Sylvester: Remembering the Pioneering Legacy of the Queen of Disco

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A recent inductee into The SoulMusic Hall Of Fame, Sylvester played a pioneering role as a black and openly gay artist in the late ‘70s, contributing such classics as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Over & Over.” founder David Nathan and acclaimed performer, producer, journalist and the founding faculty member at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Jason King discuss Sylvester’s influence on popular culture and his groundbreaking work that opened the doors for some of today’s ‘out and proud’ artists and performers.


KING: "I mean, my first memory of Sylvester is a long play cassette tape from 1980. That was the year that my mother started buying me music. So I was really into like Andy Gib at the time, Michael Jackson, that was the year of Motown's Greatest Hits release. So I was into 'Rockin' Robin' and all those kinds of songs, but we have this K-Tel disco compilation and it had "Boogie Oogie Oogie,"  A Taste of Honey. It had Barry Manilow, 'Copacabana,' and it had "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" by Sylvester on it."

"And I knew nothing and we didn't have the internet. So I didn't know anything about Sylvester, who he was, what his background was, but I didn't even know if it was a man, if it was a woman, it was that falsetto voice. And it was really the mixture of that kind of gospel he did in the context of all those electronics that got me, and that was like an anthem in my house at the time, playing that song over and over and over. Over and over, a little pun there [laughs]."

"15 years later, I'm a professor at New York University and I decided to do a conference on Sylvester. It's a multi day, the first multi-day conference on Sylvester's life and work, featuring people like Martha Wash, who was one of his great background singers - who ended up becoming part of Two Tons o' Fun and The Weather Girls - but also people like Billy Porter - who most people know now as part of Pose, the popular TV show and many, many other scholars."


NATHAN: "That must have been unusual. I mean, because as you said, he, in some ways, has been like a footnote to music history, which is a shame because he was a pioneer. He was a trendsetter. He actually bucked a lot of trends, so to speak. So what really informed your choice to do a conference about it?"

KING: "Yeah, I mean, for me, it's, it's, you know, he's a figure that I always bring up in classes when I teach about the history of R&B music or just popular music in general, I think he's one of those indispensable figures who just deserves a lot more recognition and a lot more attention. And so part of that for me is that, um, obviously, you know, he was an intersectional figure long before that became a buzzword. So he was black and he was gay. He was femme - he was embraced his femininity. He was a queen in every sense of that term. Even today in the context of R&B music and dance music, we don't have a lot of figures who represent all of those things, but he was doing this in the 1970s as one of the first, if not the first out gay artists in disco music.

"And he was doing this at a very mainstream level, right. So he had 24 top 20 R&B and pop hits. He was Billboard's disco -er, dance music artist of the year at a time in which dance music was the mainstream music in 1979. So he was doing this at a very high level. He wasn't like a shrinking violet. AndI think that's one of the things that's really important - he was so flamboyant. He was so charismatic and so exuberant. And he was authentically himself at all times, even in the face of extreme stigma and discrimination. Even to this day, there are relatively few out gay or lesbian or even trans R&B stars in black music."

"And so for him to do that at a time in which, although it seems like there was a certain kind of liberation possible and disco to do that. There weren't a lot about artists at that time. Um, like explicitly out artists. And so for him to do that in that context, I think was courageous. It was brave. It was kind of revolutionary and we haven't really seen anything like it again since."

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