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Sylvester & Me: Powerhouse Vocalist RAHBI Reflects on Trailblazing ‘Mighty Real’ Singer


There will never be another Sylvester. From the grave, his spirit, music, and unapologetic queerness during an era that would have rendered his career dead on arrival continues to be a blueprint for today’s artists. Crowned the “Queen of Disco,” the Los Angeles native ruled the dance charts at the height of his career in the late 1970s. But even more interesting than Sylvester’s soaring falsetto, flamboyant stage persona, and androgynous appearance was his defiance of rigid Black masculinity that male soul artists were expected to adhere to in order to be marketable to middle America.


From the start, the man born Sylvester James in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles showed no interest in being a watered-down version of himself to be palpable to would-be fans who would withhold their support because of his race, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. It’s one reason he fled Los Angeles for the freedom and liberation of San Francisco after being shunned by fellow congregants at Palm Lane Church of God In Christ in South Los Angeles, who lauded his vocal prowess but rejected his natural effeminate nature. In San Francisco, he embraced the counter-cultural life and joined the drag troupe, The Cockettes, eventually producing his own solo shows heavily influenced by female blues and jazz singers Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker.


Sylvester signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977, his second solo album, “Step II” (1978), unleashed two disco classics: “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” The two songs quickly climbed the American dance chart and spent six weeks at #1 in August and September 1978. By that time, both Sylvester’s live shows and recordings featured the backup vocals of Two Tons O’ Fun, comprised of Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the future Weather Girls, according to the Ubuntu Biography Project.


Sylvester repeatedly faced demands from his record label to “butch up” his image to achieve crossover success. He “defiantly attended meetings with executives in full-on drag. A drag photoshoot, which he staged and presented to label heads as a gag (calling it his “new album cover”), would later grace the cover of “Immortal” after Sylvester died” from AIDS-related complications on December 16, 1988. In the last few months before his death, he famously attended the 1988 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco’s Castro District, a shell of his former self in a wheelchair. Although his body is absent from the physical realm, his artistic influence continues to have an impact. To put it plainly, Sylvester walked so artists like RuPaul, B. Slade, Todrick Hall, and Atlanta independent artist RAHBI could run.


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