Today, our subject is another artist who had no problem letting the world know that he was gay. Compared to yesterday's Labi Siffre though, he was flamboyant, while Labi was low-key: he lived an adventurous life, while Siffre led a quiet one: more importantly, he had a life that was too short, being taken at 41 by the plague that AIDS was in the 80s. He is Sylvester James, Jr., known to everybody by his first name, Sylvester.
Sylvester was born in Watts, L.A. in 1947 to a middle-class African-American family. His father left home while Sylvester was still young and his mother later remarried. She was a devout Pentecostal Christian and young Sylvester went with her to church every Sunday, where he developed an interest in gospel music. Having been an avid singer since the age of three, Sylvester regularly joined in with gospel performances.
Sylvester realized that he was gay at an early age. At the age of eight, he engaged in sexual activity with a far older man at the church, although he would always maintain that this was consensual and not sexual molestation. His mother could not accept that he was gay and neither could the church congregation: Sylvester was forced to leave the church at age 13 and to leave his mother's house at age 15.
Sylvester spent much of the next decade staying with friends and relatives, in particular his grandmother Julia, who expressed no disapproval of his homosexuality. He began frequenting local gay clubs and built up a group of friends from the local gay black community, eventually forming themselves into a group which they called the Disquotays. The group dressed up like women, and threw ferocious gay parties in neighborhoods whose strongest institutions were conservative black churches. Legendary Etta James befriended them and would often offer her home as the location to their parties.
Sylvester's boyfriend during the latter part of the 1960s was a young man named Lonnie Prince; well-built and attractive, many of Sylvester's friends described the pair as being "the It couple". He went through a variety of jobs, from cooking in McDonalds to being a make-up artist in a mortuary. By the end of the decade, the Disquotays had begun to drift apart, so Sylvester decided to move to San Francisco, where he joined an avant-garde performance art drag troupe known as The Cockettes.
Although a significant member of the troupe, Sylvester remained a relatively isolated figure; not only was he one of very few African-American members, he eschewed the group's more surrealist activities for what he saw as classier, more glamorous performances onstage. In the Cockettes' performances, he was usually given an entire scene to himself, often with little relevance to the narrative and theme of the rest of the show, although through doing so, he gained his own following.
On New Year’s Eve 1970, Sylvester met and fell for a young white audience member, Michael Lyons, who was then suffering with a heroin addiction. Sylvester immediately proposed marriage, and they entered a relationship and moved in together. Although same-sex marriage was then illegal throughout the United States, the couple held a wedding in the Shakespeare Garden of Golden Gate Park, in which they proclaimed their love for each other. In keeping with their free love values, they agreed to have other sexual partners and would give each other away to friends as birthday presents.
Soon, the Cockettes began to gain increasing media attention, with celebrities such as Rex Reed, Truman Capote, and Gloria Vanderbilt enthusing about their performances. Rolling Stone magazine singled out Sylvester’s performances for particular praise, describing him as “a beautiful black androgyne who has a gospel sound with the heat and shimmer of Aretha’s.”
The success led the troupe to decide to take their show to New York City, a city with a long history of drag culture. They traveled there in November 1971, staying at the run-down Hotel Albert on 11th Street and immediately immersing themselves in the city’s avant-garde, attending parties held by Andy Warhol and Screw magazine. Spending so much of their time partying, most of the Cockettes didn’t rehearse, the exception being Sylvester, who wanted to perfect his act. When the opening night at the Anderson Theater came about, the Cockettes performed as they had been doing in San Francisco, but their show did not go down well with the audience or the critics, and was panned in media reviews. Sylvester’s act, on the other hand, was widely praised as the highlight of the show. Realizing that he had far better prospects as a solo artist, on the second New York performance he opened his act by telling the audience, “I apologize for this travesty that I’m associated with.” On the seventh performance, he opened the show by walking on, announcing that he would not perform that night because he was leaving the Cockettes, and then walked off. The Cockettes disbanded the following year.
Returning to San Francisco, Sylvester was immediately offered the opportunity to record a demo album by Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine. Using money provided by A&M Records, the album featured a cover of Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell’s song “Superstar,” which had been a recent hit single for The Carpenters; nevertheless, A&M felt that the work wasn’t commercially viable and declined to release the album. For the album, Sylvester had assembled about him a group of straight white males whom he gave the name of “The Hot Band.” After A&M’s initial rejection, the band provided two songs for Lights Out San Francisco, an album compiled by San Francisco’s KSAN radio and released on the Blue Thumb label. Gaining a number of local gigs, they were eventually asked to open for David Bowie at the Winterland Ballroom; the gig did not sell particularly well, and Bowie would later comment that the people of San Francisco “don’t need me. They’ve got Sylvester,” referring to their shared preference for androgyny.
In early 1973, Sylvester and The Hot Band were signed by Bob Krasnow to Blue Thumb. On this label, they proceeded to produce their first album, in which they switched their sound from blues to rock, which was considered more commercially viable. The backing singers were the Pointer Sisters. Sylvester would name this first album Scratch My Flower, due to a gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker adhered to the cover, although it would instead come to be released under the title of Sylvester and his Hot Band. Scratch My Flower consisted primarily of covers of songs by artists such as James Taylor, Ray Charles, Neil Young, and Leiber and Stoller, and would be described by Sylvester biographer Joshua Gamson as lacking in “the fire and focus of the live shows.” It would proceed to sell poorly.
From this album, here's an interesting cover of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade Of Pale:
Sylvester and his Hot Band went on tour around the United States, receiving threats of violence in several Southern states, where widespread conservative and racist attitudes led to antagonism between the band and locals. Wherever possible on tour, Sylvester would visit gay bathhouses. In late 1973, the band recorded their second album,Bazaar, which included both cover songs and original compositions by bassist Kerry Hatch. Once again, it sold poorly. My Life was specially written for Sylvester, about his life at that time, by W.Peele Jr. & W. Sams Jr.:
Frustrated by the lack of commercial success, the Hot Band left Sylvester in late 1974, after which Krasnow cancelled his recording contract. Sylvester set himself up with a new band, with two drag queens as backing singers and when that didn't work out, he tried forming a new act in 1975, but that didn't work either. He then employed a new manager, who then opened auditions for new backing singers, with Sylvester being captivated by one of those auditioning, Martha Wash. Sylvester asked her if she had another large black friend who could sing, after which she introduced him to Izora Rhodes. Although he referred to them simply as "the girls", Wash and Rhodes named themselves the Two Tons O' Fun and continued to work with Sylvester intermittently until his death, developing a close friendship with him. They were soon joined by bassist John Dunstan and keyboard player Dan Reich.
This formation began playing in gay bars and clubs and they caught the attention of producer Harvey Fuqua, who subsequently signed Sylvester onto a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977. The first album, named simply Sylvester, contained Over And Over by the songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson which was released as a single. The single had some success in Mexico and Europe.
I Tried to Forget You was co-written by Sylvester himself, along with James "Tip" Wirrick:
Tomorrow we'll deal with Sylvester's encounter with mainstream success and the years that led to his early death.