*TV One’s series “UnSung” reveals the life of a ’70s Disco Queen. While the names Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor might come to mind, it’s singer Sylvester that’s the focus of the upcoming episode.
Sylvester James’ journey to fame and tragedy began when he left his Los Angeles home at age 16 and headed straight to San Francisco. The singer launched his career just a few years later in 1967, joining music productions, teaming for a short stint in a group of transvestite performance artists (The Cockettes), and picking up a following as a popular nightclub singer in the 70s.
After a flock of labels, bands, and trios, Sylvester formed a group with future Weather Girls Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes. His hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” became a disco classic. Tragedy struck in the 1980s for the singer. As he watched close friends die from AIDS complications, he too was diagnosed with the HIV virus and died in 1988.
Although Sylvester’s hit “You Make Me Feel” was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and he himself in 2005, TV One’s “Unsung,” reflects that the star lost its shine too soon.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” Wash said after screening the television show. “There were some things that I hadn’t even seen before. It was very interesting listening to other people talk about him. I think he was a lot of things to a lot of people.”
To Wash, Sylvester was the talented and creative artist that gave her her first entry into the music industry.
“He was the guy who gave me my first start and took a chance on a church girl who loved to sing–that didn’t know what she was getting herself into,” she said. “But while I was with him, I enjoyed it. There was always something going on; things that you needed to prepare for, because he could turn on a dime, but I enjoyed it.”
Wash told EUR’s Lee Bailey that she auditioned for the, at times, flamboyant singer in San Francisco after answering a call from a friend about try-outs.
“I thought it was for doing session work as a studio singer,” she recalled. “Come to find out, it was for Sylvester who was trying to put a new band together and needed some back-up singers. I went down into the basement of this house. There were two blonde, thin girls that had auditioned for him that were still there. It was my turn to audition and I did. And he excused the other girls.”
She continued that Sylvester then and there decided he wanted her as a singer in his band and asked the full figured femme if she knew of another singer her size. A couple of days later, Wash introduced him to Izora Rhodes Armstead (now deceased) and the two, lovingly known as Two Tons ‘O Fun, were now a part of Sylvester, the group.
“We blended well,” she said. “It was something I, and probably Izora as well, learned from choir. Whoever sang lead, we sang background. That was our growing up period was the choir sound, church sound.”
The group was together for about four years.
“We, Two Tons of Fun, started recording after we left Sylvester,” Wash said. “It was a business thing. Harvey Fuqua, who produced Sylvester’s album, wanted to record Two Tons ‘O Fun as well. The first album came out and did very, very well and then we started doing our own shows, which Sylvester wasn’t very happy about.”
“The first album took off so we would open up for him and then turn around and sing backup for him, so he got over it,” Walsh said.
The two were renamed the Weather Girls, and their hit zenith was with the 1984 classic, “It’s Raining Men.”
In the ’90s, Wash helped funk group Black Box with the hits “Everybody, Everybody,” “Strike it Up,” and C+C Music Factory with its mega hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”
Wash shared that she really appreciates launching her career with the talented and theatrical Sylvester.
“He gave me my start in this business,” she said. “I miss him.”
“UnSung,” now in its third season, airs Monday nights at 9 pm (ET). For more on Sylvester and the series, visit www.tvoneonline.com.
Watch Sylvester perform ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’:
Sylvester does his classic ‘Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’:
EUR Bonus Video: The Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining men’: