Step One: be comfortable with who you are. Step Two: show the world how to follow suit. That’s exactly what Sylvester did with Step II, released at the height of the disco craze in 1978. Catch him on TV and you’d see a towering figure with an angelic voice and androgynous flamboyance, singing songs that channeled the hedonism of New York City’s Studio 54, but which carried a deeper significance for an LGBTQ+ audience which was finally – though not unreservedly – finding acceptance in the mainstream.
Amazingly, Sylvester originally envisioned himself as a singer in the blues/R&B tradition, but by the time he put his gospel-inflected vocals to “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” there was no turning back: from here on out, he would be the “Queen Of Disco,” and the epochal track – whose influence arguably outweighs even Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” by sheer force of Sylvester’s personality and what he represented – crowned him the figurehead for a social and sexual enlightenment right at the time when the world needed one.
Though Sylvester had released three albums before Step II, to the fans who sent that record into the Top 10 of the Billboard Soul LPs chart, the singer appeared as if out of nowhere. “Mighty Real” was the calling card: not only conjuring the white-hot thrill of intimacy on record, it acknowledged what some listeners had long been told was taboo – it doesn’t matter who you’re with, the right connection can be a vitalizing life force. If “Dance (Disco Heat)” keeps the four-to-the-floor euphoria burning, the remainder of Step II also makes room for introspection, letting fans know that, whether they suffered heartbreak, self-doubt or disapproval from the outside world, here was an artist who could speak not only to them, but for them. In doing so, Sylvester ultimately helped them find their own voices.
Step Three? Nothing short of a cultural revolution.
“Mighty Real” co-writer James Wirrick reveals how the iconic song came into being, while Sylvester biographer Joshua Gamson explains just what the singer means today.
A 15-minute mini-documentary stuffed with archival photos and video footage, Sylvester’s impact on the burgeoning Pride movement of the 70s is explored with the help of his sister and Cockettes pianist Peter Mintun.
In an interview conducted just months before his death, Sylvester speaks bravely and candidly about his fatal illness: “I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“I Took My Strength From You” - Sylvester’s was never a blindly hedonistic take on disco, and this cut offers six minutes of soul-searching time out. If “Mighty Real” is an expression of individual liberation, this is its flipside – an ode to community and togetherness.
“Was It Something I Said” - Starting out with a catty back-and-forth between Two Tons O’ Fun (aka The Weather Girls) demanding all the hot gossip (“Girl, it’s a mess!” “Uh-oh, you gotta tell me about this one!”), “Was It Something I Said” finds Sylvester blindsided by a breakup, but refusing to accept less than his true worth.
“Just You And Me Forever” - Arguably the single that should have been, “Just You And Me Forever” catches Sylvester in full torch-ballad mode, glistening under the mirror ball as his falsetto soars to the stars.
DID YOU KNOW?
- “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” featured in the soundtrack to Milk, the 2008 biopic about San Francisco politician and gay-rights activist Harvey Milk – a close friend of Sylvester’s – which starred Sean Penn in the lead role.
- Some of Sylvester’s earliest shows were as part of the San Francisco-based Cockettes, a drag troupe with whom he regularly performed homages to inspirations such as jazz singer Billie Holiday and vaudeville star Josephine Baker.
- Despite same-sex marriage being illegal in the US in the early ’70s, Sylvester staged his own wedding to Michael Lyons in Golden Gate Park’s Shakespeare Garden, pioneering a cultural – if not official – acceptance for LGBTQ+ and mixed-race relationships.
- Sylvester features on one of the 40 plaques that makes up The Legacy Project’s Legacy Walk, a memorial in the “Boystown” area of Chicago, dedicated to recognizing LGBTQ+ icons and their contributions to world culture.
- As stipulated in his will, all royalties from Sylvester’s music continue to be split evenly between the HIV/AIDS charities Project Open Hand and the AIDS Emergency Fund.
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