Discover the pioneering influence of disco singer Sylvester with our new podcast series, “Sound Barrier” — Spotify
When Jason King was a child, his family had a compilation full of disco hits from K-tel records in their music collection. On this tape was the song “You make me feel (powerful real)” of the singer Sylvester. Jason — who is a musician, nationally known journalist, and president of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music — didn’t know much about Sylvester at the time. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if Sylvester’s signature falsetto belonged to a man or a woman. But he knew it was his favorite song on the tape.
As an adult, Jason’s love for this song led him to learn more about Sylvester, an openly gay black man living in 1970s America who dressed in drag and defying gender convention with a fervor few other musicians possessed. Although not a household name, Sylvester’s innovative sound and personality have paved the way for countless artists, especially LGBTQ+ artists, to express themselves freely. And that’s a big reason why Jason’s appreciation for Sylvester has carried over into his journalistic and academic work.
This set the stage for the launch of Wall of sound, our new documentary podcast hosted by Jason that aims to explore artists who have made pioneering contributions to music and culture. It fittingly focused on Sylvester for the first season, exploring not only the singer’s life, but also the influence Sylvester continued to have on BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists after his death.
To celebrate Black Music Month and Pride Month, For registration caught up with Jason to talk about his creative journey Wall of soundSylvester’s unique musical career and why Sylvester is more relevant today than ever.
The description for Wall of sound calls Sylvester “a musician who is perhaps even more relevant today than then ‘70s and ‘80s. What do you think makes it so relevant right now?
Sylvester is someone who was an intersectional figure before intersectionality was a buzzword. She’s someone who operated at the crossroads of being black, being gay, and being female when those things were still considered stigma – they still are to some degree. But they were certainly considered stigmata at that time.
He was just being unabashedly himself despite incredible pressure from his record company to be more upright and more prescriptive. Each time he encountered this pressure, he pushed back and became more of himself. And so I think it’s instructive for contemporary generations on how to be yourself at all costs.
Were there any particular eras or aspects of Sylvester’s life that you focused on over the course of the season?
It covers it chronologically in every aspect, but one thing we take a close look at is its musicality. I feel like Sylvester is often celebrated for being a cultural icon, which he was, and for being a trailblazer on issues of identity. But he did it through the prism of music, and he was a phenomenal musician.
I really wanted to talk about how his career has evolved over the years and push back the narrative that Sylvester’s best work was in the ’70s and everything after that was just an afterthought. I think his 80s work is some of his most creative work, especially since he was diagnosed with AIDS in the late 80s and was still making really important music .
Wall of sound features many notable LGBTQ+ artists that span multiple generations. How did you choose these star guests?
Well, we knew we wanted to have academics who really studied and thought about Sylvester’s life. So that includes Joshua Gamson, who wrote Sylvester’s biography, The Fabulous Sylvester.
We knew that we wanted to have his collaborators, his friends and the people who knew him at that time who could testify to who he was: singers like Jeanie Tracy and Marthe Wash, as good as Patrick Cowley, who was an innovator with synthesizers. And then we knew we also wanted to have younger artists who may not have known Sylvester, who may not necessarily be knowledgeable, but who have been touched in some way by Sylvester’s music or his spirit.
So I reached out to people who I thought belonged to Sylvester’s musical genealogy. This included alex newelfamous for their work on Broadway and Joy; who understood Billy Porterwho I think is very candid about the role Sylvester played in Billy’s self-acceptance – before and after he won his Tony Award for naughty boots; which included the singer and the rapper Mykki Blancowhich may not be directly in Sylvester’s vocal tradition but is very much influenced by Sylvester in other ways.
Bringing back the first season of Wall of sound, the team managed to unearth unreleased demos and interviews of Sylvester. How did you discover them and what do they reveal about him?
I thought I knew a lot about Sylvester, but I learned a lot through this series about what made him tick, his musical choices, his aesthetic, and the pressures he faced.
And after hearing Sylvester’s unreleased demos in the early 1970s, I felt like one of the things I could bring to this series was to connect our team to Universal Music Group executive Harry Weinger , who was in possession of these unreleased recordings. They were produced by rolling stone founder Jann Wenner, and they’re fascinating because they capture Sylvester as a work in progress that was truly figuring out who he was and how to be his most authentic self. And he did in those early recordings.
In one of the demos he sings “Super star“, which is an incredibly famous song because it’s a Leon Russell song performed by Carpenters and later by Luther Vandross. Sylvester might get the first cover of it, but it’s amazing because he takes those baby steps to figure out how to deploy his amazing falsetto.
There are now so many queer artists with non-queer fans, and vice versa. Do you think Sylvester would be surprised by this if he was still around?
I think he would have thought it was the most normal thing possible. But he was fortunate to come of age at a time when there were new opportunities for our gay artists to succeed on their own terms. He’s someone who benefited from this culture shift, but he also ushered in the rise of a kind of androgyny in 70s and 80s pop music.
There’s something about the podcast that I call “the Sylvester effect.” When you look at the rise of artists in the 80s like Dead or aliveit is Pete Burnswho was definitely sexist, or Boy Georgeor someone like Bronski beatit is jimmy somervillewho had this huge success”small village boy“About coming out and being gay, I don’t think any of this would have been possible without Sylvester.
I think he helped open up that space for people to just be themselves. But also, for greater acceptance of LGBTQIA+, artists from the 80s who would have all kinds of fan bases. And today we have someone like Franck Ocean, which has an incredibly diverse fan base. It’s really the result of the kind of freedoms that Sylvester helped promote.
Learn more about Sylvester’s life and influence with the first season of Wall of sound.