The first recordings of a San Francisco music legend have been discovered

Sylvester poses for a photo featured in a booklet accompanying the issue of Private Records: August 1970.

By Peter Mint

A crowd of 50 Bay Area music fans sat in silence at the intimate Secret Alley event space in the Mission as the needle dropped on a vinyl record.

Hosted by internet radio station BFF.FM and reissue label Dark Entries, the listening party began with a delicate piano melody filling the air, followed by the voice of one of the most recognizable singers in San Francisco music history: Sylvester.

But he wasn’t singing a disco classic like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Instead, Sylvester’s falsetto was at its most delicate, bringing out the Billie Holiday standard “God Bless the Child.”

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Sylvester was the standard bearer of San Francisco disco in the 1970s and 1980s. His songs, such as “Over and Over,” are still reverberating in Bay Area dance clubs. “Private Recordings: August 1970” is a collection of his first musical output and shows a softer, more traditional side of the singer. As the name suggests, these songs are not intended for commercial distribution. They were recorded with just one microphone at a rehearsal in the Menlo Park home of pianist Peter Mintun, who performed with the Cockettes theater group. The two met at the Palace Theater in North Beach and bonded over their love of gospel and early 20th century jazz standards like “Carioca” and “Big City Blues.” At the time, Sylvester was 22 years old and Mintun was 20.

“While I was on stage one afternoon playing the piano, this black guy sat down next to me, but I didn’t know he was one at the time because of the way people were dressing. He was kind of androgynous. … Of course, a lot of it had to do with the fact that he was singing in a higher register,” Mintun said.

Photo of Sylvester with warm-up singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead, who were called Two Tons O' Fun before they became the Weather Girls.

Photo of Sylvester with warm-up singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead, who were called Two Tons O’ Fun before they became the Weather Girls.

Max Redfern/Redferns

After Sylvester went disco, his androgynous looks and skilled falsetto made him an ideal opening act for David Bowie at the Winterland Ballroom just two years later, when Bowie would give him the final approval: “[San Franciscans] they don’t need me, they have Sylvester.

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Mintun’s house in Menlo Park was something of a museum, filled with vintage films and movies, with cars from the 1920s and 1930s parked in the driveway. Sylvester came to visit and they set up a reel-to-reel recorder next to the piano.

“We were just wandering around. You can even hear on one of those recordings that one of my roommates is in the kitchen singing along,” Mintun said. Sylvester himself plays the piano on several of the recordings, his wooden bracelets audibly ringing against the ivory.

For years Mintun kept the tapes to himself, occasionally playing them to friends. He would stop playing with Sylvester soon after, but went on to have a long musical career, playing the piano at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. In 2001, he moved to New York for a seven-year residency at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel.

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Photographs of Sylvester featured in the booklet accompanying Personal Records: August 1970.By Peter Mint

Mintun eventually posted the tracks on Soundcloud, where they were found by Josh Cheon, a local DJ who runs the reissue label and record store Dark Entries. Cheon, co-founder of the DJ group Honey Soundsystem, moved to San Francisco from New York in 2006 and fell in love with San Francisco’s classic disco sounds.

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“Just like a bay, there’s a magnetism to the past, the music that came before. You are on the street and you are in the clubs and spaces inhabited by Sylvester and [his producer] Patrick Cowley,” Cheon said.

Cheon began reissuing Cowley’s music on his Dark Entries label, starting with a collection of soundtracks he wrote for pornographic films (“School Daze”), followed by five full-length albums that ranged from futuristic funk to dark ambient sounds landscapes.

“Private Recordings” is an outlier for the label, which is known for digging up forgotten goth classics as well as newer local darkcave acts like Loveshadow. But those jazz and gospel standards appealed to Chon, bringing him back to some of his favorite music from his teenage years, like “Stormy Weather.”

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“I grew up listening to Billie Holiday all the time,” Cheon said. “I was a very dark teenager, my mother always made me turn off the tape in the car. My mother would ask, “Why are you listening to this depressing music?”

Sylvester poses for a photo featured in a booklet accompanying the issue of Private Records: August 1970.

Sylvester poses for a photo featured in a booklet accompanying the issue of Private Records: August 1970.

By Peter Mint

The album is accompanied by a 16-page booklet of photographs that Mintun took while driving around San Francisco in his father’s 1936 automobile with Sylvester. The singer wears a long dress and poses demurely in front of iconic buildings like the Pacific-Union Club on Nob Hill. The campy imagery serves as a loving complement to the music. There are moments of tedium on the album, but the songs feel like a joyous celebration of a bygone era. Although the songs couldn’t be further from his disco hits, Sylvester’s unique personality shines through, showing the same flair for theatrics that he would later bring to the dance clubs.

“Sylvester was watching the old movies and thinking, ‘Wow, it would be so glamorous to be on stage with a microphone,’ maybe with a gardenia in my hair and singing a blues song like ‘Stormy Weather,’ Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald — with me playing the piano like in the old movies, wearing a tuxedo,” Mintun said. “We were kind of living out this fantasy.”

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