Meanwhile on the Disco Action Charts
Sylvester – “Dance (Disco Heat)” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”
Hit Number One August 19th 1978
Stayed at #1: 6 weeks
Hot 100: “Dance (Disco Heat)” #19, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” #36
Beats Per Minute 134 and 132 BPM
In 1976, Cleveland native Mary Ann Singleton was on vacation in San Francisco. On a whim, she decided to stay, and found an apartment in an old home on 28, Barbary Lane. Renting from an eccentric landlady Anna Madrigal, she met Michael AKA Mouse, Brian, Mona, and the secretive Norman. San Francisco proved to be an eye opener for the innocent Mary Ann who put on a brave façade while navigating the sexual revolution, and the upheaval of gender norms that she faced in San Francisco and at 28 Barbary Lane.
In San Francisco’s gay neighborhood, Sylvester was performing at clubs such as The Stud and The Endup. Sylvester had moved to San Francisco 6 years earlier to become a member of the avant-garde Drag group, The Cockettes. In contrast to Mary Ann’s innocence, a young Sylvester James had been kicked out of the choir in his Pentecostal church at 13 for being gay. He then started a group of cross dressers called the Disquotays at 15 . The Disquotays often partied in Etta James house, without her knowledge. After trouble at home, Sylvester moved in with his grandmother who had no issue with his sexuality, and he eventually graduated from high school at 21, wearing a prom dress and beehive wig in his graduation photo.
In San Francisco as a member of The Cockettes, Sylvester channeled Billy Holiday and Josephine Baker, through his gospel inflected falsetto. In time, and after artistic differences, Sylvester left The Cockettes, hoping to focus on his singing career.
Mary Ann was the All-American girl working in an ad agency, while Sylvester traveled in the fringes. I can’t say they ever met, mainly because Mary Ann is a fictional character, but in 1978 they were involved in works of art that changed my life. “Tales of the City” the first book by Armistead Maupin which grew out of a serialized story printed in the Pacific Sun and then San Francisco Chronical. Maupin edited the stories into book form while living in Rock Hudson’s home, then released it in sometime in 1978. Also released in 1978 is the best two sided 12-inch single in the history of Disco music.
By 1978 Sylvester had tried his hand at Rock, R&B, Gospel, Jazz and Standards. His band The Hot Band even opened for David Bowie at the Winterland Ballroom. He found a new manager who convinced Sylvester to wear suits telling him no one was giving out contracts to drag queens. At one of the auditions for his new group, he met Martha Wash, who he quickly asked if she knew of another large Black woman who could become his background singer, leading him to Izora Rhodes.
I was the All-American boy living with my roommates in a large apartment complex just off 4th Street SE in Minneapolis. Across the river to the south, and just above Big Daddy’s bathhouse on the corner of 7th and Hennepin there was a record store, I believe it was called Music City at the time. Though I’d shop other record stores for imports, or soul music, Music City was where I bought most of my 12-inch singles. I was there shopping one day, and heard a song I never heard before. Over the disco beat you heard a spoken intro “Gotta match?” The pick-up line that followed was 100% absurd, and 100% riveting. I was familiar with the Billboard Disco Action chart, since I had just perused it at Schinders. I quickly identified it as the song that was rocketing towards the top.
“Dance (Disco Heat) was the A-side, and an obvious one at that. Filled with peaks and acapella breaks. Sylvester is almost the straight man to the exhortations of Martha and Izora, using his lower register to implore you to “Come on and dance.” The breaks are where the song breaks free, whether it is the simple drumbeats, the high screams, someone exhorting “GET ON YOUR FEET AND DANCE TO THE BEAT AND DANCE” or Patrick Cowley’s synth squiggles. One of my favorite touches is how close the vocal interaction gets to Lieber and Stoller territory. It’s as if The Coasters did Disco.
Hearing the A-side was enough for me to plunk down the cash for the 12-inch and rush home. There, I put on the B-side. Now I want to tell you it was an epiphany, but it wasn’t at the time. The B-side “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” draws the gospel falsetto from Sylvester’s voice. In an era of producer driven acts, I wasn’t aware that the same man singing the lead on the A-side was the Diva bringing the drama on the B-side. I just assumed the producer had used two different singers on the single.
But some songs aren’t obvious the first time. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” grew on me. First it was the synth of Patrick Cowley drawing me in. The after reading about Sylvester, I realized he was the Diva as well as the soul singer. Unlike some of you, I have no aversion to falsetto. Coming from a family brought up on The Four Seasons, and later The Stylistics, I had developed a true love for falsetto. Sylvester’s falsetto is expressive, warm and dynamic, possibly the most emotive falsetto in popular music outside of Russell Thompkins Jr. of The Stylistics.
On “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” that falsetto tackles one of the biggest lyrical clichés, the feel/real rhyme. That rhyme is overused, and often is taken to an absurd height by being “really real” instead of just real. “Mighty Real” becomes really real to me when Sylvester growls the word Mighty in that expressive, powerful falsetto. Likewise Maupin’s characters became really real over the course of his books, allowing me to enter their lives on 28 Barbary Lane.
But what was real to Sylvester, or Mary Ann for that matter? Sylvester was gender non-conforming on stage and off, and even on two sides of one 12-inch single. Sylvester was the R&B singer in “Dance (Disco Heat)” and the falsetto Diva of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Mary Ann was a fictional character, but her best friend and the Maupin’s alter-ego Mouse, helped Armistead Maupin come out of his personal and professional closet. Both works gave me hope while I was closeted then helped me light the way out of my own closet.
I’m a bad gay, and have never been to San Francisco, but the first time I go there, I will honor Armistead and Sylvester, by listening to “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” while searching for the fictional address of 28 Barbary Lane. It may not exist, but to me it’s “Mighty Real”, maybe even really real.
“Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” are both 10/10, the best two sided hit in the history of Disco, and ranked 4th on my list of Disco charted songs that hit Number One on one of the three major Billboard Charts of the 70s.
“Tales of the City” is a 10/10 and my favorite fictional series of all time. Though at sometimes I wonder if it is all that fictional since Armistead brought them to life in my mind.