Sylvester James (1947 – 1988), better known as Sylvester, was an American disco and soul singer, and a gay drag performer. Sylvester was sometimes known as the ‘Queen of Disco,’ although this moniker has also been bestowed on some of the women of the disco era (i.e. Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer). His most significant works are the songs ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) in 1978 and ‘Do You Wanna Funk’ in 1982.
Many of the facts of his early life are uncertain, and birth dates from 1944 to 1948 have surfaced. One thing is certain though: Sylvester was a child gospel star. Encouraged to sing by his grandmother, the 1920s and 1930s jazz singer Julia Morgan, James’ talent first surfaced at the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in South Los Angeles, and soon he was making the rounds and stirring up audiences at churches around Southern California and beyond, sometimes billed as the ‘Child Wonder of Gospel.’
Sylvester’s home life disintegrated when he was a teenager. He clashed with his mother and stepfather, finally running away from home at age 16. For several years he lived on and around the streets of Los Angeles, but managed to finish high school and enroll at Lamert Beauty College. James moved to San Francisco in 1967 and, by his own account, his life began at that time.
In San Francisco, Sylvester performed in a musical production called ‘Women of the Blues,’ with his repertoire of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday songs in tow. In the early 1970s Sylvester joined a short-lived group of performance artists called The Cockettes, a psychedelic drag queen troupe founded by Hibiscus, aka George Harris.
After leaving The Cockettes, Sylvester performed in San Francisco a number of different times as a solo act. One of his most famed shows, entitled ‘Jungle Sin,’ which reprised Sylvester’s greatest Cockette solo songs, took place at the San Francisco supper club Bimbo’s, and was produced by the rock impresario David Ferguson in 1972. That same year, Sylvester performed at The Temple in San Francisco with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters, which was also produced by Ferguson.
Sylvester can be seen in the Cockettes’ outrageous short film ‘Tricia’s Wedding,’ lampooning the wedding of President Nixon’s daughter Tricia.
In 1973, Sylvester & The Hot Band released two rock-oriented albums on Blue Thumb (their self-titled debut was also known as ‘Scratch My Flower,’ due to a gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker adhered to the cover).
Sylvester signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977, working with the production talents of legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua, who produced his album ‘Stars’ in 1979. Sylvester later alleged that Fuqua cheated him out of millions of dollars. Sylvester soon met his frequent collaborator Patrick Cowley. Cowley’s synthesizer and Sylvester’s voice proved to be a magical combination, and pushed Sylvester’s sound in an increasingly dance-oriented direction; his second solo album, ‘Step II,’ unleashed two disco classics: ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat).’
Moving to Megatone Records in 1982, Sylvester quickly landed a Hi-NRG classic with ‘Do You Wanna Funk,’ which was featured in the 1983 film ‘Trading Places.’
Later pressure from the label to ‘butch up’ his image would result in him attending meetings in full-on drag. A drag photo shoot, which he staged and presented to label heads as a gag (calling it his ‘new album cover’). In 1985, one of his dreams came true as he was summoned to sing back-up for Aretha Franklin on her ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ comeback album. His sole Warner Bros. Records album was ‘Mutual Attraction’ in 1986, featuring original cover art by Keith Haring.