Contrary to popular belief, the beginning of the Eighties didn’t signify the death of disco or most of the artists that personified the genre to the general public. Some (like the late Donna Summer) experimented with different sounds, refusing to be pigeonholed. Some (like Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic) moved behind the boards to produce, and some just went slightly underground, playing to their core faithful.
One such artist was Sylvester, who many have classified as the King AND Queen of the genre. In an age when being openly gay still carried a major social stigma, Sylvester was out and proud. Consider the fact that in 2012, there are still no openly gay performers of African descent within sniffing distance of the Top 40. Well, Sylvester marched onto pop radio several times in the late Seventies with sizzling hits like “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” His music was frankly sexual and his image was over the top. Half a decade before Boy George, Sylvester and his zaftig backup singers Two Tons o’ Fun (later to become The Weather Girls of “It’s Raining Men” fame) invaded Middle America via the Merv Griffin Show and “American Bandstand.”
Sylvester struggled with musical changes in the Eighties, not to mention attempts to tone down his image that were made by label execs. However, he was still a fixture on the dance charts with songs like “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” which received memorable placement in the 1982 Eddie Murphy vehicle “Trading Places.” However, a major label contract wouldn’t come his way until the middle of the decade. Signing with Warner Brothers in 1986, he immediately hit paydirt with the single “Someone Like You.”
The energetic dance tune (with single artwork by Keith Haring) climbed the R&B charts at the beginning of 1987, and topped the dance charts, thanks to a fantastic mix by legendary deejay/producer Larry Levan. The video (one of only a small handful that Sylvester made) is relatively restrained, considering the high levels of camp that Sylvester was capable of. Make sure you take a look at his performance of the song on “The Late Show with Joan Rivers.” And you young’uns thought Adam Lambert was the gayest thing to swish across a TV screen?
The album that contained “Someone Like You” was called Mutual Attraction, and contained faithful covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City” as well as the Gershwin standard “Summertime,” however, it didn’t achieve the level of success that Sylvester and Warner Brothers were hoping for. Sadly, there was never a follow up, as Sylvester passed away in December 1988. While he isn’t often cited as an influence, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to believe that artists ranging from Prince and Madonna to Beyonce and Lady GaGa took cues from his gospel-trained voice and theatrical sense of showmanship. Way more than a relic of the disco era, Sylvester was a musical and cultural trailblazer.