Sylvester and his music impacted the music industry in a way that is still being felt today. Born as Sylvester James Jr., he was raised in Watts, Los Angeles, California to a single mother. As the eldest of six children, he grew up in a musical family, listening to various genres. He began singing early at the Church of God in Christ, where his mother was a follower. At the same time, Sylvester began flirting with gender-bending by wearing his grandmother’s clothing, much to the chagrin of his neighbors. Eventually, his sexuality became a problem with his family after being sexually molested at a young age. As a teen, everything came to a head, forcing him to leave the church and his family home.
Sylvester graduated from Jordan High in 1969. He briefly studied interior design at Leimert Beauty College and worked at the Museum of Ancient History at the La Brea Tar Pits as an archaeology major. During this period, he began performing in local clubs and bars in the 1960s, where he attracted significant attention from audiences and industry insiders alike. The performer joined two groups, The Disquotays and The Cockettes. Both groups dissolved before Sylvester’s breakthrough success.
In the early 1970s, Sylvester finally broke through when he formed the funk-rock band Sylvester and the Hot Band. The band gained attention for their electrifying live performances. Following the group’s disbandment in 1974, the singer reinvented himself as a disco music artist.
This time led to Sylvester’s most significant success with hits songs, such as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” He experienced success on both sides of the pond, leading to more critical and commercial acclaim from the mid to late 1970s. The performer extensively toured the U.S. and Europe during the height of his career. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Sylvester began experimenting with genres like R&B, new wave, and hip hop.
In his later years, Sylvester got to live out one of his dream — singing background for Aretha Franklin on her blockbuster album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? He continued recording music right up to his final days. After years of battling drug addiction and health issues, most notably HIV/AIDS, the music artist succumbed to his ailments at 41 on December 16, 1988. A compilation of his final recordings, Immortal, arrived the following year as a testament to his dedication to music.
Sylvester was a true trailblazer who broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of musicians. He gave the LGBTQ+ community a voice when homosexuality was still taboo. Although his contributions as a true music icon have not consistently been recognized, I will say, “Sylvester, we appreciate you for inspiring and uplifting people through your message of love and acceptance in your music.”
I’ve never been a crusader, but I’ve always been honest. I may not volunteer details to the media, but I’ve never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone.