Though the title of the “Queen of Disco” is commonly associated with legends like Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer, one of the first to truly reign supreme within this genre was Sylvester.

Known for hits like “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, Sylvester breathed new life into 1970s discotheques and painted the scene with flamboyant colors that defied the gender binary and redefined queerness in mainstream music. 

Sylvester performs at the Whisky A-Go-Go nightclub in November 1972 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)

Sylvester was born on September 6, 1947, in California. His love for singing developed during his early years in church, but left the church after the congregation had disapproved of him being gay.

At age 22, he moved to San Francisco, known as an LGBTQ+ mecca, and joined The Cockettes, an avant-garde drag group founded by drag queen Hibiscus. Sylvester would eventually leave the group to pursue a solo career, making a name for himself while touring the U.S. with his band “Sylvester and his Hot Band” and playing gigs in Los Angeles gay bars. 

Back in San Francisco, Sylvester’s fame increased following the release of his solo album, and he was employed to perform regularly at The Elephant Walk, a gay bar in the Castro. He became a friend of Harvey Milk and performed at Milk’s birthday party that year.

In the spring of 1978, Sylvester successfully auditioned for a cameo appearance in the film The Rose starring gay icon Bette Midler. In the film, he plays one of the drag queens singing along to Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below.” 

Sylvester’s second solo album, Step II, released in September 1978, marking a significant step in his career.

Influenced by the rising popularity of disco, particularly within the gay community, Sylvester initially hesitated to embrace the genre but recognized its commercial potential. During the album’s production, he collaborated with musician Patrick Cowley, known for his innovative use of synthesizers, and crafted the hit singles “Dance (Disco Heat),” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, two songs that would solidify Sylvester’s status as a disco pioneer.

“Dance (Disco Heat)” was Sylvester’s first Top 40 hit in the United States, where it peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the fall of 1978. A 12″ single was released in 1978, with “Dance (Disco Heat)” as the A-side and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” as the B-side, two extended dance mixes that proved to be very popular in the dance clubs at the time.

The two songs held down the top spot on the Billboard Dance/Disco chart for six weeks in August and September of that year and helped to establish Sylvester’s career as a noted disco and dance music performer, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, Slyvester’s signature song, is a disco/R&B track co-written with James Wirrick. Released as the second single from Step II, it quickly gained popularity in dance clubs and topped the US Billboard Dance Club Songs chart.

Music critic Robert Christgau hailed it as a quintessential disco anthem. In 2003, Q Magazine listed it among the “1001 Best Songs Ever,” and in 2019, it was added to the National Recording Registry for its cultural significance. 

Originally, the song began as a mid-tempo piano-driven gospel track. However, during a rehearsal at San Francisco’s City Club, producer Patrick Cowley suggested a remix. This remix transformed the song into a pioneering disco record, incorporating electronic instrumentation and effects. This shift mirrored the innovative use of electronic sounds seen in Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and set a precedent for electronic elements in dance music of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.

The ethos of Slyvester lives on through these glittery, hypnotic disco tracks that command you to the dancefloor. These songs became anthems for disco aficionados and queer liberation, symbolizing the changing social norms of the 1970s in the United States.

Sylvester’s impact extended beyond music; in his will, he dedicated royalties from his music to HIV/AIDS charities. He was posthumously honored in various ways, including induction into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, recognition on Billboard’s list of top dance artists, as well as various biographies, documentaries, and even an Off-Broadway musical titled Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical that celebrated his legacy, ensuring that Sylvester’s influence on music and pop culture endures.

Sylvester was a trailblazer who skillfully combined exceptional vocal talent with queer expression, drag, fashion, and performance, long before these mediums gained wider recognition. As a Black, out, and proud queer artist and entertainer, he paved the way for today’s LGBTQ+ artists to express themselves freely. Each artist who follows in his footsteps shines under the disco ball of his legacy, setting a precedent for generations of queer musicians to come.

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