Friday, January 14, 2011

Take Me to Heaven

The great disco-era singer Sylvester has faded into the past, hopefully buried with his own “band of gold,” to quote the famous Freyda Payne song. Sylvester prefigured RuPaul, the transvestite singer who was popular in the early ‘90s, but he wasn’t ostentatious in the way of Rick James, who was the Caravaggio of disco performers, singing about a violent world and eventually ending up in prison himself. Sylvester’s music was filled with the urgency and cadences of the gospel world out of which he emerged. The lyrics reflected the sexual promiscuity of the permissive San Francisco club scene where he earned his stripes, but like much of soul music, with its big band sound, Sylvester’s crescendos simply turned the love of God to man. R&B, soul and disco of the kind that Sylvester sang are fundamentally romantic idioms, and this differentiates them from the first rap artists like the Sugar Hill Gang, who started to appear in the later years of Sylvester’s career, and who presented a gritty urban realism. “Do You Want to Funk?” was one of Sylvester’s most famous songs, and the answer, in an age when almost anything went, was usually yes. But one of the greatest numbers in his repertoire is “Take Me to Heaven,” a song that inhabits the crossroads between aspiration and sexuality. Heaven is hopefully where Sylvester landed after he died from AIDS in 1982. 

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