Early lifeSylvester James was born in Los Angeles, California, into a low-income family, and he was raised by his mother, Letha. According to TV One's Unsung, he lived in a tiny two-room house, where he and his brother shared a bunk bed. He was the oldest of six children. His father was not in his family's life. Many of the facts of his early life are uncertain, and birth dates from 1944 to 1948 have surfaced. One thing is certain though: Sylvester was a child gospel star.
Encouraged to sing by his grandmother, the 1920s and 1930s jazz singer Julia Morgan, James' talent first surfaced at the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ in South Los Angeles, and soon he was making the rounds and stirring up audiences at churches around Southern California and beyond, sometimes billed as the "Child Wonder of Gospel."
Sylvester's home life disintegrated when he was a teenager. He clashed with his mother and stepfather, finally running away from home at age 16. For several years he lived on and around the streets of Los Angeles, but managed to finish high school and enroll at Lamert Beauty College. James moved to San Francisco in 1967 and, by his own account, his life began at that time.
In San Francisco, Sylvester performed in a musical production called Women of the Blues, with his repertoire of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday songs in tow. In the early 1970s Sylvester joined a short-lived group of performance artists called The Cockettes, a psychedelic drag queen troupe founded by Hibiscus, aka George Harris. After leaving The Cockettes, Sylvester performed in San Francisco a number of different times as a solo act. One of his most famed shows, entitled "Jungle Sin," which reprised Sylvester’s greatest Cockette solo songs, took place at the San Francisco supper club Bimbo's, and was produced by the rock impresario David Ferguson in 1972. That same year, Sylvester performed at The Temple in San Francisco with the then-unknown Pointer Sisters, which was also produced by Ferguson. Sylvester can be seen in the Cockettes' outrageous short film Tricia's Wedding, lampooning the wedding of President Nixon's daughter Tricia, and in an eponymous 2002 documentary about the group (which at one time included Divine).
In 1972, Sylvester supplied two cuts to Lights Out San Francisco, an album compiled by the KSAN radio station and released on the Blue Thumb label.
In 1973, Sylvester & The Hot Band, featuring Bobby Blood on trumpet, Chris Mostert on sax, James Q. Smith on guitar, Travis Fullerton on drums, and Kerry Hatch on bass, released two rock-oriented albums on Blue Thumb (their self-titled debut was also known as "Scratch My Flower," due to a gardenia-shaped scratch-and-sniff sticker adhered to the cover).
In 1974, Sylvester met Horus Jack Tolsen (Keyboards), and together with Sylvester's drummer Amadeo Barrios (drums) and his brother Adrian Barrios (Bass), formed a trio which backed up Sylvester at a nightclub in San Francisco called Cabaret - After Dark. Shortly thereafter Horus was fired, and Amadeo brought in new players — Archie White (Keyboards), Angel Reyes (Guitar), background vocalist Bianca Thorton, Gerry Kirby and another vocalist named Debbie. This took Sylvester into a new musical direction. The band unofficially called themselves The Four A's and had finally thrown in the towel after several attempts to get signed by a major label. In 1975 The Brothers Barrios gave it one last shot before joining The Lenny Williams Band, and Sly Stone.
Sylvester signed a solo deal with Fantasy Records in 1977, working with the production talents of legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua, who produced his album Stars in 1979. Sylvester later alleged that Fuqua cheated him out of millions of dollars. Sylvester soon met his frequent collaborator Patrick Cowley. Cowley's synthesizer and Sylvester's voice proved to be a magical combination, and pushed Sylvester's sound in an increasingly dance-oriented direction; his second solo album, Step II (1978), unleashed two disco classics: "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," and "Dance (Disco Heat)". These two songs charted together on the American dance chart, and spent six weeks at #1 on this chart in August and September 1978. By this time both his live shows and recordings also recognizably featured the back-up vocals of Two Tons O' Fun: future Weather Girls Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes. 1979 brought three Billboard awards and an appearance in the movie, The Rose, starring Bette Midler. He sang "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" live for The Castro Street Fair, thanks to future first openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk.
Moving to Megatone Records in 1982, Sylvester quickly landed a Hi-NRG classic with "Do You Wanna Funk", which was featured in the 1983 film Trading Places. He was close friends with other Megatone artists Linda Imperial and Jeanie Tracy
Sylvester was also very close to Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash for whom he recorded background vocals for her dance hit "Lucky Tonight".
Later pressure from the label to "butch up" his image would result in him attending meetings in full-on drag. A drag photo shoot, which he staged and presented to label heads as a gag (calling it his "new album cover") would later grace the cover of Immortal after Sylvester died; it was the label's way of paying tribute to his spirit. In 1985, one of his dreams came true as he was summoned to sing back-up for Aretha Franklin on her Who's Zoomin' Who? comeback album. His sole Warner Bros. Records album was Mutual Attraction in 1986; a single from the album Someone Like You became Sylvester's second #1 hit on the U.S. dance chart, and featured original cover art by Keith Haring.
In early 1987, Sylvester stated -
I don't believe that AIDS is the wrath of God. People have a tendency to blame everything on God.
DeathSylvester died of complications from AIDS in San Francisco on December 16, 1988. He was 41 years old. His good friend, Jeanie Tracy took care of him before he died.
On September 20, 2004, Sylvester's anthem record, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. A year later, on September 19, 2005, Sylvester himself was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his achievement as an artist.