Disco diva Sylvester would have been 70 today

Our friends at the GLBT Historical Society reminded us that today would have been the 70th birthday of San Francisco’s greatest disco diva, Sylvester.

Born in Watts and christened Sylvester James Jr., the future star grew up singing gospel in his Pentecostal church.  He left the church after the congregation disapproved of his homosexuality.

In 1972, at the age of 22, he moved to San Francisco and joined the avant-garde drag troupe The Cockettes.

Sylvester launched his recording career in 1973, and six years later, caused a rump-shaking sensation with his disco album “Step II,” which included “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).”

Sylvester’s classic and Hi-NRG fanny bumper “Do You Want to Funk” was released in 1982.

A colorful person on and off stage, Sylvester was embraced in the city and called the Castro his home. Sylvester died of AIDS in his home in the Castro on December 16, 1988. He was 41 years old.

Many residents dubbed him not only the “Queen of Disco,” but also the “Queen of the Castro.”

This collage shows three Sylvester items housed in the archives of The GLBT Historical Society. Clockwise from lower left: An album cover from 1982’s fanny bumper “Do You Wanna Funk,” screen capture from an amateur video of a 1985 Sylvester performance, and a sequined performance costume from the mid 1980s. Photo: GLBT Historical Society.

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBT community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBT students.