R&B, Blues, Soul & Stax

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Out Before His Time

24 FEB 09 DAVID NATHAN

With the exception of Johnny Mathis and Carl Bean, Sylvester has the dubious distinction of being the only openly gay black male artist of the '70s. That's pretty amazing but if you check, you'll notice that few other black men or women in music have come out since.

While Sylvester's honesty didn't result in across-the-board mainstream sales for the San Francisco-based performer, Sylvester -- who had no shame in his game and often appeared in full or semi-drag on shows nationwide -- was very much a pioneer, seen on national television and achieving a level of chart success in the R&B world that surprised many.

His 1978 Step II album reached No. 7 on the black music charts and the LP's biggest single, "Dance (Disco Heat)" made the Top 5 on the R&B singles listings. Today in our post-Will & Grace era, few would blink twice at Sylvester's open' stance but back in the '70s, it wasn't an easy road for the Fantasy recording artist with a penchant for recording relatively obscure songs ("I Took My Strength From You," "Change Up," "Sharing Something Perfect") first recorded by female artists.

The Oscar-winning movie Milk includes Sylvester's classic "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real" (video) and rightfully so. For gay men and lesbian women of the time, Sylvester's fearless stepping out meant a whole lot. Would be nice if the gay rappers and lesbian pop and soul singers took a page out of his book and demonstrated their own fearlessness in this new age of change.