Sylvester, “Private Recordings, August 1970”
By Niko Stratis · September 06, 2023
San Francisco, California
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San Francisco, California
✓ following
Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

An intimacy greets you in the opening seconds of Private Recordings, August 1970, a collection of previously unheard recordings from the iconic Queen Of Disco, Sylvester: intimacy not as physical desire, but the intimacy of invitation, the intimacy of belonging, of understanding. It’s an unheard but integral side of the “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” singer’s legacy. Disco is, after all, rooted in tradition, taking notes and chords from jazz and tracing lines back through R&B and into the blues. Genres born of Black performers, private clubs, and party scenes that pushed the relationship between stage and dance floor. 

The nine songs here were recorded in an afternoon in 1970, with a musician living in a commune of people enamored with the wonders of times past named Peter Mintun. A highly-sought player, Mintun was the pianist for San Francisco psychedelic art troupe the Cockettes, the rare professional in a lavish and wonderfully chaotic group of hippies and drag performers. The Cockettes counted among its number a young Sylvester, a then-unknown talent with a background in party scenes built of Black trans women and drag performers wielding a dazzling falsetto that swiftly made him stand out. Sylvester displayed his love of icons like Billie Holiday by learning to lovingly imitate their voices for drag performances, he and Mintun showcased their shared love of jazz and blues in solo scenes that stood in contrast to the whirlwind of Cockettes performances.    

It is fitting that the warmth of the album’s opening emanates from Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” one of the standards Sylvester would arrange and perform in their scenes together. Sylvester’s soft falsetto floats through the song, dancing on the rhythm of Mintun’s piano. Voice and piano bonded in unannounced steps, when the melody slows they do so together, when Sylvester’s voice softens so do the keys. The unseen hands drawing music in the air, the trust between two performers who thrill to the whims of the other, the snapping of fingers and the soft tapping of feet an audible rhythm creating time for both to keep. 

The rare appearance of Cockettes singer John Rothemel adds the spontaneity of the stage when the mood of the room calls for it. On “Indian Love Call,” Sylvester tells Rothemel he would love to do a duet, asks if he knows the Hammerstein number, and together with Mintun all three find the song together, building it slowly until it shatters with a shared love and understanding of its tenor. 

Throughout Private Recordings, Sylvester’s voice is tender, playful and vibrant, urged on by Mintun’s mastery of the piano. At once possessed with an urgent longing and others campy and playful, the breadth of Sylvester and Mintun’s love of these songs is the guide through this collection. “Viper’s Drag” begins without need for a name, just the recollection of a melody, Sylvester singing wordless chords and Mintun knowingly falling in step. The unfiltered beauty of a live recording caught on a floor in a moment in time, the record highlights two performers playing for each other with a reverence owed to the songs; each with a different flavor, a twist of the voice or a new bounce to the piano. In the closing number, “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” Sylvester and Muntin work out the rhythm between them. Over a minute and ten seconds Mintun picks at ivory notes, Sylvester playfully sings the memory of its melody, they recall the roots and history of where it came from and then the tape ends, a rehearsal that has wrapped in favor of the stage. 

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