Sylvester and the Gospel Impulse
Remembering 3 of the soul and disco icon's gospel-inspired moments.
First, as always, thank you for the incredible response to my essay on Russ Taff’s Medals and my conversation with his collaborator & spouse, Tori. Hearing from so many of you who had vivid memories and a continued attachment to that album was really affirming. I’m working on the next CCM-related feature which will focus on Pam Mark Hall’s last major label release, 1986’s Keeper (produced by Wendy Waldman).
This past week I had the joy of talking with Jason King, the host and one of the producers behind the incredible new Spotify documentary podcast on the life of the fabulous Sylvester. You can read the outcome of my conversation with Jason and Sylvester’s biographer, Joshua Gamson, about the podcast here.
I’ve always felt that Sylvester belonged in the middle of the gospel story. He was a child prodigy in the Los Angeles gospel community, but from the time he became an entertainer as a young adult until the end of his life, he operated from that gospel impulse, and remained connected to the gospel tradition. Here’s a clip from last year’s PBS-produced documentary, The Black Church, where Bishop Yvette Flunder puts Sylvester in the conversation.
I wanted to highlight a few tunes from Sylvester’s body of work that highlight this connection.
1. “I’ll Dance To That” from Sell My Soul (1980)
Riding the crest of his two 1979 releases: the live masterpiece, Living Proof, and the experimental Stars, Sylvester decided to venture to New York to record a portion of his next project. He called Ella Mitchell of the Gospel All-Stars and she and her daughter Cookie joined Syl on a few tracks. He also called Carl Hall (formerly of the Raymond Rasberry Singers) and Delores Hall (no relation) to join him on a few others. He called Bennie Diggs of the New York Community Choir and commissioned a composition. The result was this overlooked gem, written by Bennie, Arthur Freeman and Joseph Joubert. Diggs, Freeman and Lady Tibba Gamble (also from the New York Community Choir, mother of Coko from SWV) came to the studio and provided background vocals. Gamble told me, “Sylvester asked me if I would travel with him. I said, ‘Oh no! I can’t do that!’ He was just a wonderful person, loved his personality—but I was a church lady and I couldn’t go on the road with him!”
2. “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done” from Call Me (1983)
Somewhere around 1982, Daryl Coley, known at that juncture in the Bay Area for his New Generation Singers and as a musician and singer at Love Center in Oakland, began working with Sylvester (also a Love Center member), eventually becoming his musical director. Daryl would be responsible for the arrangement of Sylvester’s unforgettable take on “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls (which featured Lynette Hawkins, Martha Wash and Jeanie Tracy on background vocals and Daryl on piano) and can be heard prominently on the background vocals throughout Sylvester’s All I Need and Call Me albums.
On this reading of the gospel standard “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done,” Sylvester gives us an early reading of Daryl’s arrangement (with Daryl on piano) that would be expanded on Edwin Hawkins’ 1984 album, Angels Will Be Singing. (This would also be a good moment to direct everyone to Sylvester’s 1986 cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” which featured Lynette Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins and Jeanie Tracy on background vocals.)
3. “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” live on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert (1978)
The last side (if you’re listening to vinyl!) of the live portion of Sylvester’s live album, Living Proof, is a twenty minute tour de force that displays just how congruent disco and gospel were (His live take on “Dance (Disco Heat)” includes a Holy Ghost-filled piano solo from the song’s co-writer, Eric Robinson—another gospel prodigy with credits that range from James Cleveland to the Temptations). Syl exacerbates the gospel fire that the studio versions of both “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” already had on full display. “This is Sunday night, ya’ll,” he tells the audience and proceeds to show them just how the Palm Lake Church of God In Christ of his childhood might have carried on.
He closes the live show with the slowed down chorus of “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” that we got a bit of on Step II. In this live performance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1978 we get to actually see him perform this in living color, with Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, trading moans, squalls and all manner of churchy goodness. Their voices join in the most luscious harmony you’ve ever heard.