Eight minutes into the recent documentary Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester, Broadway star Billy Porter clearly articulates the singular significance of Sylvester, San Francisco’s “Queen of Disco.”
“He was a genderfluid Black man in mainstream music. That hasn’t happened since,” the Kinky Boots star observes.
Thirty-eight years after his death, there’s still only one Sylvester.
Born in Watts in 1947, Sylvester James Jr. came to the city in the early 1970s on the invitation of famed psychedelic drag troupe, The Cockettes. After a brief stint fronting The Hot Band — an all-straight, all-white funk-rock band — he found more suitable company with soul singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (who would later go on to sing “It’s Raining Men” as The Weather Girls). Flanked by his backup singers, in 1978 Sylvester struck success as a one-name, gender-defiant disco artist.
The release of Love Me Like You Should coincides with a remastered edition of Step II, the album which contains both of Sylvester’s biggest hits, “Dance (Disco Heat),” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” which Peter Shapiro called “the cornerstone of gay disco” in his book Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. On top of being Sylvester’s most enduring statement as an artist, Step II was also his most commercially successful album.
Today, Step II is a historical document, a crystal-ball view into ’70s queer San Francisco. But just as important, it is a fun and tender dance record whose message is just as relevant today as it was then. Forty-eight years after it’s initial release, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” still sounds slick with a layer of glitter and sweat hard-earned on the dancefloor, and “Dance (Disco Heat)” still grooves with the same impossible insistence.
Remastered, the music on Step II is thicker than the original issue, more full bodied. On top of a general volume boost, the bass now sounds more textural, rounder. The stereo effect on “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” now sounds almost hypnotic, as the bass dances in and out of each ear. On side B, as the songs slow down, the album now sinks in more, giving full weight to the yearning on tracks like the eternally hopeful closer “Just You & Me Forever.”
Sadly, just 10 years after the release of Step II, Sylvester died at 41. Before he passed, he signed away all his royalties to San Francisco non-profits Project Open Hand and PRC (Positive Resource Center), making sure that his music continued to positively impact the city he called home.
Sylvester’s message to the Bay Area and beyond is still audible: be mighty real. Dancing is total freedom. Be yourself, and choose your feeling.