Bigger Than Disco, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' Is A Celebration Of Self Sylvester's 1978 dance hit transcends its moment and even the gay rights and AIDS awareness movements it came to represent. It's an anthem to liberation — of desire, and of the body.
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Bigger Than Disco, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' Is A Celebration Of Self

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Bigger Than Disco, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' Is A Celebration Of Self

Bigger Than Disco, 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' Is A Celebration Of Self

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Forty years ago this month, a gender-bending singer named Sylvester was enjoying his first spell on the pop charts with his song "Dance (Disco Heat)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE (DISCO HEAT)")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) Cooking on my feet in the disco heat.

GREENE: But it was the follow-up single that would become an LGBTQ anthem. "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" made it to No. 1 on Billboard's dance chart, and it remains a testament to the power of coming out. As part of our series American Anthem, Rick Karr has this profile.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: If you want to understand why "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" became an anthem for LGBTQ people, Joshua Gamson says you need to imagine what it was like to have been one of them when the song came out in 1978.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYLVESTER SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

JOSHUA GAMSON: You've come out of the closet. It's been difficult. Many people have moved out of their homes of origin, their families of origin with great pain and moved to a more liberated place like San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYLVESTER SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

KARR: Gamson's the author of "The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The '70s In San Francisco." He says Sylvester was a kind of folk hero for many of those young people. He was one of them, up there on stage being fabulous. And with "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," he was celebrating their freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) When we're out there dancing on the floor, darling - 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.

GAMSON: You've got the words of a person who is just matter-of-fact about their sexual desires, about the freedom to do with their bodies and their desires - whatever they want to do and a freedom from gender in a way. And you can dance to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) You make me feel mighty real.

KARR: Sylvester James was 31 when "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" came out. He'd grown up singing in a Pentecostal church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a devout churchgoer, and she could not accept the early signs of her son's sexuality, as Sylvester told Joan Rivers on "The Tonight Show" in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

SYLVESTER: When I was little, I used to dress up, right?

JOAN RIVERS: Yeah. OK.

SYLVESTER: And my mother said you can't dress up; you got to wear these pants and these shoes, and you have to, like, drink beer and play football.

(LAUGHTER)

SYLVESTER: And I said, no, I don't. And she said you're very strange, and I said that's OK.

KARR: He left the church when he was 13 and left home not too long afterwards. He stayed with friends and his grandmother who accepted him as he was. In his early 20s, he fled to San Francisco to join an avant garde theater troupe called the Cockettes, whose fans included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. But he left pretty quickly to front his own act. Singer Jeanie Tracy became Sylvester's friend and collaborator and remembers when she was introduced to him by friends.

JEANIE TRACY: They said oh, Jeanie, this is Sylvester. And I said, Sylvester? I thought you were a woman. And then I said, oops, I'm sorry. He goes, oh no, girl. That's OK (laughter).

KARR: When guitarist and songwriter James Wirrick saw the singer for the first time, Sylvester was backed by a tight three-piece band and flanked by two drag queens.

JAMES WIRRICK: In full drag with full neck beards (laughter).

KARR: Wirrick and Sylvester became bandmates and collaborators a few months later. By then, the backup singers were Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash. At the time, they were known as Two Tons O' Fun. But they went on to release an anthem of their own as the Weather Girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S RAINING MEN")

THE WEATHER GIRLS: (Singing) It's raining men. Hallelujah, it's raining men. Amen.

KARR: Wirrick says when he and Sylvester brought their song "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," to the rest of the band, it didn't go over very well.

WIRRICK: At first, the band didn't want to play it as a dance tune. They were kind of snotty about it. You know, it's like, well, we don't really want to do that, you know? And Sylvester and I kept saying, no, you have to do that because that's what's on the radio.

KARR: The song was a bigger hit in discos than it was on the radio. And its falsetto vocals, four-on-the-floor beat and bouncing synthesizer influenced the next generation of electronic music producers. Twenty years after the original, Chicago house vocalist Byron Stingily paid tribute with a cover version that also topped the U.S. dance charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

BYRON STINGILY: (Singing) And I know you love me like you should. You make me feel mighty real.

KARR: The song went on to become the centerpiece of a 2014 off-Broadway musical that tells Sylvester's life story. It's appeared in ads, films and TV shows. So far this year, James Wirrick says he's gotten eight requests for permission to use the song he co-wrote.

WIRRICK: A video game, three television commercials, three movies and an episode of "The Simpsons" (laughter).

KARR: In the mid-to-late '80s, Sylvester used the song's popularity to raise AIDS awareness. He played benefit shows and passed safe sex information out to his audiences. He thanked Joan Rivers and fellow "Tonight Show" guest Charles Nelson Reilly for their early support of what was becoming a movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

SYLVESTER: People don't remember that it was way back then when no one knew what was going on that you were the first ones and you also - the three of us together...

RIVERS: And you.

SYLVESTER: And yeah, I was there, too - trying to do whatever we could at the time to get it together. And now it's, like, the national thing to do, but I want to thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

KARR: Even though "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)'s" popularity went beyond its LGBTQ roots, Sylvester didn't live to appreciate that. He was never tested for HIV. He told friends there was no point because he knew he had the virus. In 1987, Sylvester's husband died of complications from AIDS. Within a few months, his own health was deteriorating. But singer Jeanie Tracy says his senses of style and humor stayed intact even as he was planning his own funeral.

TRACY: He looked at me and he says, I want to be buried in a pearl-colored casket; don't bury me in a white casket 'cause I don't want to look like I'm lying in a white refrigerator (laughter).

KARR: A few months before he died, Sylvester appeared in the 1988 Gay Freedom Parade in San Francisco. He was emaciated and weak and rode in a wheelchair, but he didn't want to hide, according to biographer Joshua Gamson. He wanted the crowds along Castro Street to see him.

GAMSON: It was part of the same almost philosophy of realness. Like, this is being real. This is mighty real to be marching in the Gay Freedom Parade looking like 40 years older than you are and people knowing that they've seen this icon of their freedom - they see him, a symbol of the devastation that AIDS took on the community.

KARR: A community that Sylvester identified with and championed throughout his life. In his will, he left his share of future royalties for "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" to two San Francisco nonprofits, the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) You make me feel mighty real.

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