Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Leaving A Legacy: The Fabulous Sylvester

Note: This story first appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.  It was published 04/15/2010 by Matthew S. Bajko.  Below are parts of the story...please see the link at the end of this post to read the entire story.

"Twenty-one years after the death of Sylvester James, a flamboyant and openly gay disco superstar from San Francisco, his music is now profiting two local agencies that serve people living with HIV and AIDS.
James died December 16, 1988 at the age of 41 from complications due to AIDS. But it wasn't until last week [April 2010] that the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand split a check from the drag performer's estate totaling nearly $140,000.

The tale begins in May 1988 with the recording artist, known simply as Sylvester, bequeathing the royalties from his music, which included the international hits "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)," to AEF and Rita Rockett's food program at San Francisco General Hospital's Ward 86 for AIDS patients. 

Beginning in the late 1990's Sylvester's royalty checks had paid off what the singer owed and the rest of the earnings had been placed in an account.  But the record company had no idea where to send the money. It wasn't until the start of the new millennium, when Joshua Gamson began research on the singer for his biography The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco , that attention was renewed on the fiscal standing of Sylvester's estate.  "I know I got a call from Gamson ... he wanted to interview me about Sylvester and his death. Then he said to me, 'Were you aware there are some royalties being collected?' I wasn't aware of that," said Gross.

Even if they had located a will and the beneficiaries of Sylvester's songbook, there was another problem. Rockett had eventually moved away from San Francisco and ended her programs at the hospital. So in 2005, at the direction of the Elites, Gross began researching where the money should now go. He petitioned the probate court to designate Project Open Hand as a beneficiary of Sylvester's will since it distributes food to people living with AIDS and HIV, similar to the work Rockett had done.  The whole time, said Gross, "The royalties continued to accrue." For tax purposes, he said, "We did not want to close those accounts until we were ready to make distributions."

The advent of iTunes helped introduce Sylvester's music to a new generation and the online sales of his songs brought in cash to the estate. Notice in the video above that those innovative lighted steps look an awful lot like those that Michael Jackson traveled up in his 1982 Billie Jean video?--well,so have others.  Hollywood also continued to option his songs, most famously for a scene in the Oscar-winning Milk that depicted Sylvester performing at a birthday party for openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. The two were friends and Sylvester was a regular performer at Milk's annual Castro Street fairs.

""Sylvester would say it was fabulous and he would go have a great time. Given the situation – he isn't among us – he would be really pleased his idea worked," said Belmont. 'It is very unusual for artists or writers to give the entirety of their estate to organizations that really need it.'"

For more updated information on this star, please click here


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