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The web page of the GLBT Historical Society that houses scans of the singer, songwriter, performer and disco artist Sylvester James Jr.’s obituary is filled with guestbook signatures. In 2020, Chris posted from Paris remembering some charming exchanges with him in a supermarket. In 2017, Jewell described seeing him live and the feeling of listening to a well-worn Sylvester record, loosely quoting “Dance (Disco Heat)”: “You can't calm my feet in the disco heat, dancin' thru the night, til mornin' light shines on me!” In 2009, John wrote in from San Francisco, remembering a handful of revolutionary artists taken from us too soon due to AIDS’ devastation: Patrick Cowley, then Sylvester, then Frank Loverde, then Marty Blecman.
Each entry in the page’s collection serves as a little glimpse into the way Sylvester’s legacy remains alive to this day. His spirit thrives in a collection of vignettes stored across generations of memories, in songs that flood kitchens, basements, block parties, pride events and clubs alike and in every kinetic dance move they inspire.
“Phone calls came to my office from every corner of the country from fans distraught over his passing, but so very thankful for all his music,” Sylvester’s longtime personal manager Tim McKenna said in the obituary, published in the Bay Area Reporter on December 22, 1988. “There have been many beautiful stories of how one of his songs became so important in their lives. It came through — joy, hope, love, fun, it all came through in his music. ”
But the posthumous impact of his work goes even further beyond just his musical contributions alone. An active member of his community and close friends with Harvey Milk, Sylvester was a longtime and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial equity, often using his platform to raise awareness and discuss these issues in the mainstream.
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview a few months before his death. “The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
In his will, he bequeathed all of his music’s future royalties to the AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF) and Rita Rockett’s food program at San Francisco General Hospital's Ward 86 for AIDS patients. However, the organizations didn’t receive royalties upon his death; Sylvester had taken out advances on his royalties, resulting in substantial debt. By the time the ’90s rolled around, disco music had plummeted in popularity, and Roger Gross, the lawyer who’d assisted Sylvester in creating his will, was told that there would likely be no more future royalties.
“In communicating with record industry people in Los Angeles, the feeling was that Sylvester's time had passed and it was very, very unlikely that in the future there would be any royalties to pay off the advances and to fund these requests,” Gross told the Bay Area Reporter in 2010. “Basically, Sylvester’s file was inactive so there was nothing to do. There was nothing to probate at that point in time because nothing had value.”
Convinced that the royalties would not accrue beyond what Slyvester owed, Gross left the matter alone until years later, in the mid-aughts, when he was contacted by the writer Joshua Gamson, who was working on his book at the time: 2005’s The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco. Gamson had also interviewed Bill Belmont, a former VP at Sylvester’s record label Fantasy Records, and discovered that the royalties from Sylvester’s music never stopped accumulating. With “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” remaining a smash, and his wider catalog still beloved, at some point at the end of the ’90s, Slyvester’s debt had eventually been paid off. The royalties from TV, movies and radio play began to climb and sit in an untouched account, but the record label didn’t have a will and lacked contact with a proper estate to which they could distribute the money. Belmont and Gross worked together for years in an effort to ensure the royalties were distributed correctly. Among a number of challenges, Rita Rockett had since moved out of San Francisco and discontinued her food program. Gross determined that the work and mission of the San Francisco-based organization Project Open Hand were similar to that of Rockett’s, and petitioned in court to designate them as a beneficiary in the previous program’s place.
Gross, Belmont and other associated members of Sylvester’s estate established that 75 percent of Sylvester's royalties will go to AEF, and the other 25 percent to Project Open Hand. Finally, in 2010, $140,000 in accrued royalties were split between the two organizations.
Project Open Hand told the Bay Area Reporter that the initial payment would fund approximately 13,000 meals for their HIV-positive clients. The organization was founded in 1985 when retired food service worker Ruth Brinker saw the impact of malnutrition on a dear friend who was diagnosed with AIDS. She began preparing meals for her community. Today, they serve San Francisco and Oakland, have over 125 daily volunteers, and deliver 2,500 nutritious meals and 200 bags of healthy groceries daily to those fighting HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
In 2016, the AEF merged with the Bay Area’s Positive Resource Center and became Emergency Financial Assistance (EFA). The EFA serves low-income residents of the Bay Area that are living with HIV/AIDS, with a focus on emergency assistance and eviction prevention.
“It means a lot when compassion is shown,” Sylvester said in the same LA Times interview. “I know that whenever I hear that someone has AIDS my heart goes out to them.”
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.