New Column at PopMatters – Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester

My new February column at PopMatters takes a biographical and analytical look at the life and career of Sylvester.

Sylvester was one of America’s greatest singers, and he, unfortunately, remains one of American music’s best kept secrets. He came up through the church and infused all his music with a gospel fire – from disco to jazz; from rock to soul.

subtlesubversion-sylvesterjames-500As mush as his music offers listeners enjoyment, his life offers Americans insight into courage, creativity, and integrity. Sylvester was flamboyantly gay, but did not quite fit into the gay minority. He was a transvestite, but did not quite fit into the transvestite minority. He was black, but did not quite fit into the black minority. He was a Christian, but did not quite fit into any Christian minority. He certainly never fit into any majority.

My new column – “Queen of Disco: The Legend of Sylvester” – tells the fascinating and moving story of Sylvester. Anyone interested in American music, unorthodox Christianity, or the development of social progress since the 1970s, should read it.

I discovered Sylvester’s music after watching a documentary on his life aired by the television network, TVOne. I’ve long been a fan of Prince, and after hearing Sylvester sing, scream, and shout in his trademark falsetto, I realized that Prince had been ripping off Sylvester’s vocal style for decades. Because of the obscurity of Sylvester, Prince was able to successfully pull of the heist, and escape from the scene of the crime, undetected.

A reader who follows some of my writing emailed me with surprise and confusion over where Sylvester fits into my musical palette. He seems like an unlikely choice thrown into the mix with John Mellencamp, Warren Haynes, and Bob Seger, but the most resonant lesson of Sylvester’s life is that an interesting person – and a good life – evades category.

Sylvester’s spirit spoke to me, and with a voice as beautiful and big as his, who could resist?