Sylvester: The LGBTQ Music Icon Ahead Of His Time

UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 01: Photo of SYLVESTER; Posed portrait of Sylvester James, (Photo by RB/Redferns)

Sylvester James Jr. was born on September 6th, 1947 in Watts, California. Known for creating his own sound and look during the 70’s disco era, he spun several hit records that forever changed the landscape of traditional music. Never shying away from who he was as a person and artist, Slyvester was determined to make it big as a recording artist. Growing up in a religious and strict Pentecostal church upbringing, his start in music came from being in the church choir. Determined to be authentically himself, he left the church while in high school due to the lack of support the congregation showed him for his flamboyant mannerisms and vivid outfit choices.

 Things started to change for Sylvester when he found himself in high school. He found a place where he was able to express himself, musically and creatively without being shamed or judged. This place was called drag. The Watts native joined a group of black drag queens and transgender women, called The Disquotays, ultimately changing his life forever. Walking across his graduation stage in full on drag, Slyvester was on his way to becoming one of the first openly black gender fluid pop stars in the 70’s. In 1969, he relocated to San Francisco at the height of the Gay Rights movements, launching his music career officially. Struggling to find work, he fell on hard times leaving him homeless for some years, before catching his break.

 Hitting the underground San Fran music scene heavily, he caught his break with the now famous drag performance troupe The Cockettes. The flamboyant, boisterous manner that the troupe celebrated gayness and sex seemed to be the perfect fit for Sly. As a full time member of the group, Slyvester was able to pay homage to his longtime idols jazz icons Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker by producing his own solo shows that were heavily inspired by them. But his run with The Cockettes would come to an end, as his desire to become a star took over.  Transitioning into a solo artist, he landed a recording deal with Blue Thumbs Records in 1969, as the forerunner of his own band. Upon their disbanding, the era of disco appeared on the music scene making the lane for Slyvester as a solo artist more prevalent than ever. As disco music continued to rise, so did this LGBTQ pioneer’s notoriety. He found the place where his over-the-top performance, bold outfits, and unorthodox sound was finally appreciated.

 Catching the attention of Megatone Records founder Patrick Cowley, the two began developing a musical partnership that finally gave Sylvester’s sound the nurturing and attention it was missing. The pair hit it off so hard that Cowley signed him to his label Blue Megatone Records, in 1978. Slyvester released his first hit single the same year titled “You Make Me Feel”, which today serves as one of the most celebrated and known disco songs of all time. He went on to pin five gold records along with one platinum hit record. Sylvester died December 18th,1988 at the age of 41 from complications of the AIDS virus, leaving all future royalties from his work to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities.

 Sylvester’s heroics as an LGBTQ pioneer, AIDS/HIV champion, and iconic music star, will never be forgotten. Embracing his truth through music and his personal life, at a time where it was almost forbidden is the reason why he is an LGBTQ icon that the world deserves to know and celebrate during Pride Month.


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