants, and the quiet heartache of loving in secret are all also tucked in the folds of a funk disco record that, at times, moves fast enough to outpace the sourness of love lost and never returned.
Sylvester closes out Step II as if he is showing us the smoother, darker side of the spotlight. He is crooning about the daydreams of never-ending love on “Just You and Me Forever,” its diamond-like piano running along smoothly with the choral backing to give it the quality of a classic early-’80s ballad before the ’80s even began. What’s best imagined is Sylvester, dressed to the nines — in whatever gown of his liking that made him feel full and alive — while the sounds of his concluding ballad shake the halls of any and every music hall he walked into. If the famed singer knew anything about life, Step II is his discourse on what it means to be present in your deepest longings — to know what they sound like, taste like and how they move against an arrangement of shared genius. Step II is not a juncture, but a lesson in feeling deeply.
Cathy Cohen’s seminal queer studies essay, 1997’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” gave framing to Sylvester’s intentional non-conformity: “In queer politics, sexual expression is something that always entails the possibility of change, movement, redefinition, and subversive performance — from year to year, from partner to partner, from day to day, even from act to act.” These sentiments speak to the core of disco, Sylvester’s incomparable discography and the very queer notion of fluidity. Queerness, in itself, is a constant shifting of how you understand yourself to be day-by-day. Those willing to stand against the sharp edge of this world are willing to name themselves each day and be counted among the few.
What feels most clear about Sylvester is his ability to create in the cosmos, to be living in other worlds and invite us into it when he sings. Subversive performance, othering and the politics of being an outcast were hurdles in his life, but the core of his work was the drive to make people feel. He was beyond this time, and the next and the one after that, because he spoke about a type of living that can’t be held in this earthly realm.
Clarissa Brooks is a writer, cultural critic and community organizer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is trying her best and writing about it along the way.