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Disco Heat

Remembering the man who turned flamboyant life into art

By Joshua Gamson
Henry Holt, 306 pp., $26

What a man he was. Born in 1947, Sylvester James first had sex in 1955, but he never claimed he'd been abused. "One of the choir leaders turned me out," was how he put it. Three years later his mother learned he was a homosexual when he required rectal surgery, and by 13 he had quit the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ, where he'd crashed the choir as a boy without ever becoming a star. By 1963, he was the most fabulous of the Disquotays, "a cross between a street gang and a sorority" who nurtured his genius for grand entrances, which was exceeded only by his genius for drag itself: a little something stapled out of aluminum pie tins to dazzle the Watts Summer Festival, or "a babydoll dress, windowpane stockings, and square-toed, big-buckled Pilgrim shoes."

By 1970, though, Sylvester had exhausted his Los Angeles options--"a drag queen, a transsexual, a gay guy." In San Francisco, pursuing an identity that could encompass all three, he quickly advanced to the head of the wildly countercultural drag troupe the Cockettes on the strength of his more than adequate singing voice and penchant for entertainment value. Almost as quickly, he abandoned them to record two rock albums in 1973. But the guitar band concocted by the naive venture capitalists behind him was neither any good nor suited to his abilities, and since he could never hold on to money he was soon broke. With some help from his mother, who'd married a small-time real estate tycoon, he got by singing Billie, Bessie, and other torchy favorites in a piano bar. Though he was a natural in the Castro, he'd never taken to disco, and after he hooked up with gospel-singing mamas Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, his first record for Fantasy had a soul-ballad feel. But finally, with decisive input from synth player Patrick Cowley, he came up with the dance classics that made him a legend: "Dance (Disco Heat)" and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)."

Since Sylvester was a singer by profession, it's unfortunate that Joshua Gamson doesn't know more about music. Diving into r&b, rock, or disco history, Gamson barely keeps his head above water; would that he'd have quoted longer patches of the 1988 Barry Walters essay he cites. But he does keep his head above water--his problem is tone and emphasis rather than disastrous errors--and that's all he needs. Sylvester's lifework, as opposed to his job, was being fabulous, and although I'm no expert on fabulousness, Gamson's details and insights convince me that he was. He says of the straight guys who surrounded Sylvester on his first album: "Everyone agreed he was a prima donna; only some understood that that was the whole point." That's also the point of The Fabulous Sylvester.

From 1970 until he died in 1988, Sylvester remained a focal point in the Castro as his career fluctuated. Since he was black and outrageous and the Castro was white and, once clonedom dawned, conformist, this might seem peculiar, but consider Jimi Hendrix. "Maybe all that blackness allowed white boys to identify with a queen from a safe distance, loving a sissy without the threat of becoming her," Gamson speculates. "Maybe it was the combination of alienation and fervor and torrential sexuality that Barry Walters identified in soul divas and gay men"--after all, Sylvester was both. It also helped that, even in his down periods, Sylvester was always famous enough--a genuine celebrity on a scene whose stars were mostly symbolic. Sylvester's genius for self-presentation was also crucial: not just the gritty kind of realness that emerges during "sex in the dark with another man," but the gorgeous kind in which you "make the costume into your skin."

Sylvester was the kind of egomaniac who has a big heart, the kind of apolitical who cares about race and poverty. Then the symptoms began to show, and he became another kind of hero: the first black public figure to identify himself as HIV-positive. With Patrick Cowley and other musical associates gone, Sylvester turned into something of a crusader. Once a ravenous orgiast, he promulgated safe sex, and was early to note that "the black community" needed way more AIDS education than it got. At the 1988 Gay Freedom Day parade in June, he joined the People With AIDS contingent, "an old man softly waving a glove from a wheelchair." By October, although he was too ill to attend the Castro Street Fair, crowds chanted his name under his window. December 17 he died.

What a man he was.

Village Voice, June 21, 2005