(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGHTY REAL")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
There's a new collection of the music of Sylvester - Sylvester James - an openly gay, costume dressing disco superstar, who died 25 years ago. Music critic Milo Miles says the times have caught up with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIGHTY REAL")
SYLVESTER JAMES: (Singing) You mean I've been dancin' on the floor, darlin'. And I feel like I need some more. And I feel your body close to mine and I move on love, it's about that time. Make me feel - mighty real. Make me feel - mighty real.
(Singing) You make me feel mighty real. You make me feel mighty real. When we get...
MILO MILES, BYLINE: Born in Los Angeles in 1947, Sylvester James, always known as Sylvester, defied every convention and never hesitated to go his own way. Starting when he was a child, Sylvester had no conflict about his gayness and always rejected the description of drag queen, making a persuasive case that he simply dressed as he wished - with ferocious flamboyance. As a singer and an icon, he continually tried to determine his ideal stage and sound. The answers were not easy to find.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JAMES: (Singing) People are telling me so much they keep taking me around. I'm so tired. Lord, I'm going through changes. Oh, yes, I am going through changes, changes, changes, changes. I am taking my time.
MILES: Sylvester loved singing in the choirs of the Pentecostal church in L.A., but the church did not enjoy his unapologetic sexual orientation, and he left both religion and his mother's house behind as a young teen. In a way, there's not much difference among a congregation, a troupe and a gang, and Sylvester began hanging out with a party-posse called the Disquotays in Los Angeles and later, at the start of the '70s, with the experimental performance group the Cockettes in San Francisco.
But Sylvester was not satisfied with starring at house parties or being a theatrical gay hippie. He knew he was made for glamour, and that the style needed to be updated from his faves like Billie Holiday. His first shot at his own show, called "Sylvester and the Hot Band," centered around his outrageous but meticulous take on glam costuming and covers of rock tunes. The performances and the albums were duds. Like the only real parallel - Tony Washington and the Dynamic Superiors of Washington, D.C. - "The Hot Band" endures as no more than an admirable curiosity. But after a couple more years of fussing, Sylvester would find his sound and stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE (DISCO HEAT))
JAMES: (Singing) You got a match?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Mm-hmm.
JAMES: (Singing) There's some fabulous clothes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
JAMES: (Singing) Look at all the fabulous people.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Yes, (Unintelligible).
JAMES: (Singing) You want to dance?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Yes, I'd love to.
JAMES: (Singing) Let's party a little bit.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) All right.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible) on the beat, in the disco heat. Dancing through the night till morning light. Shine for me, again, music makes me dance, dance, dance, dance. Dancing total freedom be yourself and choose your feeling. Come on get up let me see some swinging, swaying, move groove, sliding, gliding, rocking, reeling, come on get up everybody dance.
MILES: In music, as in so many aspects of life, finding the right partners can make all the difference. When Sylvester hooked up with backup singers Martha Wash and her friend Izora Rhodes in 1976, it was clear he needed to bring back Gospel heat to help his vocals carry the day. Showing a fine sense of humor, the substantial pair of women called themselves Two Tons o' Fun. Sylvester's second album with them, "Step II" in 1978, resulted in a couple smash singles, "Dance (Disco Heat)" and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," and the LP itself went gold.
Sylvester remained as restless as ever, and by 1980, he was dissatisfied with his record label and even disco itself, which, foolishly it seems now, was considered dead, over for good. For his remaining albums, Sylvester returned to soul and Gospel, as well as some stabs at later styles of electronic dance music. But his baritone was far less effective than his falsetto, he was a sluggish ballad singer and the final dance numbers lacked the joy of those with Two Tons o' Fun. Sylvester contracted AIDS and passed away in late 1988, as his celebrity was reaching the high level it has maintained in the San Francisco LGBT community.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JAMES: (Singing) (Unintelligible) the night I first met you, you made all my dreams come true, and I said to myself that I would never stop dancing with my feet first hit the floor, shout and boogie down and scream for more. And when we just (unintelligible) I'll never stop dancing...
MILES: The only complete picture of Sylvester's art would be his life itself. But the new "Mighty Real" collection, which covers the years from 1977 to 1980, makes a superb soundtrack. The collection does not expand his repertoire. Ralph Rosario's new mix of the song "Mighty Real" is pleasant but redundant. However, these enduring songs bring Sylvester into today, a time that would embrace him more fully than he could imagine. No matter how much the world has changed and how long Sylvester has been gone, "Mighty Real" is the living sound of his pride.
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed Sylvester's "Mighty Real: Greatest Dance Hits" on the Fantasy label. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the latest Netflix series "Orange is the New Black. This is FRESH AIR.