Feeling Mighty Real

How disco changed the face of local dance music

San Francisco's mainstream nightlife in the mid-1970s didn't exactly revolve around dancing. Sure, the rock and jazz bands that ruled the clubs invited some motion, but more often their music encouraged deep listening from audiences. So big club promoters didn't quite welcome the new sound of disco with open arms, what with its repetitive beats and structures that required no amount of pondering to appreciate. Other cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles already had discos and even disco stars by 1975. San Francisco's scene arrived late, but when it did, it was creatively richer and survived longer than the rest of the nation's. By developing a handful of independent labels, a network of supportive clubs, and an audience for DJ-delivered dance music, its architects laid the foundation for today's San Francisco dance scene -- one of electronic music's most supportive in the world.

Sylvester, who would become local disco's biggest star, grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he attended the last three years of high school dressed as a woman. Weaned on gospel and soul, he trained his far-ranging voice by singing in church. After witnessing the cross-dressing cabaret act the Cockettes during a 1970 trip to San Francisco, he moved north to become a member himself.

A year later, Elyria, Ohio, native John Hedges moved to the city and began spinning records at the Mineshaft, a Market Street club that would become one of the city's key discos later in the decade. As there were no proper disco singles or turntables with pitch control yet, Hedges would mix together the A and B sides of Motown 45s. Underground gay clubs such as the Mineshaft were the first in the city to embrace dance music, and they served as the ideal training grounds for the DJs who would push the disco sound later.

Around 1974, DJs on the East Coast began favoring urban records with the key elements that would coalesce into disco's signature sound: a 4/4 kick drum accentuated with shakers and other hand percussion, lush string sections, and energetic R&B vocals. New York jock Nicky Siano, one of the pioneers of the continuously mixed set, started giving heavy rotation to the sweaty, 17-minute "Love's Theme" by Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. The recording industry was stunned when the song climbed to No. 1 on the charts. That was the year Kiss debuted and Led Zeppelin was at its zenith -- the last thing label executives expected was to be upstaged by some black kids in goofy outfits. A string of outlandishly arranged R&B tracks stormed the charts in the months to come -- "Boogie Down" by Eddie Knowles, "Rock the Boat" by the Hues Corporation, "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae -- and disco was born.

As the music caught on, clubs sprouted up everywhere. Along with the Mineshaft, there was the I-Beam on Haight Street, Dreamland on Harrison Street, Disco International in Oakland, the Trocadero Transfer on Fourth Street, prominent straight club Dance Your Ass Off in North Beach, and, most famous of all, the City on Montgomery and Broadway. The City boasted a large oval bar made of glass tiles and a very hip and racially mixed clientele. John Hedges, who had received Billboard's first Best Disco DJ award in 1976, scored a regular gig there with his partner, Marty Blecman.

Through their slot at the City, Hedges and Blecman met Sylvester. Patrick Cowley, who besides being the City's light technician was creating dance tracks with modified guitars and other self-constructed equipment, introduced the three of them. The decadent flamboyance of disco proved to be the perfect vehicle for Sylvester, who had made an unsuccessful bid in the early '70s to break into rock music. Backed by Cowley's driving synthesizer work and harmony singers Two Tons of Fun, Sylvester hit the Top 40 with the single "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" from his LP Mighty Real. The uptempo scorcher allowed Sylvester's mighty falsetto to strut and sashay all over the steady drums, unconstrained by traditional song structures. Sylvester had come home.

When it came time to make promotional appearances on television, the label and his management pressured him to tone down his look, conscious of how severely his image would restrict sales. Sylvester, who didn't consider himself out of the closet because he had never been in one, wouldn't budge an inch. When he visited The Tonight Show, for instance, he was asked by substitute host Joan Rivers if he was a transvestite. "No," he shot back with a defiant lisp, "I'm Sylvester."

Terri Hinte, the head of publicity at Sylvester's record company, Fantasy, recalls the tension between the artist and the label at the time. "The record was out, and certain stations refused to play it because he was gay ... a lot of black stations among them. Sylvester's records, as far as the way music genres worked and what was happening with radio at the time, would have been a natural fit for R&B radio. So every time a station turned it down, it called into question how he was handling his career. Decisions like going on Merv Griffin in a dress really affected how his music was going to get out there."

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