How Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, Died from AIDS-Related Complications

Sylvester was a singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his flamboyant and androgynous style and his hit disco songs. He was also an activist who campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS, a disease that eventually claimed his life in 1988. In this article, we will explore the cause of death of Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, and how he left a lasting legacy for the LGBTQ+ community and the music industry.

Early Life and Career

Sylvester James Jr. was born on September 6, 1947, in Los Angeles, California, to a middle-class African-American family. He developed a love of singing through the gospel choir of his Pentecostal church, but left the church after the congregation expressed disapproval of his homosexuality. He found friendship among a group of black cross-dressers and transgender women who called themselves the Disquotays.

In 1970, at the age of 22, Sylvester moved to San Francisco, where he embraced the counterculture and joined the avant-garde drag troupe the Cockettes. He produced solo segments of their shows that were heavily influenced by female blues and jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. However, after the Cockettes’ critically panned tour of New York City, Sylvester left them to pursue his career elsewhere.

He formed Sylvester and his Hot Band, a rock act that released two commercially unsuccessful albums on Blue Thumb Records in 1973 before disbanding. He then focused on his solo career and signed a recording contract with Harvey Fuqua of Fantasy Records. He obtained three new backing singers: Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes – the “Two Tons O’ Fun” – as well as Jeanie Tracy.

Disco Success and Fame

His first solo album, Sylvester (1977), was a moderate success, but it was his second album, Step II (1978), that catapulted him to stardom. The album spawned the singles “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)”, both of which were hits in the US and Europe. The songs showcased Sylvester’s powerful falsetto voice and his ability to blend disco, soul, and funk genres.

Sylvester became known for his extravagant outfits, makeup, and jewelry, as well as his openly gay identity. He was dubbed the “Queen of Disco” by the media and fans, and he attained particular recognition in San Francisco, where he was awarded the key to the city. He also performed at several benefit concerts for various causes, such as gay rights, anti-nuclear movements, and AIDS awareness.

He distanced himself from the disco genre after its decline in popularity and recorded four more albums with Fantasy Records, including a live album. He then left the label and signed with Megatone Records, a dance-oriented company founded by his friend and collaborator Patrick Cowley. He recorded four more albums with Megatone Records, including the Cowley-penned hit Hi-NRG track “Do Ya Wanna Funk”.

HIV/AIDS Diagnosis and Death

In 1985, Sylvester was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, a disease that had already claimed the lives of many of his friends and colleagues, including Cowley. He decided to keep his diagnosis private and continued to perform until his health deteriorated. He also made arrangements for his future royalties from his work to be donated to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities.

On December 16, 1988, Sylvester died from AIDS-related complications at his home in San Francisco. He was 41 years old. His funeral was attended by over 700 people at the Love Center Church in Oakland, California. His ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Legacy and Influence

Sylvester is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of disco music and one of the most influential gay icons in history. He is also celebrated for his contributions to the LGBTQ+ community and the fight against HIV/AIDS. His songs have been covered by many artists, such as Jimmy Somerville, Bronski Beat, Marc Almond, Gloria Gaynor, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Cher, Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Scissor Sisters, Antony Hegarty, Rufus Wainwright, Sam Smith, Adam Lambert, and Lizzo.

He has been honored with several awards and recognitions posthumously. In 2004, he was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2019, he was featured in a mural titled “The Castro’s Fabulous Four” in San Francisco’s Castro District.

Sylvester’s life and music have also inspired several books, documentaries, musicals, and films. Some of the notable works include:

  • The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco (2005), a biography by Joshua Gamson.
  • Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical (2014), an off-Broadway musical by Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman.
  • Unsung: Sylvester (2015), an episode of the TV One documentary series Unsung.
  • Love Me Like You Should: The Brave and Bold Sylvester (2020), a podcast series by Amazon Music.

Sylvester’s cause of death was a tragic result of a devastating epidemic that affected millions of people around the world. However, his legacy lives on through his music, his activism, and his spirit. He is remembered as a trailblazer, a diva, and a legend. As he once said, “I don’t want to be remembered as anything but a singer. Not as a gay singer or a black singer or a drag queen. Just as a singer.”

Doms Desk

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