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The Fabulous Sylvester

Joshua Gamson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 20, 2012
Category: Biography

Donna Summer died, and the entire country paused to remember disco. Not that America had really embraced this music in the late ’70s; it was gay, druggy, dance-hall fare, far too sexy for the heartland. But "Love to Love You Baby," even with its orgasmic moaning, broke through. As did "Hot Stuff." As did "Last Dance."

Not to denigrate Donna Summer or Gloria "I Will Survive" Gaynor, but the disco singer I most cherish is Sylvester. History is not kind to drag queens; he’s almost forgotten. But his performances were legendary, his life story is dazzling and a few of his songs….if you can’t quite place him, try this:

Or this:

At the height of her fame, Donna Summer tried to commit suicide by jumping out a window. Thwarted, she turned to Christianity and never tried to hurt herself again. Sylvester would never have thought to ruin his makeup. The way he saw it, he was God’s own star….and that’s the story of the fabulous biography, "The Fabulous Sylvester." [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

They were young black teenage boys in Los Angeles in the early l960s. Their obsession was make-up, and "outfits," and the creation of larger-than-life, to-die-for personalities. Gay? Sure, but not that interested in the act itself: "They had taken bubble baths and washed themselves with Jean Nate," Joshua Gamson notes. "They might be willing to get nasty later in the evening, but they had their reputations and hairstyles to uphold, and they worked way too hard on their Max Factor to let just anybody mess it up early on."

There were maybe two dozen kids like this in LA, and they hung together, bound by fabulousness. "Like Folies Bergere in the ghetto," one of them recalls. Naturally, Miss LaLa, Miss Louella, Jackie Kennedy and Dooni had a name for themselves — the Disquotays.

Of them all, Dooni may have been the most creative. He watched old movies all night on television, sketching the clothes and gestures of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn. He was tall, and pretty, but most of all, he was "arranged" — his look was always flawless. And completely unlike anyone else’s. A Disquotay recalls: "With Dooni, it was always an ongoing saga. What’s she gonna do next?"

What "she" did is now the stuff of pop culture legend. Dooni grew up and became Sylvester (from his real name, Sylvester James). If you know disco at all, he was the singer with the church-bred voice that ranged from a rich baritone to the stratosphere. "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" — for me, that was the big hit. Talk about propulsion! Anticipation! Heat! It’s not the silly lyrics ("And the music’s in me/And I feel real hot/Then you kiss me there/And it feels real good") that burn into you, it’s Sylvester’s gospel refrain — "Woooh, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real, I feel real."

I loved Sylvester’s music for just that reason. Though completely invented — totally synthetic — he did feel real. He was real. Back when everyone was pretending that all America could love disco, that it really had nothing to do with homosexuality, he was openly and proudly gay. "I want to destroy reality when I’m performing," he said, and he did.

Call him a faggot? "That’s Miss Faggot, to you." But that was too narrow. As Gamson writes, Sylvester was "gay, black, a woman and a man." And that is why he was beloved: "His sound brought to mind a bright, soft, blue-skied world — one where race and gender no longer divide us and we love whom, when and how we want."

"The Fabulous Sylvester" is not only a stunning piece of sociology, it is a brilliantly researched biography. Joshua Gamson talked to everyone who knew Sylvester, at every stage of his life, and the result is the kind of full portrait we usually get only of major historical figures. We see him singing in church as a kid…stealing a bra and a girdle, getting arrested and going to jail for a few days, which he explained to friends as being "on location, filming a movie"….working at a morgue so he could experiment with new makeup concepts…and then, in 1970, at 22, discovering San Francisco.

From here, "The Fabulous Sylvester" is a totally bent how-she-made-it showbiz story. Crazy days (well, nights) with the Cockettes. Going out on his own. Singing with some then-unknown sisters named Pointer. Becoming an unforgettable opening act in his hot pants, boots and mascara. Finding two remarkably fat female singers, Two Tuns o’ Fun (who later became The Weather Girls and had a huge hit with "It’s Raining Men").

The highlight of the book? Sylvester’s appearance at the San Francisco Opera House. Everyone was there: the Mayor, socialites, drag queens, studs, his mother and sisters. Sylvester took some LSD before the show and then a Quaalude to take the edge off. The reaction? "A sheet of vocal sound" — shouts and cheers and tears all mixed together, as Sylvester took a disparate crowd and turned it into one beat, one heart.

And then, in rapid succession, the death of disco and the rise of AIDS. Lovers were dying all around him; Sylvester knew he was next without needing to be tested. He made a will so his friends would have pieces of him to cherish. And then he turned on the Home Shopping Network and shopped some more. He died in l988, at 40. By his request, he was buried in a red kimono.

Why should we care about this seemingly ephemeral entertainer?

Because of what he knew: "Whenever you think you have on too much, you should put on more, just to be safe," Sylvester said.

Because of what he preached: "You are a star," he sang. "Everyone is one. You are a star. You only happen once."

Because of what he achieved: When Sylvester really rocked the house, he would say, looking back to his church background, "We had service." Yes, he did. And it was beautiful. Gentle. Absolutely free — and totally doomed.

I guarantee you: If you read this book, you’ll be blinking at the start, laughing in the middle, slack-jawed at the heights and weeping at the end. And you’ll be a better person for it.

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To buy the CD of Sylvester’s "Original Hits" from Amazon, click here. The collection is uneven. You’ll do better to download the MP3 single of "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" for 99 cents here and the MP3 single of "Dance (Disco Heat)" here.

BONUS VIDEO