I remember the first time I saw Sylvester on TV. Videos hadn’t officially been “invented” yet, but he’d made a clip for “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” and I was sort of…I guess confused. I mean, I couldn’t have been older than 3. Here was someone with a man’s name (at that point, I’d watched enough Loony Tunes to know that Sylvester was a guy’s name), but…he wore a dress? He sang like a girl too. My brain couldn’t process it. The fact that Grace Jones and Prince both popped up within a year didn’t help lessen the confusion for this music fan in training.
With Little Richard deep in a denial that he never fully removed himself from and Johnny Mathis still rummaging around in the closet, Sylvester James was pop music’s first (and to date, really pop’s only) out-and-proud black gay man. Of course, as the first audience disco music had was primarily gays and minorities, it had to happen sooner or later. The shock of a black drag queen making appearances in America’s living rooms (backed by the two pleasantly plump ladies called Two Tons o’ Fun, later transformed into The Weather Girls of “It’s Raining Men” fame) was offset by the fact that the music was good. A pair of Top 40 pop hits-“Mighty Real” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” were among the best of the era, and after disco moved back into the margins, James still created classics like “Do You Wanna Funk?” and 1986’s proto-house “Someone Like You”, as featured on this TV performance. Proof that the voice was definitely no studio creation, Sylvester hits some notes here that would shatter the glass beads on a sequined dress. Joined afterwards by Joan Rivers and Charles Nelson Reilly, this might be network TV’s queerest talk show moment of all time.
Although Sylvester died just two years after this performance, his legacy lives on. There is a biography called “The Fabulous Sylvester” in stores and rumor has it that there’s a movie in the works. Everyone from RuPaul to Boy George owes him a heavy debt of gratitude, and falsetto-voiced dance singers like Jimmy Somerville and Byron Stingily (of Ten City fame) are also descendants of Sylvester (and both artists have covered Sylvester songs).
Whatever you think of the man and his music, you’ve gotta admit that it takes balls of steel to go out on national television looking like that!!