Being black and queer, Sylvester is often unfairly relegated to the status of minor footnote in pop history. But even 29 years after his death, his fearless, pioneering life remains a source of inspiration.
To close out Pride Month, Billboard spoke with Joshua Gamson, author of the wonderful biography The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco, for a primer on the many ways Sylvester was a pioneer and remains an inspiration.
Sylvester Turned Others’ Prejudices Into Assets
“He was black, gay and some form of gender queer before there was that term,” Gamson says. “All these things that were the basis for marginalization, he turned into superstardom for a minute. He turned things that were used to stigmatize him into assets.”
Sylvester Was One of the First Openly Gender Fluid Musicians
Sylvester’s gender identification “depended on what day you caught him,” Gamson says. “It was a fluid gender more than anything else. Sometimes he was male identified, other times Sylvester was full-on drag queen, but mostly it was some combination. When I was interviewing people, they would sometimes refer to Sylvester as she and he. Most people experienced him as male or just Sylvester. He was not easily classified in terms of gender. A lot of people first met him and thought he was a woman. But if you were at a gay bar and he was in boy drag, that's how you saw him. To him, it was all drag more or less.”
The Gender Fluidity Extended Into Music
“The falsetto sound was a mix of male and female voice,” Gamson says of Sylvester’s disco recordings. “The later music had a butch beat, but you had a femme voice and feel on it. There wasn't a separation between musically and who he was in everyday life, they were both pretty queer.” Naturally, the industry wasn’t entirely welcoming. “People I talked to described record company executives who didn't know what to do with him and DJs who wouldn't play the music. Or they would try to get him to tone it down or sing in his non-falsetto voice.”
Sylvester Built On an Underground and Shared It With a Wider Audience
“He was certainly a pioneer, doing something people hadn't been doing publicly, getting recognized for it and making it work. He had hits on his own queer, gender-fucky terms. That was unusual. There were other pioneers. There was Bowie, Grace Jones, and he came from communities of people doing some version of that -- they just weren't doing it in front of huge audiences," Gamson says. "He took what was going on in the communities he was a part of and elevated and exploded it for other people. He was in and around the [San Francisco performance troupe] Cockettes in the early ‘70s, and they were doing outrageous countercultural stuff. With disco, people were celebrating a kind of freedom he came to represent. He was part of it and produced the soundtrack to it.” (Much like he built off the Cockettes, others springboarded off his success – his backup singers, Two Tons O’ Fun, would later rename themselves The Weather Girls and record one of the all-time gay anthems, “It’s Raining Men.")
Sylvester Still Lingers
“There's something about what he was about – being free and being fabulous – that is a very powerful energy that can linger,” Gamson says. “I felt very pushed by Sylvester. He was about being as fabulous as you can be, so I felt pushed to make the book the best I could get it to be. There's a quote from him, when he was on stage, something like, ‘Folks think we're strange but they'll catch up.’ It feels to me that's what's happening. In his time, he was still very strange. That kind of gender play and refusal of gender and sexual categories, that overt homosexuality and sexuality, seemed strange, and here we are 30 years later and the world is starting to catch up. I like that quote. He meant it like ‘you'll catch up over the course of the evening,’ but it also seems to be the case historically. People are slowly starting to catch up to the wisdom of what he was all about.”