SYLVESTER’S HISTORIC 1979 CONCERT AT THE SAN FRANCISCO WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE SET TO DEBUT IN ITS ENTIRETY

SYLVESTER’S HISTORIC 1979 CONCERT AT THE SAN FRANCISCO WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE SET TO DEBUT IN ITS ENTIRETY

On the evening of March 11, 1979, thousands of people lined up outside of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House to catch one of the year’s hottest shows. Splashed across the marquee for the sold-out concert was one singular name: Sylvester. It would not only be a pivotal moment in the career of the pioneering singer, songwriter, disco diva, and queer icon, but also a historic moment for the city’s LGBTQ+ community.

 

Now, for the very first time, Sylvester’s legendary concert can be re-lived in its entirety through Live at the Opera House. Previously only available in heavily edited excerpts (via 1979’s Living Proof), the new album presents over two hours of AAA-mastered audio, including all 13 songs from the performance —“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” among them—plus a recording of the mid-concert ceremony where Sylvester was awarded the Key to San Francisco. The first single from the album, an extended cut of “Body Strong,” is available to stream on digital platforms now.

 

Live at the Opera House arrives September 6th via Craft Recordings on 3-LP, 2-CD, as well as HD and standard digital. Both the 3-LP edition (which is pressed on purple vinyl and housed in a gatefold jacket) as well as the 2-CD set include recently discovered photographs from the evening, plus new liner notes by Joshua Gamson, author of The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco (Henry Holt/Picador, 2005). Click here to pre-order Live at the Opera House.

 

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“I have no real projections except I want to play the San Francisco Opera House. I am—and I'm saying this—I am going to play the opera house! It’s going to be a fabulous show with a full orchestra, lots of costumes, lots of lighting and lots of everything. Lots! And whenever you think you have too much, you should put on more, just to be safe.” —Sylvester, in an October 1977 interview with The Advocate.

While Sylvester had long envisioned his concert at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, nothing could have prepared him for the career-defining moment that it would become. Welcomed home by 3,250 friends, family, and fans, the mononymous singer, songwriter, and disco star was about to deliver one of his greatest live performances. But the path to that hallowed stage was long in the making—and certainly not an easy one.

 

Born in Los Angeles in 1947, Sylvester James Jr. was a natural performer, who trained his soulful voice in the Pentecostal church. But he also wasn’t afraid to be his true self. Leaving home as a teenager, the trailblazing artist lived openly as a gay man, proudly challenging gender norms through his fluid appearance in an era when queer lifestyles were still criminalized in parts of the US. In 1970, Sylvester adopted San Francisco as his home and began making a name for himself—both as a part of avant-garde drag troupe, The Cockettes, and with his rock group, Sylvester and His Hot Band. Though he failed to find commercial success with the Hot Band’s two releases, he set his sights on a solo career, signing a deal with the Berkeley-based Fantasy Records. Armed with new backing singers—Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (better known as “Two Tons O’Fun,” who later became The Weather Girls)—Sylvester released a self-titled, disco debut in 1977. His follow-up, 1978’s Step II, made him a star.

 

In the year leading up to his Opera House appearance, Sylvester became a household name, enjoying a Gold-certified album and two Top 40 hits: “Dance (Disco Heat)” and the enduring hi-NRG anthem, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Both singles hit No.1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart, while the latter song broke the UK’s Top 10. That success found Sylvester playing sold-out gigs in London and touring the US with acts like The Commodores, Chaka Khan, and War. As one of the few publicly queer performers at the time, Sylvester also broke barriers by appearing on national shows like American Bandstand, The Merv Griffin Show, and Dinah Shore.

 

For Sylvester, booking a show at the San Francisco Opera House was a celebration of all that he had accomplished so far. But, as Joshua Gamson (author of The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco) writes, the evening also proved what a force Sylvester had become within the city’s queer community. “For gay San Franciscans and the people who loved them, who had known Sylvester from his raucous local shows, or from the dance floor, or just from seeing him around the Castro with his broad, shy smile and his dogs, it was like your cousin had just become a movie star.” He adds, “Almost every self-respecting homosexual in San Francisco was somewhere in the crowd.” Also in the audience were a handful of local dignitaries (including state assemblyman and future mayor Willie Brown and city supervisor Harry Britt), plus the artist’s mother, brother, and sister.

 

As the curtain rose, the 26-piece orchestra launched into an overture of recent hits as Sylvester, dressed in a sequined red robe, made his grand entrance in a tornado of glitter. Befitting the venue, the show was presented in three parts: “An elaborate overture and opening act; a quieter, bluesier center; and a high-energy, allegro third act, ending on a quiet, bittersweet hymn,” describes Gamson. The setlist—a blend of covers and originals—showcased the breadth of Sylvester’s abilities, as he moved seamlessly between pulsating dance numbers and soulful balladry with his powerful, falsetto vocals.

 

While his two biggest hits (“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)”) appeared twice in the show—as orchestral medleys and as previously unreleased extended vocal performances—the artist also premiered “Body Strong” and delivered a rendition of Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” both of which would appear on his 1979 studio album, Stars. The latter performance, meanwhile, makes its debut in this collection. Other previously unreleased selections include an emotive medley of the Benard Ighner-penned staple, “Everything Must Change,” paired with the singer’s own “You Are My Love”—a reprise of the opening overture, plus a cover of the ’70s classic “Never Can Say Goodbye” (in the style of fellow disco queen, Gloria Gaynor), which closed out the evening.

 

Sylvester also gave impassioned performances of “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)” (famously recorded by Billie Holiday), the Patti LaBelle-penned “You Are My Friend,” as well as The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Midway through the concert, meanwhile, the artist was presented with the Key to the City. The ceremony, which is featured in its entirety on Live at the Opera, was presided over by longtime city supervisor and gay rights activist Harry Britt, who declared March 11th Sylvester Day, on behalf of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein.

 

The concert would be a personal milestone for Sylvester, as well as a critical and commercial success (it was the country’s highest-selling event that week for venues under 6,000 people). But—having taken place mere months after the assassination of the state’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk—it was also viewed as a symbolic achievement for San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ community. “1978 had been a year of foul, violent backlash and collective trauma and loss,” writes Gamson. “Milk had been a symbol of gay power and, now, anti-gay brutality. Sylvester had become an icon of joyful gayness and self-possessed unconventionality. To a lot of people, Milk’s death felt like their own, and Sylvester’s success felt like their victory and their vengeance.”

 

Later that year, excerpts from the concert were released by Fantasy Records as the double LP, Living Proof. The album peaked at No.45 on Billboard’s R&B chart and spawned several charting singles. In a retrospective of the album, AllMusic praised, “Rockers who dismissed disco in general as cold and mechanical never seriously listened to Sylvester, a passionate, captivating singer who had a magnificent range and was consistently mindful of disco’s soul and gospel roots... [Living Proof] documents…that Sylvester was far from one-dimensional.”

In the years that followed, Sylvester continued to enjoy a steady schedule of album releases, including 1982’s All I Need, which spawned the popular single “Do You Wanna Funk,” and 1986’s Mutual Attraction, featuring the chart-topping dance hit, “Someone Like You.” In addition to his celebrated musical career, Sylvester also became a tireless activist for those living with HIV and AIDS. Sadly, the artist lost his own battle to complications from the virus in 1988, at the age of 41.

Sylvester’s legacy continues to live on, as new generations not only fall in love with his music but also acknowledge the barriers he broke as a queer icon. In the decades following his death, Sylvester has been honored in a myriad of ways, including being inducted into the Dance Music Hall Of Fame in 2005 and ranking among Billboard’s greatest dance club artists in 2016. He was one of the inaugural honorees on San Francisco’s Rainbow Honor Walk and was the subject of an acclaimed, off-Broadway play, Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical. More recently, in 2019, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” while in 2023, Rolling Stone included Sylvester on their 200 Greatest Singers of All Time ranking.

 

 

Tracklist (Vinyl):

Side A

  1. Overture (Grateful/You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)/Dance (Disco Heat))
  2. Body Strong #
  3. Medley #1: Everything Must Change / You Are My Love*
  4. Medley #2: Could This Be Magic / A Song For You

 

Side B

  1. Blackbird / Sylvester Day Proclamation #
  2. Happiness #

 

Side C

  1. Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?) #
  2. Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves #

 

Side D

  1. I (Who Have Nothing)*
  2. You Are My Friend #

 

Side E

  1. Dance (Disco Heat) #

 

Side F

  1. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) #
  2. Overture (Reprise) *
  3. Never Can Say Goodbye*

 

* Unreleased

# Extended

 

 

Tracklist (CD/Digital):

  1. Overture (Grateful/You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)/Dance (Disco Heat))
  2. Body Strong #
  3. Medley #1: Everything Must Change / You Are My Love*
  4. Medley #2: Could This Be Magic / A Song For You
  5. Blackbird / Sylvester Day Proclamation #
  6. Happiness #
  7. Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?) #
  8. Sharing Something Perfect Between Ourselves #
  9. I (Who Have Nothing)*
  10. You Are My Friend #
  11. Dance (Disco Heat) #
  12. You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) #
  13. Overture (Reprise) *
  14. Never Can Say Goodbye*

 

* Unreleased

# Extended

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