Music, it's so often said, has one of the strongest associative links for memory; you hear a song from your youth and immediately -- if only fleetingly -- you are transported back to that time of history and the textures come again into focus. Whenever I hear the music of Sylvester, I'm transported back to the San Francisco of my youth, charged with magic and an air of sexual discovery long since past.
I can clearly remember purchasing Sylvester's debut self-titled album at Gramaphone Records on Polk Street. The year was 1977 and with disco in full swing, I remember feeling uplifted by his catch mix of gospel and dance music. One Sylvester song in particular, 'Over & Over,' to this day reminds me of my mother. Home after school, I would play the track and my mother and I -- alone before my father and sibling came home -- would dance together in the living room. Sharing music with her, the small moments of love and joy we had together -- live on in my memory when I hear that track today. And so, when I went to one of the last performances of Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at San Francisco's The Brava Theater, I was skeptical. 'How,' I asked myself, 'is this show going to live up to my memories of those days?'
In truth, the musical was beyond fabulous; I left feeling empowered. I was reminded not only how much I love Sylvester's music, but also how important he was to me and the community that he sung to. Watching Sylvester's story unfold onstage it became clear how hard he struggled -- as many young questioning youth still do today -- to live as their true self. One element to Sylvester's personal story -- the harsh reality of growing up as an effeminate young boy in South Central -- is one that touches me deeply as it does so many other queer youths. Even today, when I hear stories of LGBT youth committing suicide over bullying and torment -- it cuts deep. After all, their voices are the ones that will shape future policy and effect change in our community.
Feeling inspired after watching the musical, I recently hosted a listening party for Sylvester's live album, Living Proof -- what a fitting title -- recorded in 1978 at The San Francisco Opera House titled. The recording featured some of the best of San Francisco's queer creative scene at the time, with Patrick Cowley on synthesizer and Two Tons of Fun blasting those iconic voices. However, what really touched me, was hearing Sylvester talk between the sets being performed. At one point he dedicates a song to his lover that is sitting in the audience. Hearing Sylvester speak, what struck me was the incongruity between his soft, delicate voice and the one that came across in his song. I left that night with the thought, what matters in life isn't how you speak, it's what you say.