1947 - 1988

Sylvester James was born into a family of modest means in Los Angeles, where as a Pentecostal church child he become known for performing Aretha Franklin’s “Never Grow Old” while standing on a milk crate. After his mother remarried, he ran away from home – working odd jobs, and taking up with a group of black drag queens called the Disquotays, before eventually fleeing to San Francisco in 1969. He soon joined the legendary performance group The Cockettes in their outrageous stage shows and appeared in their shocking short film, ‘Tricia’s Wedding.’ Sylvester continued performing in various bands and venues throughout the early- and mid-1970s – backed for a time by the Pointer Sisters -- releasing his first album in 1973 and rising over the next several years to become a popular local performer. Signed by producer Harvey Fuqua to Fantasy Records, his 1978 album ‘Step II’ pushed him into the disco stratosphere.  Powered by the singles ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat)’ Sylvester – unapologetically black, gay, falsetto-singing and gender-crossing – became a superstar, soaring on a blend of his gospel virtuosity and the astounding vocals of his back-up singers, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (a.k.a. Two Tons O’ Fun (a.k.a. The Weather Girls)).  His additional hits included ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk’, ‘All I Need’, ‘Over and Over’, ‘Can’t Stop Dancin’ and ‘Mutual Attraction.’  Adamant in his refusal to tone down his flamboyance, when disco fell from favor Sylvester continued to create the “San Francisco sound” of dance music. Diagnosed with AIDS, Sylvester stopped performing; but, unlike many, he chose to remain in the spotlight to help raise awareness about the devastating disease.  He died on December 16, 1988 at age 41. 

VIEW ENLARGED SYLVESTER BRONZE MEMORIAL

Plaque Sponsor

Matthew Hartz and Brian Bennewitz

Demography

Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Genderqueer/Non-Binary

Ethnicity African American Black

Faith Construct Protestant

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Information Age (1970-present)

Field(s) of Contribution

Business

Music

Social Justice

Commemorations & Honors

Given Moniker Queen of Disco During the Late 1970s

Awarded Key to the City of San Francisco by then Mayor Diane Feinstein (1979)

Posthumous Dance Music Hall of Fame Induction (2005)

Inaugural San Francisco Rainbow Honor Walk Honoree (2014)

Library of Congress Selected You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) for National Recording Registry Preservation (2019)

Authorship

Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Biography Vetted, Edited, and Certified By
Lesley-Ann Jones
Image Rights Usage Granted By
Carol Kossack | Clay Geerdes Photography
Image Source for Bronze Casting
Carol Kossack | Clay Geerdes Photography
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell