Seventy years ago today, a beautiful baby was born in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The baby, named Sylvester James, Jr., would develop a love of singing in the gospel choir, although he’d become disillusioned with his church’s disapproval of homosexuality. In 1970 Sylvester moved to San Francisco and became a member of the Cockettes, the outrageous and groundbreaking troupe of drag performers. After a tour of New York City didn’t go as planned, Sylvester struck out on his own. He found success as one of the indisputably great purveyors of dance music and the disco lifestyle. Accompanied by his amazing backup singers Two Tons of Fun (Izora Armstead and Martha Wash, who’d achieve success on their own as The Weather Girls), Sylvester released a string of singles that have become classics of the genre. Sylvester died on complications from HIV/AIDS in 1988 and left future royalties from his music to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities. In 2005, he was posthumously inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame.
Here are some of the classic anthems that make up part of his incredible legacy.
“Dance (Disco Heat)” gave the singer his first top 40 hit, peaking at 19 on the Billboard charts in 1978.
“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was a top 10 hit in the U.K. and made the top 40 in the U.S. It’s also said to have influenced New Order’s seminal “Blue Monday.”
“Do You Wanna Funk” was a hit in many European countries and was heard in the 1991 gay classic Longtime Companion.
Who can forget how Sylvester informed Sandra Bernhard’s brilliant “Free at Last” monologue in Without You, I’m Nothing. “He’s a black angel, there to take you higher!” Sandra speaks the truth.