Soul music lovers have long held affection for Sylvester, the genre and gender-defying star who broke into the mainstream with the unforgettable “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” in 1978. Since his death in 1988, his contributions tend to be regarded in the public’s consciousness more in terms of their cultural impact with the music taking a backseat. But a new documentary podcast exclusively on Spotify, Sound Barrier: Sylvester, aims to remedy that.
Hosted by Jason King, musician, journalist and chair of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the series gives listeners the chance to hear Sylvester speak by way of rarely heard interviews, and allows a glimpse into his creative process with never-before-heard recordings. The series is complemented by interviews with Sylvester’s collaborators and friends, including Patti LaBelle, Martha Wash, Jeanie Tracy, James “Tip” Wirrick.
King told SoulMusic.com, “I wanted to really focus on Sylvester as a musician. He’s celebrated as a cultural figure, for the work he’s done in terms of changing how people think about sexual orientation in the context of pop, R&B and Black music, which he deserves all the credit for. Yet I often feel what happens is the musical conversation falls to the floor and people don’t think of him as a musician, but as an icon. So I really wanted to focus attention on that in each episode to delve deeper into the musical choices he was making.”
The transitions in Sylvester’s musical journey, beginning with his childhood singing gospel, the jazz and blues of his days with the Cockettes, the rock and soul fusion of his first recordings with the Hot Band, his most-famed gospel/disco fusion recordings as a solo artist at Fantasy Records, and the electronic-experimentation of his Megatone Recordings, make it a complex story to tell. King is quick to note that telling the story is a collaborative effort, giving much of the research credit to consulting producer, Stephen Winter, who is also producing a biopic on Sylvester.
Joshua Gamson, also a producer of the series and author of the comprehensive 2005 biography, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco, contributes audio interviews from the research for his book, which enables some of Sylvester’s deceased contributors, like The Two Tons of Fun’s Izora Rhodes, the opportunity to be heard as well. Gamson, who is in the beginning stages of a new project on the late Teena Marie, says, “The musical side is much more prominent in the series [than in The Fabulous Sylvester]. I’ve learned more about the musical connections and ways to think about his music and performance through this podcast process.”
Also participating are some of the stars who have followed in Sylvester’s footsteps such as singer/actor/director Billy Porter, Broadway and television star Alex Newell, and vocalist/rapper Mykki Blanco, who have all acknowledged Sylvester’s influence. King himself has included Sylvester in the curriculum at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music for over two decades “to simply illuminate his life to other people.” He believes the podcast is a way to continue that work outside of the academy. “With the podcast, we were able to paint a portrait of him as a human being who dealt with all kinds of struggles, systemic, structural and personal issues, who still came out swinging and found a way to be audacious. He wasn’t ever deterred by the glass ceilings or the homophobia.”