Celebrating the Life of the Original Miss Thing
You been dancin’ all night long with so many different guys.
I waited patiently for you to notice me but you never caught my eye.
Make some room cuz I’m coming through….
The feelings getting stronger I’m not waiting any longer for you.
I can’t lose.
Taking love, taking love into my own hands
Don’t you try to stop me?
“Takin’ Love Into My Own Hands” Megatone Records
The determination heard in these lyrics clearly gives us a glimpse into what Sylvester was made of. Bursting on to the Disco scene in 1979 with his hit song “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” this flamboyant, totally outrageous, genderbender sashayed his way onto the world stage. The flamboyant falsetto singing powerhouse captivated gay and straight audiences and helped change attitudes and inspire everyone to discover their own “real ness.”
His flamboyant drag and extravagant costumes left US record company executives and radio programmers uneasy. Sylvester’s friend John Waters remembers his early struggles with his label:
This wasn’t corny drag queen stuff. This was a great performer. The fact Sylvester was a man or a woman had nothing to do with it.” But I can see record companies would have a problem with it.” —John Waters, film maker 1999
Sylvester’s manager, his producer and the record label put the pressure on him to “butch it up” to enter the mainstream. It has been said Sylvester went along with this for a about a minute then defiantly returned to his true persona with no apologies or regrets. Ultimately firing his management.
His hits: “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” “Do You Wanna Funk,” “Dance Disco Heat” and “Someone Like You” assured Sylvester a place in music history and the recognition as an artist who influenced: Prince, Annie Lenox, RuPaul, George Michael, Neil Tenant and Jimmy Somerville
When I first started working on the Sylvester Documentary I listened to every Sylvester song I could get my hands on. The lyrics to “Takin’ Love Into My Own Hands” jumped out at me as sent me flying back to my own 1979, a time when I watched the sexy slim boys dancing and flirting in the first gay bar I ever dared enter in New Haven, Connecticut. The lyrics are bold Sylvester is determined to get what he wants “Don’t you try to stop me.” I was far from bold and never went after the evening’s object of desire. Overweight, bespectacled and closeted I was a mere observer in the only place that served as my link to a gay community. My question was always the same, “Who are these guys who could be so free and easy with their sexuality?” Sylvester was certainly one of them and I envied his and their openness and freedom.
His life was about freedom of expression. Sylvester emerged out of San Francisco’s radical counter culture performance troop “The Cockettes.” This group was unknown to me but it was a pleasure hearing more about the wild days of drag queens with beards performancing on LSD, or whatever else happened to be handy. Sylvester was a featured performer with “The Cockettes” and sang to packed houses of 1500 people at The Palace Theater. The rowdy crowds at Cockette performances have been well documented but I have been told many times the wild crowd would sit in silence to hear Sylvester sing songs like “Summertime” “Stormy Weather” and “Sleepy Time Down South.” He was a strikingly glamorous performer compared to many of the others on stage at the time.
Sylvester went out on his own as the fabulous cabaret singer Miss Ruby Blue before becoming the lead singer in a Rock and Roll band. Sylvester and the Hot Band released two albums and played first class Rock and Roll with The Pointer Sisters as backup. But being black, openly gay and the flamboyant performer did not sit well in the very straight macho world of rock and roll.
Now I was well into the life story of this gender-bending powerhouse of a performer. He was about to send me on a 20-year journey of personal and professional discovery. In the coming weeks I will be telling the back-story of the making of “Sylvester: Mighty Real” the music documentary
The story began in the summer of 1989 when a grief stricken fan of the recently departed Sylvester raised the idea of producing a music documentary. Of course, by then I was out of the closet but I felt I wasn’t enjoying the type of freedom gay men who really accepted themselves enjoyed. So when I began my research I was immediately in awe of Sylvester’s ease at dealing with his sexuality. Not only did I envy his freedom of expression I envied his talent and saw an amazing untold story unfolding.
Sylvester’s life unfolds during a fascinating period in Gay History. The story will focus on the wild sexy days of 1970’s San Francisco before giving way to the rise of the AIDS Epidemic. All the while focusing on the local super star who united a deeply divided community and got the clones, leather queens, preppies, transgendered and especially other gay men of color to dance as one big diverse family
It has been 20 years since I first started researching Sylvester’s life story. During this time I have worked as a Writer/Producer in On Air Promotion and Marketing for many of the major networks, news organization and record labels. Telling Sylvester’s story was the passion that I rarely had time for. It was an intense effort at times to keep the project alive. But whenever I was having a particularly bad day or was being told off by some executive who had his ass and his elbow misplaced I would think, “What would Sylvester say right now?”
One example always haunts me. I was brand new at BRAVO. The BRAVO of old, that programmed foreign films and arts programming. I was assigned to produce a presentation tape for a thing called “A Moment Without Television” to be broadcast on World AIDS Day. This event was a big deal for the network and I was very nervous when I presented the rough cut of the tape. To my surprise, they loved the very first cut. It was moving and of course got all the relevant points across. Then the bigger bosses saw it and the word came down that it was to “Homosexually slanted.” I was furious. This was an AIDS event, in 1989. It was the end of the deadly decade and my tape was to homosexually slanted? They asked me to remove a wide shot where we saw a man with a lesion on his cheek, from across the room. I was channeling Sylvester at that moment. He had been dead exactly one year at that time and I knew he would have read my bosses to filth. But there I was new at a job I really needed and I made the revisions they asked for. Without saying a word.
Currently more than twenty interviews with Sylvester friends and business associates have been filmed. Archival footage and rare photos have been gathered and a 10-minute Work In Progress of the Documentary (which screened at prominent Film Festivals in the US and Europe) can be seen online. Yet there is more work to be done and more money to be raised.
With a new production team in place I am working on Sylvester full time for the first time ever. Please note that if you have any photos, footage, or personal reflections I will be glad to hear from you. Especially if you have any footage, stills or amazing stories about Sylvester.
Check out the work in progress at www.vimeo.com
search: Sylvester: Mighty Real.