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Sylvester — "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" (1978)
I’ve found a pizza place near my new pad that serves up an excellent slice at a decent price, has a somewhat primitively painted mural of an Italian hillside on their dining room wall, and whose proprietors are older Italian guys who spend all their time breaking each others’ balls in a really entertaining fashion. In other words, I’d already be pretty much sold on the whole experience right there… but then they went and completely locked down my customer loyalty by blasting 70s soul, funk and disco jams on a regular basis.
Yesterday, I walked in and was greeted by the glorious trilogy of Chic’s “Everybody Dance,” Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Amii Stewart’s stomping cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood”. Disco classics all, but hearing that Sylvester track for the first time in way too long truly knocked me on my ass. It’s the perfect disco anthem — sexy, uplifting, giddily propulsive, studded with shiny synth squiggles, and topped with a chorus that soars so high it practically pierces the Earth’s atmosphere.
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“Mighty Real” wasn’t the first Sylvester song I ever heard — that honor went to "Dance (Disco Heat),” which I’m pretty sure I was introduced to via one of Rerun’s dance segments on What’s Happening!!, though I’ve never been able to find a clip to corroborate that memory. I loved that song so much that I asked for (and got) the 45 for Christmas ‘78, which would put it among the first 20 singles I ever owned.
I didn’t find out about “Mighty Real” via the radio, either — at least, not as a stand-alone song. I first heard it in late 1978 when it was serving as the bed music for an oft-played radio ad for Mel Farr Ford, an auto dealership in the Detroit suburb of Oak Park which was owned by former Lions great Mel Farr. “Mel Farr Ford, at 10 Mile and Greenfield — minutes from anywhere!” the voiceover intoned. “Anywhere?” asked another voice. “ANYWHERE!!!” came the stentorian answer, as the chorus of “Mighty Real” went into hyperdrive in the background. I didn’t know enough at the time to recognize that melodic snippet as the work of Sylvester, but I heard the commercial so often in November and December ‘78 that it’s still hard for me to hear “Mighty Real” without feeling the urge to blurt out “ANYWHERE!!!”
(Fun fact: Farr, along with Lions teammate Lem Barney, can be heard providing the “Hey, Man!” streetcorner jive on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. Farr was a big music fan who was also pretty hands-on with the production of his dealership’s TV and radio ads, so I’m going to guess that he was the one who chose “Mighty Real” for the radio spot.)
It wasn’t until after moving to LA at the end of ‘78 that I began hearing “Mighty Real” without, as they say, commercial interruption. It was all over the radio in Southern California, especially KRLA, where it was a regular feature of “Art Laboe’s Disco Dance Party,” the oldies-oriented station’s five-nights-a-week attempt to cash in on the disco craze. The song never fails to take me back to the late winter and early spring of 1979, which was pretty much the peak of my original disco fandom; that spring’s release of Van Halen II and Cheap Trick at Budokan would pull me back towards rock-oriented waters, and my burgeoning interest in new wave and FM-oriented rock (plus the realization that disco had already reached its cultural over-saturation point) meant that I would pretty much stop buying disco records by the end of the year. But in early ‘79, nothing else on the radio sounded as good to me as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.
I had no idea at the time that the man born Sylvester James Jr. was gay, or that he’d made his initial show biz splash as a member of The Cockettes, the celebrated avant-garde San Francisco drag troupe. In fact, I don’t remember reading any media coverage of him at all in those days; it wasn’t until about 1984, when I saw a Sylvester interview in the British music paper Melody Maker — a feature no doubt inspired by the recent UK success of the heavily Sylvester-influenced Bronski Beat — that the penny really dropped. Not that it would have made any difference to 12- and 13-year old me (I was buying Village People singles back then, and I damn sure knew what their deal was), but it was only later on that I began to understand just what a powerful icon Sylvester must have been for the late-‘70s queer community, and what a true badass he was in general. John Waters has described Sylvester as “Billie Holiday and Diana Ross on LSD,” but he was actually even deeper — and more mind-blowing— than that festive description would imply.
Dig, for instance, Sylvester’s two rock- and blues-oriented albums with The Hot Band. White rockers like David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Lou Reed could bolster their fortunes by flirting with androgyny in those days, but while Bowie (whom Sylvester and The Hot Band opened up for in San Francisco) gave Sylvester some props at the time, the post-Woodstock world was not at all ready for a rock band fronted by a towering, flamboyantly gay Black man with serious gospel pipes. Which is too damn bad, because both of those records — Sylvester and The Hot Band and Bazaar, both released in 1973 — are really cool, and contain such jaw-dropping gems as this Blaxploitation funk reworking of the “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”.
Back in the mid-’70s, my elementary school friends and I thought we were being rebellious as all hell by changing the line “sweet land of liberty” to “sweet land of Nixon’s pee” when we sang this song in music class, unaware that Sylvester had already Aretha-ized Samuel Francis Smith’s patriotic lyrics into a fierce anthem of defiance that worked on levels we couldn’t have even imagined existed. Let it ring, indeed...
When The Hot Band broke up, Sylvester made a few unsuccessful attempts to rebuild his act along similar musical and visual lines. But when his manager Brent Thomson suggested he downplay his androgynous image in favor of a more masculine look — a suggestion soon followed by the addition of singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes (a.k.a. Two Tons of Fun, who would later find success of their own as The Weather Girls) to his act and a move towards more soul- and dance-oriented material — everything clicked. Sylvester and “The Tons” soon became the toast of SF’s Castro district, where they were a must-see act at several of the area’s hottest gay clubs, and Sylvester landed a solo deal with Fantasy Records following a stint at the more mainstream-oriented Palms nightclub on Polk Street.
Motown legend Harvey Fuqua was the one who signed Sylvester to Fantasy; he also produced or co-produced all of Sylvester’s subsequent albums for the label. But it was Sylvester’s musical partnership with electronic dance music pioneer Patrick Cowley that really took his career to the next level. Cowley’s synths and sequencers are all over 1978’s Step II, which made it all the way to #28 on the Billboard 200 thanks to the success of “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Fuqua and Cowley would later clash over Sylvester’s musical direction — and Cowley would score an influential dance hit of his own in 1981 with “Menergy” — but their work together remains right up there with Chic’s first three LPs and the Giorgio Moroder/Donna Summer collaborations as prime examples of just how stratospherically brilliant and life-affirming classic disco could be. Due to AIDS, neither Cowley or Sylvester made out of the ‘80s alive, which was as much of a tragedy for music as their deaths surely were for those who knew and loved them.
While it would have probably been to Sylvester’s commercial advantage to maintain a masculine persona once his songs began ascending the pop charts, he was someone who enjoyed and embraced fluidity, both in his music and in his own image. As this incredible video for “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” makes clear, Sylvester looked great as an elegant gentleman — but there was also no way in hell that he was going to relegate his feminine side to the closet.
Rest in Power, Sylvester. You unquestionably kept it mighty real.