feature: sylvester, the unsung queen of disco

March 19, 2015

Sylvester James was a gender-bending singer whose special blend of Gospel riffs and Disco heat turned the music world upside down. His raw talent and extravagant styling pushed against the boundaries of what an African American male entertainer was expected to be. Sylvester was always a flamboyant character that never conformed or compromised, and his powerhouse vocals that were cultivated in the pews of a Baptist church proved his talent was undeniable.

By Cakes Da Killa, AFROPUNK Contributor


A prodigy turned runaway, this Los Angels native went on to find his wings in San Francisco and established a following while singing with the Cockettes. The group was a rambunctious crew of hippy artists who infused drag and comedic elements into live showcases. He quickly became the breakout star as a female impersonator covering tracks by divas like Billie Holiday and Diana Ross. He would soon set out on his own musical journey with the help of Martha Wash and Izora Armstead his 2 backup singers he named Two Tons o’ Fun. Sylvester quickly found refugee and stardom in Disco fleeing from the rigid limitations that were prevalent in other musical genres.


In 1978, ‘Mighty Real’ brought him mainstream success and obvious controversy and backlash for being an openly gay celebrity. However, the trio proved to be an unstoppable force as Sylvester received gold plaques for amazing record sales and 24 top 40 hits.



In 1979, one of his biggest personal accomplishments occurred when Sylvester performed to a packed house in the prestigious San Francisco Opera. He would go on to record 6 more studio albums and tour the world. Sadly, Sylvester’s life was cut short due to complications from AIDS in 1988 marking the death of one of music’s most groundbreaking artists. In August 2014, an Off-Broadway musical titled ‘Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical‘ was started in his memory.


‘Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical’