Disco Singer Sylvester Confronts AIDS Without Any Regrets
Sylvester, once described as “the embodiment of disco,” sounds hopeful when he talks about his next album.
The San Francisco-based singer says he was recording earlier this year in Los Angeles, working with keyboardist Jeff Lorber and record producer Tommy LiPuma, and hopes to return to Los Angeles soon for further sessions.
But he knows he may never finish the record.
Sylvester learned three months ago that he has AIDS, and he has spent most of the last few weeks at home, trying to regain his strength.
While often plagued by fatigue, the singer, 40, was well enough last June to lead a gay pride parade in San Francisco, albeit from a wheelchair.
“I can’t walk very well anymore,” he said in a phone interview. “I have problems with my feet and sometimes the pain is unbearable. But I don’t like to take pain killers because of the side effects.”
Despite the physical setbacks, Sylvester insists that his outlook remains positive.
“I’ve been in situations I shouldn’t have been in. We all have. But I still think that I’m a good person and I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life,” he said.
“Down the line, I hope I won’t be in a lot more pain. But I don’t dwell on that. I’ll be fine, because my spirit is fine.”
Sylvester says that while black people are 12% of the population, more than 25% of all reported AIDS cases in this country involve blacks.
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” said the singer, who has long been openly frank about his homosexuality.
“The black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
Sylvester, who rose to international fame during the late ‘70s with such disco hits as “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” had been hospitalized three times before being diagnosed as having the AIDS virus.
“I’d been having throat problems and I thought it was bronchitis. I wasn’t worried. Having AIDS hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
Since that time he has spent five weeks in a hospital with pneumocystis, during which time he confronted his own mortality. “I was ready to go,” he said. “I made peace with that and I never thought, ‘Why me?’ I just accepted it.”
Sylvester grew up in South-Central Los Angeles and was reared in the Pentecostal church. As a child in the late ‘50s, he toured and performed on the gospel circuit. His grandmother, a ‘30s blues singer named Julia Morgan, made him aware of divas such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Josephine Baker, all of whom became his early musical role models.
Sylvester moved to San Francisco in the late ‘60s and joined the Cockettes, a wildly irreverent, transvestite cabaret troupe. He fronted a band during the early-'70s glitter-rock era. As a disco star a few years later, he was known for his dramatic falsetto voice, glamorous stage wear and a sharp sense of humor.
Patti LaBelle is one of several singers who Sylvester says has called him with words of encouragement since his illness became known. The Pointer Sisters and singer Phyllis Hyman are among others who have been in touch, he added.
“It means a lot when compassion is shown,” Sylvester said. “I know that whenever I hear that someone has AIDS my heart goes out to them. And when anyone I know dies from it, it worries me. I get nervous because I think, ‘That’ll be me someday.’ But I don’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself because of that.”
Sylvester’s manager, Tim McKenna, said the singer possesses “a dignity” and unrelenting forthrightness. “There are people who came out of the closet to Sylvester’s music,” he said.
Sylvester downplays that description.
“I’ve never been a crusader, but I’ve always been honest. I may not volunteer details to the media, but I’ve never believed in lying or denying what I am to anyone.”
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