Friday, 29 January 2010

Hidden gem: Mighty Real - Sylvester (Fantasy, 1979)

It is generally accepted that disco is a genre that doesn’t really lend itself to the album format. Like house music, it is music primarily for the dance-floor and as such the ebb and flow of styles which are needed to provide variety in the album format don’t really work when all of the songs are of a similar tempo. Having said that, there are exceptions to every rule and Mighty Real is one such exception. This is actually an album that was pulled together in 1979 by Sylvester’s record company from other albums (Step 2, Stars) to cash in on his success and yet surprisingly it provides a very coherent listen with Sylvester’s rich voice and Patrick Cowley’s futuristic production combining to create a well rounded sound lacking in other records of the era.

Sylvester was one of the first artists not only to admit his homosexuality but actively celebrate it in his work - Many of his songs were overtly camp and sexual and his influence, it could be argued, can be heard in artists as diverse as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Hercules and the Love Affair. He was born somewhere between 1944 and 1948 in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco 1969 joining a cross dressing hippy revue troupe called The Cockettes.They split in 1972 and Sylvester spent next few years doing cabaret shows before securing a record contract with Blue Thumb Records with whom he recorded two albums singing falsetto over rock cover versions. Around the same time he sang backing vocals on Betty Davis’ debut album.

He got swept up in the disco sound on a trip to Europe and released Sylvester in 1977. It contained a version of Ashford and Simpson’s Over and Over which combined the soulful funk sound of the early 70’s with the emerging beat driven sound that was being used by new producers like Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley. The track became a favourite at David Mancuso’s legendary Loft. Sylvester then hooked up with Cowley to record You make me feel (Mighty Real) which although not a big hit had a huge impact on the club scene and set a template for a style that would become known as Hi NRG which would be taken forward by UK DJs like Ian Levine, Ian Stevens and Kev Roberts.

Cowley and Sylvester continued to work together, recording the concept album Stars and ultimately the track Menergy, a key Cowley track which would pre empt both electro and house. The AIDs epidemic in the San Francisco community in the 1980s would end up taking the lives of both Cowley (1982) and Sylvester himself (1988).

Mighty Real captures the pinnacle of Sylvester’s career. It kicks off with a couple of uptempo disco stompers in Stars and Body Strong. Stars in particular capture the whole disco experience ‘ Take a look around, tell me what you see, sisters and brothers, feeling high, feeling free’ brings us to the dancefloor over a fusion of synthesised piano, phased effects and horn bursts. Body Strong is built around a clipped guitar riff and a driving 4/4 beat before giving way to strings. Third track Down Down Down recalls Aretha Franklin’s Rocksteady with a build interspersed with trumpet blasts before the side ends with the timeless and proud Mighty Real.

It is side two however where things get really interesting. It opens with a version of Leiber and Stoller’s I who have nothing before what is the emotional centre of the album I need somebody to love tonight brings to mind dark lonely streets rather than the dance-floor and is more reminiscent ofs ay Vangelis’ Bladerunner soundtrack than it is Chic. Sylvester’s vocal is empty and heartfelt, pleading for a lover who is never going to come while Cowley’s dubby beats create an eerie beauty.

By contrast, next track Over and Over is one of the key disco anthems and offers a playful response before final track Dance (Disco Heat) brings things to a close. As on the rest of the album, the backing vocals from Wash and Izora Rhodes are superb – they would later go on to find fame as the Weather Girls.

Intentional or not, this is a release that takes the listener on a journey through a night on the town - the optimism and excitement of going out, the ecstasy of strutting your stuff on the dancefloor, the disappointment of not picking someone up and the long walk home.

The good news is that it can be picked up for between £5 and £10. An absolute steal. Pick one up, put on your glad rags and dance.

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