'Sylvester Sings' - Dark Entries Records releases private tracks of the disco icon

  • by Cornelius Washington
  • Tuesday June 25, 2024
Share this Post:
'Sylvester Sings' (photo: Peter Mintun)
'Sylvester Sings' (photo: Peter Mintun)

Sylvester is immortal, all over the world, still very much revered as the shining example of a Black gay man who recognized his purpose as an artist and representative of LGBTQ culture. A new collection of recordings shares rare tracks from his. Early career.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA, to a large family headed by his mother, he received his formal musical training in the gospel church his family attended. As everyone marveled at his extremely high and powerful falsetto voice, he learned to play piano at the home of his grandmother, Julia, while listening to records of jazz and blues singers such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Bessie Smith. He and his mother, Letha, would swing dance to vintage jazz records, much to his family's delight.

Sylvester portrait in the 'Sylvester Sings' album booklet. (photo: Peter Mintun)  

Unfortunately, after coming out, he lived a very rough life on the streets of Los Angeles before he met Reggie Dunnigan, a Black member of the avant-garde performance group, The Cockettes. At the age of 22, Sylvester relocated to San Francisco, where he met pianist Peter Mintun. They performed with the troupe but were given their own space within its shows.

The two men became an artistic entity, and Sylvester created a persona known as Rubi Blue. The musical genres of blues, cabaret and Broadway show tunes made the pair irresistible, leading to a one-man show entitled "Sylvester Sings." Even Rolling Stone magazine praised him as a "beautiful black androgyne, who has a gospel sound with the heat and shimmer of Aretha Franklin."

Dark Entries Records has captured that moment in San Francisco queer music culture in an album, "Sylvester Sings," a shimmering series of intimate recordings and rehearsals with Sylvester and Peter exercising their stellar talents.

Almost perfect playlist
The first song is the Billie Holiday classic, "God Bless the Child." Sylvester's voice is clear, assured, soft, and indistinguishable from that of a woman, and it is no wonder that it is one of his favorite songs, and it shows.

"A Foggy Day (in London Town)," with its piano intro by Peter, provides Cole Porter realness, and I longed for champagne, while Sylvester effortlessly treats the song with grace and timeless beauty.

"Big City Blues" showcases both the highs and lows of Sylvester's considerable vocal range, while avoiding the "gutbucket blues" treatment, a clever decision.

Surprisingly, the Ethel Waters classic, "Stormy Weather," begins rather weakly, but gains strength as it continues.

"Happy Days Are Here Again" is extremely moving, knowing Sylvester's history at the time; the slightly scared young black queer arriving in San Francisco, with his entire life ahead of him. His performance is bright and hopeful, imbued with a vulnerability that is profoundly moving.

The album's weakest song, "Carioca," is basically a run-through of the camp classic. "Viper's Drag" features sly vocalizing, effortlessly enjoying the moments of musicality and fun. "Indian Love Call" is a duet between Peter and Sly, serving stratospheric camp. The final song, "When My Dreamboat Comes Home," is a beautiful bonding moment between the two artists and friends.

The bonus features include the accompanying picture booklet, featuring images taken with a medium format camera by Mintun, utilizing his vintage automobile and Sylvester's amazing fashion sense, including custom-made shoes.

By day, he presents as the epitome of the sassy, cosmopolitan woman in San Francisco. Nightly, he is the dark, moody chanteuse, swathed in pearls and laces. Particularly compelling image-wise is the back cover, featuring a quality worthy of Hollywood photography great George Hurrell and jazz photography legend Herman Leonard.

"Sylvester Sings" is not only the perfect wind-down album, as one erases the work week's hardships and sips on one's favorite libation, with eyes half closed. It's also a document about San Francisco history. Before the nostalgia craze in art and entertainment, it's wonderful to take a step back in order to leap forward, as Sylvester and Peter give the Gay Pride rainbow a beautiful shade on indigo blue.

Sylvester Sings" Dark Entries Records, $18. www.darkentriesrecords.com

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!