Sylvester performs with his bandage at the Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go in 1972. Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images adumbrate explanation
This adventure is allotment of American Anthem, a yearlong alternation on songs that rouse, unite, bless and alarm to action. Find added at NPR.org/Anthem.
Dick Clark couldn’t get his American Bandstand army to stop cheering. It was aboriginal December, 1978, about the aiguille of disco’s acceptance — and Clark’s flat admirers had aloof heard Sylvester and his advancement singers, Two Tons O’ Fun, accomplish their aboriginal hit, “Dance (Disco Heat)”.
After Clark got the army to aqueduct bottomward and conducted an awkward interview, the gender-bending accompanist — cutting makeup, a apart bathrobe and covering pants — performed his aftereffect single. The song, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” hit the top of Billboard’s ball blueprint that year. Forty years later, its greater bequest is as an LGBTQ anthem.
“It’s a song of freedom,” says Joshua Gamson, Sylvester’s biographer. In his book The Aces Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco, Gamson makes the case that the artisan became a affectionate of folk hero for abounding adolescent LGBTQ people, because his activity was theirs.
“You’ve appear out of the closet. It’s been difficult,” he says. “Many bodies [at the time] acquire confused out of their homes of origin, their families of origin, with abundant pain, and confused to a added absolved place, like San Francisco. And afresh … this actuality comes out into accessible activity that sounds like what you were activity back you fabricated yourself free.
“For him to be acclaimed for all of his aberancy and all of the means he inhabited who he capital to be — who he acquainted himself to be — acquainted like you actuality acclaimed for that.”
And it wasn’t aloof how Sylvester looked and sounded. The song’s lyrics aboveboard acclaimed that liberation:
When we’re out there dancing on the floor, darlin’And I feel like I charge some moreAnd I feel your anatomy aing to mineAnd I know, my love, it’s about that timeMake me feel boss real
“You’ve got the words of a actuality who is aloof apathetic about their animal desires, about the abandon to do with their bodies and their desires whatever they appetite to do,” Gamson says. “And you can ball to it!”
Sylvester James grew up singing in a Pentecostal abbey in the Watts adjacency of Los Angeles. His mother was a adherent affiliate of the abbey and couldn’t acquire the aboriginal signs of her son’s uality.
“When I was little, I acclimated to dress up, right? And my mother said, ‘You can’t dress up,’ ” Sylvester told Joan Rivers back he appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986. ” ‘You gotta abrasion these pants and these shoes. And you acquire to, like, alcohol beer and comedy football.’ And I said, ‘No I don’t!’ And she said, ‘You’re actual strange.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK!’ “
“The [Pentecostal] abbey was oppressive,” says accompanist Jeanie Tracy, who aggregate Sylvester’s religious accomplishments and became his acquaintance and collaborator. “They aloof didn’t abide gayness. They didn’t abide a lot of things. They didn’t acquiesce you to abrasion makeup. You couldn’t abrasion toeless shoes or sleeveless dresses. It was aloof absolute … controlled.”
Too abundant so for Sylvester. At 13, he larboard the church. Two years later, he larboard home. He lived with accompany and his grandmother, who accustomed him as he was.
In his aboriginal 20s, Sylvester confused to San Francisco to accompany an exhausted theatre affiliation alleged The Cockettes, whose admirers included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. But he larboard the accumulation anon afterwards — to advanced his own act. Jeanie Tracy remembers actuality alien to him by accompany in the music industry.
“They said, ‘Oh, Jeanie, this is Sylvester,'” she says. “And I said, ‘Sylvester? I anticipation you were a woman.’ And afresh I said, ‘Oops! I’m sorry!’ He goes, ‘Oh, no, girl, that’s okay!'”
When guitarist and songwriter James Wirrick saw the accompanist for the aboriginal time, Sylvester was backed by a bound three-piece bandage and belted by two annoyance queens — “in abounding drag, with abounding neck-beards,” he laughs.
Wirrick became Sylvester’s bandmate and assistant a few months later. By then, the annoyance queens had been replaced by advancement singers Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash, aka Two Tons O’ Fun. (They went on to almanac addition canticle — “It’s Raining Men” — as The Weather Girls.) Wirrick and Sylvester wrote “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” together. Getting the blow of the bandage on lath was a challenge.
“At aboriginal the bandage didn’t wanna comedy it as a ball tune,” Wirrick says. “They were kinda aloof about it. ‘We don’t absolutely wanna do that,’ y’know? And Sylvester and I kept saying, ‘No, you acquire to do that because that’s what’s on the radio.’ “
Sylvester strikes a pose, about 1975. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images adumbrate explanation
More than on the radio, the song was a huge it in discos — and its falsetto vocals, four-on-the-floor exhausted and bouncing synthesizer afflicted ancestors of cyberbanking ball music producers to follow. Eleven years afterwards the aboriginal came out, diva Jimmy Sommerville of the British bandage Bronski Exhausted paid accolade with a cover. The afterward decade, Chicago House diva Byron Stingily’s adaptation already afresh took the song to the top of the U.S. ball chart.
The song additionally went on to become the centerpiece of a 2014 off-Broadway agreeable that tells Sylvester’s activity story. It’s appeared in ads, films, and TV shows. So far this year, James Wirrick says he’s gotten eight requests for permission to use the song he co-wrote: a video game, three television commercials, three movies and an adventure of The Simpsons.
Sylvester never had a boilerplate hit afterwards “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. A year afterwards it came out, Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl fabricated “Disco !” a ambulatory cry with his “Disco Demolition” advance amid the amateur of a White Sox doubleheader; the afterwards affray affected the Sox to cost the additional game.
Joshua Gamson says the accident was a acknowledgment by beeline white admirers of archetypal bedrock adjoin a music that they saw as too atramentous and too anomalous — and that that backfire is partly why he absent the anthem’s ability back it aboriginal came out.
“In a way, if I had acquainted that earlier, I’d acquire appear out earlier,” he says. “Embracing who you are, adulatory who you are, actuality as aces as you could possibly be, I anticipate that’s the bulletin that he’s admonition in the song. And I could’ve acclimated a dosage of that as a teenager.”
But Sylvester remained accepted amid ball music fans, and he leveraged that acceptance to accession AIDS awareness. He played account shows and broadcast safe- advice to his audiences. Back he appeared on The Tonight Show, he thanked Joan Rivers and bedfellow Charles Nelson Reilly for their aboriginal abutment of what was acceptable a movement. “I was there aggravating to do whatever we could at the time to get it together. And now it’s like a civic affair to do,” Sylvester said. “I appetite to acknowledge you myself.”
Less than 10 years afterwards “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” came out, Sylvester’s bedmate died of complications from AIDS. The accompanist was never activated for HIV — he told accompany there was no point, because he knew he had the virus. Within a few months, his own bloom was deteriorating. But, Jeanie Tracy says, his senses of appearance and amusement backward intact, alike as he was planning his own funeral. “He looked at me and he says, ‘I wanna be active in a pearl-colored casket,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘Don’t coffin me in a white casket, ’cause I don’t wanna attending like I’m lyin’ in a white refrigerator!'”
A few months afore he died, Sylvester appeared in the 1988 gay pride array in San Francisco. He was atrophied and anemic and rode in a wheelchair. But he didn’t appetite to hide, Gamson says — he capital the crowds forth Castro Street to see him.
“It was allotment of the aforementioned about aesthetics of absoluteness — like, this, this is actuality real,” Gamson says. “This is boss real, to be boot in the Gay Abandon array looking, like, 40 years earlier than you are. And people, alive that they’ve apparent this figure of their freedom, they see him [as] a attribute of the confusion that AIDS took on the community.”
Sylvester fabricated abiding to best that association alike afterwards he died. In his will, he larboard his allotment of approaching royalties for “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to two San Francisco nonprofits: the AIDS Emergency Fund and the commons affairs Project Open Hand.
Tom Cole contributed to the radio adaptation of this story.
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