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Sylvester Tribute Show

July 2012 Script

Sylvester Medley (1977, 1982)

This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage, and that of course was Sylvester, with a quick medley of three of his biggest hits, "Dance Disco Heat," "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," and "Do Ya Wanna Funk." On the show this month I'm going to honor Sylvester and take you through his musical history, and that will cover his greatest successes, along with songs you may not know by him, plus some quite rare tracks. On Part 1 I'll cover the first ten years of his recordings, through 1979, and Part 2 will cover the 80's.

Sylvester James was born in 1947, in Los Angeles, and moved north in 1970, and he's been quoted as saying "my life started when I moved to San Francisco," so that's where we'll start as well. It wasn't long before he joined a sort of psychedelic drag queen performance troupe, called The Cockettes. For a year or so he performed in their free-wheeling gender-bending and drug-influenced shows. It was sort of performance art meets 1930's musicals. There was a documentary made in 2002 about the group, and their rise and fall, and it includes a song from one of their shows by Sylvester. I checked with one of the original Cockettes, Scrumbly Koldewyn, who told me part of their show "Pearls Over Shanghai," was filmed in November of 1970, and captured what was the first recording of Sylvester singing. So, here's the song "Jaded Lady."

Sylvester - Jaded Lady (1970)

While the Cockettes were splintering apart, around 1972, Sylvester was much more focused and was going his own direction. He started performing around town as Sylvester & the Hot Band, and was invited to contribute two songs to a various artists compilation called "Lights Out: San Francisco," put out by radio station KSAN. One of the songs was the Leonard Cohen gem "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," made famous by Roberta Flack, and on the other, "Why Was I Born," which he wrote, he was backed up by the Pointer Sisters, who would release their own album the following year. Here's a bit of both songs.

Sylvester & His Hot Band - Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye (1972)
Sylvester & His Hot Band - Why Was I Born? (1972)

Could you tell Sylvester was a child gospel singer? Actually, the first part of that song was in a go-to-church mode, and the last part, where I picked it up, was a Go-To-Church mode, and the Pointer Sisters helped.

In 1973 he released two albums on the Blue Thumb label, in what might be called a funk rock style, and right from the get-go he was out of the closet, as if he were ever in. He's shown in drag on the front and back covers of the first LP. In my opinion, when you ask yourself who was the first major artist to be openly gay from the very beginning of his career, well, that would be Sylvester. The only other person that comes to mind is Boy George, but he and Culture Club didn't hit the scene until 1982. Armistead Maupin said of him, "Sylvester was one of the few gay celebrities to have never renounced their gayness along the ladder to success."

Anyway, his albums were on Blue Thumb, a label that had received limited success with Ike & Tina Turner, Dave Mason and the Crusaders, and Sylvester's first, and only, 45 on the label was #228, in August of 1973. It happened that the next Blue Thumb 45, #229, would be by his friends The Pointer Sisters, which started off their career, a top 20 hit with "Yes, We Can Can." Sylvester's first 45 was the Neil Young song, "Southern Man."

Sylvester & the Hot Band - Southern Man (1973)

That was a slightly trimmed down version of "Southern Man." When I started putting together this show I pulled all the songs I thought important to play, and, well, that totaled over three hours, just in the music, so that wouldn't work. I'll be making some painful cuts and editing a bit of many of the songs, especially the ones that are dance tracks. It's a tough balance of giving all the music I can and trying to keep to a two-hour show. For example, what to play from Sylvester's second album, called "Bazaar." Again I couldn't decide so I'm going to mix two together, starting with an Allen Toussaint song, "Play Me Something Sweet." Sylvester was the first to record it, but the next year it was a hit for Three Dog Night. And then that song morphs into one probably more familiar.

Sylvester & the Hot Band - Play Me Something Sweet (1973)
Sylvester & the Hot Band - Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight (1973)

That was the James Taylor song "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and Sylvester showed up on another 1973 release, but this time doing backup. This was as far as I know his first time doing that on a recording, and it was for soul funk singer Betty Davis, the wife of Miles Davis. The song "Game Is My Middle Name," was on her debut album, but honestly, his voice is so buried in the chorus I couldn't pick it out, so I'm skipping that one. But here's one I am most definitely sharing.

In 1973 the National Association of Progressive Radio Announcers released, for radio stations only, an LP of Public Service Announcements, or PSA's. The album was called "Get Off." As they were only for radio use, the album is quite rare. The LP included anti-drug ads, over 50 of them, by the cream of early 70's radio, including Chicago, Judy Collins, the Hollies, the Guess Who, B.B. King, Alice Cooper, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and on and on. It seems almost amusing, given Sylvester's recent history with the Cockettes, that he do one of these anti-drug PSAs, or maybe that's why he did one, or maybe he just knew this was a very desirable project to get in on. I understand he himself did no drugs other than pot. By the way, the only other gay or lesbian artist on this album, or the 1975 follow-up, was NIckey Barclay from the band Fanny. So, here's Sylvester, advising us to "Don't Do It, Baby."

Sylvester - Don't Do It, Baby (PSA, 1973)

After 1973 not much was heard of Sylvester for a few years, outside of his performing locally in the Bay Area. For example, I found one clipping from 1975, where he was on a bill with Eddie Money, whose hits were several years in the future. But things changed, in a big way, in 1977 when he signed a solo contract deal with Fantasy Records, and worked with legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua. He would produce Sylvester's next five albums. The first album was just called "Sylvester," and the first single was "Down Down Down," and it was his first ever chart record, reaching #18 on the Dance Charts.

Sylvester - Down Down Down (1977)

It was also on his first album with Fantasy Records that an important connection began, as singing backups were Izora Armstead and Martha Wash, soon to be known as Two Tons o' Fun. They were Sylvester's backing group from 1977 through 1981, and in 1982 when they were recording "It's Raining Men," their name was forever changed to The Weather Girls. On the second album Patrick Cowley also began working on production, adding his synthesizer genus, which led Sylvester more and more in a dance-oriented direction, and the result was magic. The album, released in 1978, was called "Step II," and it yielded two massive hits, both reaching #1 on the dance charts, essentially owning the charts in August and September of 1978. And they both were also Top 40 on the regular charts, and the R&B charts, and, for the first time, charts in several European countries. So, here are "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," and "Dance (Disco Heat)."

Sylvester - You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) (1978)
Sylvester - Dance (Disco Heat) (1978)

I remember it well. 1978 was the year I came out of the closet and so I was hitting the clubs on a crash course, and I sure remember dancing to those songs at the Oar House and the Late Show in Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived then.

There's another song from the "Step II" album I want to mention, as it's so much of an anomaly. Now, you know he always sang falsetto, but on one song on the "Step II" album he sang baritone, and that will only happen one more time in his career, on an album in 1981. So for this album, here's a little bit of "Was It Something That I Said," with some prompting from Two Tons o' Fun.

Sylvester - Was It Something That I Said (1978)

The year 1979 brought a 4-song album called "Stars," but that was enough to yield another hit. He redid "I (Who Have Nothing)," the 1963 classic by Ben E. King, disco style, and took it to #40 on the Billboard charts.

Sylvester - I (Who Have Nothing) (1979)

Sylvester was on top of the world, as 1979 was also the year of his film debut. He was in the Bette Midler movie "The Rose," and got to do a number with her and two other drag queens called "Fire Down Below," which, alas, did not make it to the movie soundtrack, and no one has uploaded it to Youtube, or I would share it with you. And 1979 saw the release of his first live album, a two-disc set called "Living Proof." It contains some hits, but I found it interesting in that it included a couple beautiful ballads, of songs I already loved. This one's a medley of "Could It Be Magic" and "A Song for You."

Sylvester - Could It Be Magic / A Song for You (1979)

This is JD Doyle for Queer Music Heritage, and gee, I've enjoyed putting this show together. It's been on my to-do list for a while, and now's the time. And this was Part 1 of Sylvester's music story, up through 1979. On my website, you can find Part 2, covering the 1980's, and it includes a special interview with Sylvester, that was released on a rare vinyl recording. I also want to highly recommend a biography called "The Fabulous Sylvester," by Joshua Gamson. The amount of research he did and his ability to get that down and bring out all the human nuances is amazing.

I'm closing Part 1 with Sylvester's last hit of the 1970's, reaching #2 on the dance charts, with an appropriate title, "Can't Stop Dancing."

Sylvester - Can't Stop Dancing (1979) EDIT 6:30

Sylvester - I Need You (1980)

Welcome to Queer Music Heritage and Part 2 of my salute to Sylvester. This is JD Doyle and we're in the 80's now and 1980 brought us the "Sell My Soul" album. The song you just heard, "I Need You," and the album's title track both made it to #6 on the Billboard Dance Charts. I'm going to play you one more from "Sell My Soul," and you'll recognize it immediately.

Sylvester - Cry Me a River (1980)

Okay, that was the short, short version of "Cry Me a River." I need to trim as I go to fit in as much as I can. And I'm going to take a producer's prerogative by leaving out Sylvester's next album altogether, with I think good reason. For one, the LP "Too Hot to Sleep" yielded no hits, and it's so mellow, well, in comparison, that I wouldn't even call it a dance album. All but one song is very mid-tempo, and the only track that made the dance charts, at #20, was really a vocal by Jeanie Tracy. I'm not sure if Sylvester was even on that track.

He also did guest lead vocals on a Herbie Hancock track, called "Magic Number," but frankly, though it reached #9, I think it's uninteresting, and it's done in baritone, so most fans wouldn't even recognize Sylvester. See what you think.

Herbie Hancock, featuring Sylvester - Magic Number (1981)

See what I mean? If this was club music, it's for about four in the morning.

I want to interject a personal note. I was in San Francisco in June of 1981 and got to see Sylvester. Well, I didn't see him perform, but I did see live, just a few feet from me. He was in the Castro helping judge the Dog Show & Parade, a very gay event, and I got his photo. Wish I would have had the nerve to talk to him.

So we're up to 1982, and the album "All I Need," and now here's an album you can sink your teeth, and dancing shoes into. What changed? Well, remember Sylvester's buddy, Patrick Cowley. It was his synthesizer genius that made such huge hits out of "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)."
Patrick started his own label. This was with a partner, Marty Blecman, and they named it Megatone Records, after Cowley's hit from the previous year, "Megatron Man." It was a great time for Cowley, he had also had a huge hit in 1981 with "Menergy," which we'll come back to in a while, and on the Megatone label he produced hits in 1982 for Paul Parker, with the song "Right On Target", and for Frank Loverde, with the song "Die Hard Lover." Sadly, most of the folks I just mentioned, Cowley, Blecman, and Loverde, have died of AIDS, with Paul Parker the only one alive and, incidentally, still making music.

Again, I think the album "All I Need" was excellent, so I'm giving you 12 ½ minutes of it, starting with a big hit that was billed as by Patrick Cowley, featuring Sylvester. They wanted to know "Do You Want to Funk."

Patrick Cowley, featuring Sylvester - Do You Want to Funk (1982)
Sylvester - Be With You (1982)
Sylvester - Don't Stop (1982)

The other two tracks in that set were "Be With You" and "Don't Stop," and my research indicates neither of them made the charts. Well, in my memory, they were hits.

I mentioned I had something special for this segment, and this is the time to slip it in. This is a rare 12" single on the Megatone label and all it contains is a 6-minute interview. Now the label on both sides, other than showing the company name and logo, is totally blank, and only has the words "Megatone Records" and "Collector's Edition," nothing else. Nothing to indicate that this was a recording of an interview done with Sylvester in Paris, with both the female interviewer and Sylvester speaking French, though he's doing it a bit hesitantly. My high school French doesn't tell me that much, but I can pick up that there's pleasant conversation and he mentions a couple songs from the "All I Need" album. In fact, the interview only takes up half of the 6-minute total, because between the chatter there are five song sections, and you can pick out the songs, in this order, "Do You Want to Funk," "All I Need," "Tell Me," "Won't You Let Me Love You," "Be With You," and ending with "Don't Stop." As every one of them is from the "All I Need" album, well, you can bet this undated record is from 1982.

Sylvester - French Interview (1982)

We're up to 1983 now, and the album "Call Me," and I think its attention grabber was his cover of the Freda Payne hit, from 1970, "Band of Gold."

Sylvester - Band of Gold (1983)

While Patrick Cowley had died in 1982, Megatone Records was still in business, and one interesting release in 1983 was "Menergy." Now of course that was Patrick Cowley's huge hit from 1981, but his vocals were swapped with those of Sylvester, and that mix was included on an LP called "Patrick Cowley's Greatest Hits Dance Party." Now, to me, Cowley's version is the one embedded in my psyche, but Sylvester's is interesting, and many may not know it exists.

Patrick Cowley featuring Sylvester - Menergy (1983)

The next Megatone album was "M-1015," which was simply the label number of the release, and it was also sometimes called "Rock the Box," which is its opening song and the first of the album's three dance charting tracks. About half of the album was produced by Ken Kessie and Morey Goldstein, otherwise known for their work as Modern Rocketry, including their own hits "Homosexuality" and "Thank God for Men." One of the tracks they produced on this album got to #6, "Take Me To Heaven"

Sylvester - Take Me To Heaven (1984)

There's one more track from the album "M-1015" I want to talk about, and it's kind of unique. Now it has long annoyed me that despite the whole world knowing he was gay, Sylvester did not record gay lyrics in his songs, you know, make it clear he was possibly singing to a man, or about one. Well, I have to eat my words because he did record a song like that, even though it was a cover version. The song was "Lovin' Is Really My Game," a song I loved, Loved by the group Brainstorm, from 1977, and to me no other version matches up. Here's just a taste of the original.

Brainstorm - Lovin' Is Really My Game (1977)

Did you notice the lyrics "I can't catch no man hanging out at the discoteque," sung by their lead singer Benita Woods. Sylvester doesn't change them, so this must be his gay song. I'm skipping the 30-second intro to get you right to the meat of the matter in his version.

Sylvester - Lovin' Is Really My Game (1984)

Okay, I was just talking about lyrically gay material, and I have another example where Sylvester kept the original lyrics, making a man to man song. This was not an official recording, but I'm thankful it was captured. It was a live performance from 1985 at the San Francisco Cable Car Awards, with him doing "Stormy Weather."

Sylvester - Stormy Weather (live, 1985)

Before I talk about his next album, released in 1986, Sylvester realized a dream that year. He got to sing backups on Aretha Franklin's huge, huge hit album "Who's Zoomin' Who," which included the hit "Freeway of Love." There were a lot of folks singing backup, so I doubt you could pick him out, but it was a dream nonetheless.

The 1986 album was called "Mutual Attraction," and it would be his last full album. This time he had major label backing, as Warner Brothers was licensing the album. It was released on their label, but included the Megatron logo on it, and it did pretty well, with three top ten dance hits, with "Someone Like You" reaching #1.

Sylvester - Something Like You (1986)

So, that was Sylvester's last official album, but I do have more music to share with you. I have on DVD a rare live performance by Sylvester, from 1987, where he is celebrating at a club his 40th birthday, cake and all. And he sings some material not typical of his hits. While the video quality is not great, the audio is fine. Oh, the DVD is titled "The Gay Voice of the 80s," and is bit hard to find, but I think worth the effort. You'll hear "Lover Man."

Sylvester - Lover Man (live, 1987)

27Very nice, and this is the second recording of him singing "Lover Man." The first was on his "Living Proof" LP in 1979. And, yes, I'm still annoyed. On both he leaves out the word 'man' and just wonders "lover, where can you be." He announces the song as "Lover Man," but gyps us out of the man. Okay, take a breath, JD, let it go. In the show he gets a huge birthday cake, which he takes a lick out of, and then does an encore song, "Cabaret."

Sylvester - Cabaret (1987)

This was September 1987, and for the next year Sylvester got more and more sick, as AIDS took its toll. He was in and out of hospitals, and was only able to do a few local gigs, from time to time, until he got too weak. He died on December 16th, 1988, at age 41. In 1989 Megatone Records released an album called "Immortal," of mostly remixes, but there were four unreleased songs for which Sylvester had recorded vocals. They were not necessarily slated for the next album and they were just songs he was working on. Additional s tudio work was done to pad and finish them a bit, and three of them were on this album. Here's a bit of one of the one I liked best, the Robbie Nevil song "Man Enuff."

Sylvester - Man Enuff (1989)

This is JD Doyle and I thank you for checking out Queer Music Heritage this month, and my Sylvester Tribute show. I tried to cover material representative of the highlights of his career, plus some interesting other choices, but by no means did I do it all. Again, for the personal side I highly recommend Joshua Gamson's biography "The Fabulous Sylvester." I'm closing with a song Sylvester often used as an encore song at his concerts. It's from his 1979 album "Living Proof," and is a cover of one of Patti Labelle's songs. Here is "You Are My Friend."

Sylvester - You Are My Friend (1979)