Bigger Than Disco, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ Is A Celebration Of Self
Enlarge this image Sylvester performs with his band at the Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go in 1972. Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Sylvester performs with his band at the Los Angeles club Whisky a Go Go in 1972.
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem .
Dick Clark couldn’t get his American Bandstand crowd to stop cheering. It was early December, 1978, around the peak of disco’s popularity — and Clark’s studio audience had just heard Sylvester and his backup singers, Two Tons O’ Fun, perform their first hit, ” Dance (Disco Heat) “.
After Clark got the crowd to pipe down and conducted an awkward interview , the gender-bending singer — wearing makeup, a loose kimono and leather pants — performed his follow-up single. The song, ” You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) ,” hit the top of Billboard’s dance chart that year. Forty years later, its greater legacy is as an LGBTQ anthem .
YouTube “It’s a song of freedom,” says Joshua Gamson , Sylvester’s biographer. In his book The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco , Gamson makes the case that the artist became a kind of folk hero for many young LGBTQ people, because his life was theirs.
“You’ve come out of the closet. It’s been difficult,” he says. “Many people [at the time] have moved out of their homes of origin, their families of origin, with great pain, and moved to a more liberated place, like San Francisco. And then … this person comes out into public life that sounds like what you were feeling when you made yourself free.
“For him to be celebrated for all of his strangeness and all of the ways he inhabited who he wanted to be — who he felt himself to be — felt like you being celebrated for that.”
And it wasn’t just how Sylvester looked and sounded. The song’s lyrics openly celebrated that liberation:
When we’re out there dancing on the floor, darlin’
And I feel like I need some more
And I feel your body close to mine
And I know, my love, it’s about that time
Make me feel mighty real
“You’ve got the words of a person who is just matter-of-fact about their sexual desires, about the freedom to do with their bodies and their desires whatever they want to do,” Gamson says. “And you can dance to it!”
YouTube Sylvester James grew up singing in a Pentecostal church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a devout member of the church and couldn’t accept the early signs of her son’s sexuality.
“When I was little, I used to dress up, right? And my mother said, ‘You can’t dress up,’ ” Sylvester told Joan Rivers when he appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986 . ” ‘You gotta wear these pants and these shoes. And you have to, like, drink beer and play football.’ And I said, ‘No I don’t!’ And she said, ‘You’re very strange.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK!’ “
“The [Pentecostal] church was oppressive,” says singer Jeanie Tracy, who shared Sylvester’s religious background and became his friend and collaborator. “They just didn’t tolerate gayness. They didn’t tolerate a lot of things. They didn’t allow you to wear makeup. You couldn’t wear toeless shoes or sleeveless dresses. It was just real … controlled.”
Too much so for Sylvester. At 13, he left the church. Two years later, he left home. He lived with friends and his grandmother, who accepted him as he was.
In his early 20s, Sylvester moved to San Francisco to join an avant-garde theatre troupe called The Cockettes , whose fans included Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt. But he left the group soon after — to front his own act. Jeanie Tracy remembers being introduced to him by friends in the music industry.
Music Reviews Sylvester: ‘Mighty Real’ Disco Star Deserves A Modern Spotlight “They said, ‘Oh, Jeanie, this is Sylvester,'” she says. “And I said, ‘Sylvester? I thought you were a woman.’ And then I said, ‘Oops! I’m sorry!’ He goes, ‘Oh, no, girl, that’s okay!'”
When guitarist and songwriter James Wirrick saw the singer for the first time, Sylvester was backed by a tight three-piece band and flanked by two drag queens — “in full drag, with full neck-beards,” he laughs.
Wirrick became Sylvester’s bandmate and collaborator a few months later. By then, the drag queens had been replaced by backup singers Izora Rhodes and Martha Wash, aka Two Tons O’ Fun. (They went on to record another anthem — “It’s Raining Men” — as The Weather Girls.) Wirrick and Sylvester wrote “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” together. Getting the rest of the band on board was a challenge.
“At first the band didn’t wanna play it as a dance tune,” Wirrick says. “They were kinda snotty about it. ‘We don’t really wanna do that,’ y’know? And Sylvester and I kept saying, ‘No, you have to do that because that’s what’s on the radio.’ “
Enlarge this image Sylvester strikes a pose, circa 1975. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Sylvester strikes a pose, circa 1975.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images More than on the radio, the song was a huge it in discos — and its falsetto vocals, four-on-the-floor beat and bouncing synthesizer influenced generations of electronic dance music producers to follow. Eleven years after the original came out, vocalist Jimmy Sommerville of the British band Bronski Beat paid tribute with a cover . The following decade, Chicago House vocalist Byron Stingily’s version once again took the song to the top of the U.S. dance chart.
The song also went on to become the centerpiece of a 2014 off-Broadway musical that tells Sylvester’s life story. It’s appeared in ads, films, and TV shows. So far this year, James Wirrick says he’s gotten eight requests for permission to use the song he co-wrote: a video game, three television commercials, three movies and an episode of The Simpsons .
Sylvester never had a mainstream hit after “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. A year after it came out, Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl made “Disco sucks!” a rallying cry with his “Disco Demolition” promotion between the games of a White Sox doubleheader ; the ensuing melee forced the Sox to forfeit the second game.
Joshua Gamson says the event was a reaction by straight white fans of classic rock against a music that they saw as too black and too queer — and that that backlash is partly why he missed the anthem’s power when it first came out.
“In a way, if I had felt that earlier, I’d have come out earlier,” he says. “Embracing who you are, celebrating who you are, being as fabulous as you could possibly be, I think that’s the message that he’s preaching in the song. And I could’ve used a dose of that as a teenager.”
But Sylvester remained popular among dance music fans, and he leveraged that popularity to raise AIDS awareness. He played benefit shows and distributed safe-sex information to his audiences. When he appeared on The Tonight Show , he thanked Joan Rivers and guest Charles Nelson Reilly for their early support of what was becoming a movement. “I was there trying to do whatever we could at the time to get it together. And now it’s like a national thing to do,” Sylvester said. “I want to thank you myself.”
American Anthem ‘Like A Virgin’ Lives On, A Winking Anthem For Women Getting Married American Anthem Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’ Less than 10 years after “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” came out, Sylvester’s husband died of complications from AIDS. The singer was never tested for HIV — he told friends there was no point, because he knew he had the virus. Within a few months, his own health was deteriorating. But, Jeanie Tracy says, his senses of style and humor stayed intact, even as he was planning his own funeral. “He looked at me and he says, ‘I wanna be buried in a pearl-colored casket,’ ” she recalls. ” ‘Don’t bury me in a white casket, ’cause I don’t wanna look like I’m lyin’ in a white refrigerator!'”
A few months before he died, Sylvester appeared in the 1988 gay pride parade in San Francisco. He was emaciated and weak and rode in a wheelchair. But he didn’t want to hide, Gamson says — he wanted the crowds along Castro Street to see him.
“It was part of the same almost philosophy of realness — like, this, this is being real,” Gamson says. “This is mighty real, to be marching in the Gay Freedom parade looking, like, 40 years older than you are. And people, knowing that they’ve seen this icon of their freedom, they see him [as] a symbol of the devastation that AIDS took on the community.”
Sylvester made sure to champion that community even after he died. In his will, he left his share of future royalties for “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” to two San Francisco nonprofits: the AIDS Emergency Fund and the meals program Project Open Hand .
Tom Cole contributed to the radio version of this story.
Limo crash victims: Sisters, a teacher and newlyweds among 20 killed in crash in Schoharie, New York
SCHOHARIE, N.Y. — A weightlifter with a heart of gold, a teacher who wanted better lives for her students, and newlyweds who held the world in their hands are among the 20 people who died in Saturday’s limousine crash in upstate New York .
Seventeen of those who died had gathered for Amy Steenburg’s 30th birthday and were headed to a brewery in Cooperstown, CBS News’ Tony Dokoupil reports. In the vehicle with Steenburg were her husband of four months, her three sisters and two of their husbands, and her brother-in-law. Also in the group were newlyweds Erin and Shane McGowan.
A vigil was held for all the victims Monday night in Amsterdam, New York, about 15 miles north of the crash site. Thousands of people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a park. Candlelight illuminated a sea of solemn faces.
“I have never felt this kind of pain”: Families mourn victims of horrific limo crash
At least six children lost at least one, or both, of their parents in the crash.
What is known about the victims who have been identified so far:
Amy and Axel Steenburg Amy and Axel married in June and traveled extensively in recent months, according to their Facebook pages. The couple lived in Amsterdam with their dog.
Amy, a nurse, was one of the four sisters killed the crash. In her final Facebook post, Amy wrote that loved her husband “more than words can say.”
“You are such an amazing man and entertain all my crazy ideas,” she wrote. “Even when I move a couch just to move it back to the original place.”
Rich Steenburg Steenburg worked for GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor and manufacturing company. He died along with his brother, Axel.
The New York Times reported that he was survived by a 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson.
“The entire GF community is extremely saddened by this incident and we are working closely with the families to provide comprehensive support,” Laura Kelly, the company’s vice president of global communications, said in a statement.
Matthew Coons and Savannah Bursese Coons, of Johnstown, was a weightlifting aficionado described by relatives as a gentleman with a dry wit.
“He had a huge heart, a golden heart,” said his aunt, Suzanne Douglass. “He made you laugh so hard until you cried.”
Coons lived with Bursese, his girlfriend, and a sister who has two daughters, his nieces.
“He will be sorely missed by his sister and her children,” Douglass said. “He made their life very joyful with his very sweet disposition. He also financially supported the household and was also a father figure to his much younger brother.”
Amanda Halse and Patrick Cushing Halse, 26, a waitress in Watervliet, was in the limousine with Cushing, her boyfriend, who worked in the technology office of New York’s Senate.
In this undated photo provided by Karina Halse, her sister Amanda Halse and boyfriend Patrick Cushing pose for a photo. The two were killed when a limousine they were riding in crashed Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Schoharie, N.Y.
Courtesy of Karina Halse via AP Senate Leader John Flanagan described Cushing Monday as an “extraordinary” employee and “wonderful young man.”
Known as “Cush,” Cushing also played for Team USA Dodgeball. “Cushing’s unconditional kindness and ability to make friends of his fiercest competitors made him the consummate sportsman all dodgeballers strive to be,” his team wrote in a Facebook post.
Halse’s sister, Karina, who visited the crash site Monday, said Cushing and Halse were like “two peas in a pod.”
“My sister was a very strong and independent person,” Karina Halse said. “She didn’t like it when other people did things for her. She would be the one to initiate things.”
“I feel like my heart is sunken. It’s in a place where I’ve never felt this type of pain before,” Karina Halse said. The sisters had been texting on Saturday as Amanda Halse got into the limo to head to the birthday party. Before Amanda Halse received her sister’s reply, she died in the crash.
Mary and Rob Dyson Mary Dyson died in Saturday’s crash along with her husband, Rob. She was one of the four sisters killed.
The Dysons lived in Watertown, New York, where Mary worked as an engineer and a coach at Star Spangled Crossfit, which dedicated a workout to her on Monday.
An Army veteran, Mary Dyson worked for Upstate Construction Services and was vice president of Theta Phi Alpha sorority when she was a student at Clarkson University, according to WWNY-TV.
Abigail and Adam Jackson The Jacksons left behind two daughters, Archer and Elle, ages 4 and 1. Abby Jackson, as she was known, worked as a teacher in the Greater Amsterdam School District, said her aunt, Barbara Douglas, of Dannemora.
She became a teacher because she loved working with children, Rich Peters, president of the Amsterdam Teachers Association, told the Times Union. “She wanted to help them better their lives,” he said.
Adam Jackson worked as a deputy commissioner at the Montgomery County Board of Elections, according to his Facebook page. Abigail was among the four sisters killed.
Allison King King was killed in the crash along with her three sisters. A Facebook fundraiser created for her parents, Tom and Linda King, had raised more than $132,000 as of Monday evening.
Erin and Shane McGowan Erin, 34, and Shane, 30, were married in June in upstate New York. Erin McGowan worked as an administrative assistant at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam.
She had been thinking of going back to school to become a billing administrator, said her aunt, Valerie Abeling.
“They had everything going for them,” Abeling said. “She was a beautiful, sweet soul. He was, too. They were very sweet.”
“They were two very young, beautiful people,” said Abeling. “Everybody involved, it was horrific thing. Our lives have been changed forever.”
“You’re always hoping you find the love of your life, it’s what you hope and wish and dream for, and they found each other,” Erin McGowan’s uncle Anthony Vertucci told the Times Union. “They had big plans.”
Amanda Rivenburg Amanda Rivenburg was close to her parents and remembered by friends and coworkers for her sense of humor. She worked for seven years for Living Resources, a New York nonprofit that works with people who have disabilities, serving as assistant director of the organization’s day community opportunities program.
Her colleagues came together at work on Monday to share stories about Rivenburg, a gathering that led to both tears and laughter.
“Amanda was loved by all of her coworkers,” said Steve Klein, associate executive director of program services at the company. “She was passionate about her work and everyone relied on her for guidance.”
Scott Lisinicchia Friends and family members identified Lisinicchia as the driver of the limousine on social media. His wife, Kim, posted on Facebook that “it hurts me to a core to have to bury my husband.” She linked to a GoFundMe that said Lisinicchia’s family “appreciates the love and support to help with his unexpected final expenses.”
“The investigation is STILL going on and the facts are not verified,” his niece, Courtney Lisinicchia, wrote on Facebook.
Brian Hough Hough, a 46-year-old assistant professor of geology at the State University of New York at Oswego, was a pedestrian killed in the crash, according Facebook posts by relatives and media reports. SUNY Oswego officials said Monday that Hough died in an accident Saturday but didn’t say how he died.
The college’s statement said he arrived on campus in 2016 as a visiting professor. SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley called Hough “a dedicated faculty member who inspired his students to learn and understand at a deep level, and whose contributions were often sought by his colleagues.”
Hough is survived by his wife and their 8-year-old son, said Arta Hough, who lost a son to cancer four years ago. She described Brian as a “great father, great son.”
“He loved teaching, he loved working with students,” she said.
Rachael Cavosie and Michael Ukaj were also among the victims.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Anger management: Outraged liberal pundits declaring war after Kavanaugh
‘MediaBuzz’ host Howard Kurtz weighs in on liberal pundits calling for voters to be angry leading up to the midterms because Brett Kavanaugh has been sworn in to the Supreme Court. The left is really, really angry after the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Or perhaps I should say that some liberal pundits are mad as hell. And that’s leading them to make some stunning declarations as they try to harness that anger—or maybe just engage in very public group therapy.
Now anger has always been a tool in American politics. It’s a way of whipping up your base and energizing your voters. President Trump regularly tries to rouse his most loyal supporters by playing to their grievances and hitting hot-button cultural issues. (Just yesterday, he accused Democrats of “torturing” Kavanaugh and his family through a “hoax” with “fabricated” charges.)
But there was a dramatically different reaction in the left-leaning media establishment when anger on the right began fueling the Tea Party movement after Barack Obama’s election. I never particularly liked the “take back our country” rhetoric — take it back from what? — but many mainstream pundits were too quick to dismiss the movement as a bunch of racist yahoos.
Now, in the Trump era, anger is in . It’s trending. There’s a resistance movement.
There was, to be sure, plenty of ugliness on both sides of the Supreme Court battle. Ariel Dumas, a writer for Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show,” tweeted that “no matter what happens, I’m just glad we ruined Brett Kavanaugh’s life.” (She later expressed regret for her “tone-deaf attempt at sarcasm,” but I don’t see a hint of humor.)
Anyone flipping through the major papers yesterday would have seen these op-ed headlines:
“Liberals, This Is War”— Charles Blow, New York Times.
“Get Angry, and Get Involved”— David Leonhardt, New York Times.
“We Need to Stay Angry on Kavanaugh”— E.J. Dionne, Washington Post.
I’m sensing a pattern here.
Let’s start with Blow , who’s already written that he wants to hate Donald Trump. The Kavanaugh confirmation, he says, is part “of a much larger plan by conservatives to fundamentally change the American political structure so that it enshrines and protects white male power even after America’s changing demographics and mores move away from that power.”
Blow writes that “liberals can get so high-minded that they lose sight of the ground war,” and in case folks aren’t grabbing their bayonets, says that “Kavanaugh is only one soldier, albeit an important one, in a larger battle. Stop thinking you’re in a skirmish, when you’re at war.”
Leonhardt begins his piece with this declaration: “If you’re not angry yet, you should be.”
Leaving aside that people don’t like to be told how they should feel, he says that after a “brutal, partisan process … the two new justices have cemented an extremist Republican majority on the Supreme Court. It has already begun acting as a kind of super-legislature, throwing out laws on voting rights, worker rights, consumer rights and political influence buying. Now, the court is poised to do much more to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of most Americans — and the planet. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.”
Actually, it’s exactly how democracy is supposed to work.
Trump won the election (by fewer popular votes, Leonhardt complains, but that’s the system set up by the Constitution). The Senate confirmed his choice (yes, on a razor-thin partisan vote, but that’s also how ObamaCare passed).
“Again, if you’re not angry, you should be, and I realize that many of you already are. The past two weeks, on top of everything that came before, have created a sense of frustration and injustice that I have never seen before from people on the left and in the center. The question now is, What are you going to do with that anger?”
Then he makes the perfectly rational suggestion that they get involved: Turn out in the midterms, prod family and friends, knock on doors. That, too, is how democracy is supposed to work. If you want your side to wield power, you have to win elections.
Dionne is a smart and sophisticated observer, and an old colleague, so I’m surprised by the language he uses: “Conservative forces in the country, led by the Republican Party, have completed a judicial coup, decades in the making.”
A coup? I get that conservatives have been targeting the court for decades, and I get that the GOP was ruthless in denying Merrick Garland a vote. But that doesn’t rise to even metaphorical coup status.
“After all these outrages, there will be calls for a renewal of civility, as if the problem is that people said nasty things about one other. But the answer to this power grab cannot be passive acceptance in the name of being polite.”
Then comes the zinger: E.J. wants to pack the court .
“And there should now be no squeamishness about the urgency of enlarging the Supreme Court if Democrats have the power to do so after the 2020 elections. The current majority on the court was created through illegitimate means. Changing that majority would not constitute politicizing the court because conservatives have already done this without apology.”
Sure, he acknowledges that FDR’s court-packing scheme was a disaster, but says the opposition can be overcome with a two-year debate.
Doesn’t this sound like changing the rules after losing the game?
The country has just been through a raw and incendiary battle that opened wounds about the treatment of alleged sexual assault. Emotions are still running high. But all this talk of anger and wars and coups seems jarringly out of place for those who usually preach the virtues of rational debate and discourse. Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of ” MediaBuzz ” (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author “Media Madness: Donald Trump, The Press and the War Over the Truth.” Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. Trending in Politics