Sylvester (1985) Antony Barboza

Do Ya Wanna Funk with the (Mighty Real) Sylvester?

 

Sylvester quote
Sylvester Quote

The seventies had outstanding music: Progressive rock, Glam rock,  Kraut rock with Kraftwerk leading the way, and then Punk rock DIY and New Wave alternative  bands. But the seventies also gave us one of its finest gifts- Disco music- its own kind of radical revolution. This was a new type of fusion of funk, R&B, fast-paced electro-energetic beats and it galvanised the urban working classes to put on their dancing shoes.  It was also openly sexual, immortalising the one-night-stand encountered on the dance floor. This was the era when the DJ really DID save people’s lives.

While the giants of disco were Diana Ross, Donna Summer, the Three Degrees, the O’Jays, Barry White , George McCrae and more, Disco originated first in gay clubs and its undisputed black male king and queen of the late seventies was Sylvester. His music propelled the genre to new levels with hits like ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’(1978) and ‘Do you wanna Funk?’ (1982). He was born on September 6th, 1947. He was a Virgo and to say he was a tad flamboyant is an understatement. He had  Pluto in dramatic Leo and he certainly made an impact that even today’s academics are picking apart Virgo fashion today at conferences on Sylvester’s music. His life was even turned into an off-Broadway musical in 2014. Sylvester was mighty hard to ignore- but the mainstream more or less did that by not acknowledging his major contribution where his sound was widely copied.

He was a DIVA which by the way is defined as Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware by the producer of that same Broadway show. The quote here says it all:  “Sometimes people make us feel strange, but we’re not strange. And those folks will just have to catch up.” He’s telling us that for a Virgo queen, the fault lay in everyone else, not in him, and when we all can switch that perception, we’ll finally get why he was right.  He meant being proud of gender-queer:  one day he would wear men’s clothes, the next day he’d choose women’s, making gender an everyday decision, as he felt inclined. The 21st century can finally salute the pioneer spirit that was Sylvester.

Sylvester
Sylvester in his work clothes

Sylvester did not just suddenly burst on the scene however, but worked his  four Virgo planets hard to get the right formula. He dedicated himself to the perfection of his presentation while others around him got sloppy. Famously he made the stand out performance when he was with the ‘Cockettes’ a hippy drag troupe from San Francisco, and Sylvester channelled Billie Holliday instead and usually stopped the show. He contrasted the bearded hippies by rehearsing and rehearsing over and over and leaving nothing to chance. He radiated confidence in his challenge to the gender norms. He clearly was a man but just with many female qualities too: soft and gentle but with a male panache and loads of energy.  When he shopped for clothes it was in both departments. His great weapon however was a voice that could knock the roof off. But it also had a great range for different genres.

This falsetto voice removes any illusion that the top notes should only belong to women and it was used as a ‘gender-bending’ device and was a force of nature in the ‘black male diva’ tradition. Martha Wash, his backing singer, said she was singing the lower notes to Sylvester’s high notes. He could out-sing anyone and achieved his dreams of singing with Aretha Franklin on her album and being the lead solo artist at the San Francisco opera house.

Sylvester Natal Chart: Solar Fire
Sylvester Natal Chart Solar Fire

So what is so very sun-in-Virgo about him you might be wondering? He seemed quite the opposite of the tidy package of Debbie Downer energy you might expect in Virgo. When he had orange hair he looked more like a Leo with a great mane of flame-like hair. There is not the obvious Virgo here as he would jump about and dance during performances and do the cheer-leader thing, where the emphasis was on the physical.  But the devil is in the detail and in the background he was tirelessly making it all look fantastic and professional. He had a concentration of planets in the 3rd house of communications would back that up. His voice was gospel trained and neatly suggested by Taurus -which rules the throat-being at the top of the chart and Venus ruling the MC. He often performed on acid, some said even his one person show in front of an audience of 3,000 at the Opera House, he remembered every single word and delivered the goods.

Patrick Cowley with Sylvester
Patrick Cowley with Sylvester in the studio

He was outgoing but also retiring and perhaps needing quietness. He used his body a lot in performances. Moving the body is very 3rd house but also perhaps very Virgo. But there was shrewd Virgoan discernment in adding Patrick Cowley to the band. Cowley was born 19th October on the cusp of Libra/Scorpio but died very young before he could really flourish in 1982. Cowley’s innovations made Sylvester’s sound like nothing else before as he added lots of high-NRG rhythm and reverberating back echo. It was dynamic. It was radical. Sylvester did not consider himself solely a disco singer, but his style reached a pinnacle with Cowley’s studio wizardry. This style was powerful and inspired later fusion styles.  Cowley added the fizz of high-tech production to  this fusion of African beats and electro-disco pop. This was the magic formula for success. It was crafted, it was perfected, just as any Virgo worth their salt  would have it.

Sylvester’s Venus and Mercury are both in Virgo in the second house. He was a make up artist in a mortuary. He  was sacked for refusing to wear a hairnet at McDonalds. He was even arrested for shoplifting but never for cross-dressing -which was then still illegal. He broke boundaries simply by being authentically himself and if he wanted to wear a dress or dye his hair orange, he would.  On a TV chat show with Joan Rivers, he said ‘I am not a drag queen. I am Sylvester’ as he did not fit any label not even his gospel, religious background and  it was true he did not fit with the drag queens either. Sylvester was a breath of fresh air and being himself forced people to see an in-your-face transgender person with a mighty voice that could compel you to listen.

Sylvester (1985) Antony Barboza
Sylvester (1985) Antony Barboza

The other side to him was his innate strength and independence, Pluto in Leo trine to his MC and Uranus in Gemini. He was who he was and he was quietly defiant about it: if he wanted to wear a dress, or have an orange wig, and be outrageous, that that was a radical stance in the seventies. That forced the public to just deal with it. On the same chat show with Joan Rivers he declared he was married ( Saturn ruling the 7th house) to a man whom he had accidentally outed who to his parents who didn’t know. Joan Rivers quipped directly to the parents via the camera ‘You should have checked in your closet years ago’. In fact Sylvester had clashed with his mother and father and ran away from  home age 16 but eventually she was by his side when he died.

His producers tried to change him to look more masculine like Teddy Pendergrass who could appeal to the ladies, but he lasted only one video and then just put on a sequinned dress and said “this is my image and always will be.” His was not the voice of the bedroom allure but of high-energy foot tapping and hip wiggling. This insistence on being himself was brave and helped pave the way for other public figures on the gender spectrum to do the same. Eventually,  Sylvester became identified with the San Francisco gay parade as he would be its star. He was a close friend of Harvey Milk, the mayor who was shot dead by his straight opponent. Once Sylvester was diagnosed with AIDs, he also took the brave step of not hiding it from anyone, and doing charity concerts to raise awareness about it before it was too late for others on the scene. The 13 degree Sabian symbol ‘ A strong hand supplanting political hysteria’ states “considerable measure of inner strength, calm and personal power.  Individuals with placements here may not show this strength to others very often, but when the chips are down, when things start to get out of hand, this individual steps up and take control.”

Sylvester thus has became an icon not just for his singing voice but that he was a healing figure for the gay community. His Cancer ascendant made him care and thus be cared for by others in turn. A strong connection of the Moon and Jupiter connect a native to their public but can be a bit out of control.  His strength of character was a uniting force and this is all very Chiron-inspired. His Chiron is in Scorpio. The the link between Chiron and Virgo is strong. Virgo is associated with healers, massage therapists, all those in service to the body and he helped people liberate their bodies on the dance floor. He was the presiding diva of the parade and is remembered for his breakthrough personality- very bubbly, friendly and warm, but not always knowing where to act with restraint. But that he touched the public mood is without a doubt as when he arrived for the first time in London, he was mobbed by fans.

Sylvester
Sylvester

This same aspect, Moon opposing Jupiter, coupled with a  soft and sensual Moon in Taurus could have lead to overindulgence in in food, sex and drugs- certainly an inclination to go over the top. But also it might hint at how he promoted ‘big’ women- the Two Tons o’ Fun who became the ‘Weather Girls’, making size less of an issue.  Martha Wash (Capricorn) and Izora Rhodes (Cancer) combined with Sylvester (Virgo) made a powerhouse trio in Earth/Water signs. Everything blended together seamlessly. Sylvester was generous, but according to Sharon Davis “a quiet, often thoughtful, caring guy who put others before himself” all this underscores all the Virgo and Cancer energy.

Here I want to reflect on a method in traditional astrology which uses a primary division of the chart into day and night and their rulers and dignities. Sylvester’s chart is interesting as the sun is below the horizon making it a night chart. This emphasizes those nurturing qualities of the Moon. That he did what was male in a very feminine, receptive way. That his Moon is above the horizon doubly links it back to the idea of the Moon-ruled native. The Sun is in the hemisphere of the Moon and the Moon is in the hemisphere of the Sun. This does not necessarily point to transgender qualities as males and females have both Sun and Moon in their charts but it may point to the way he became successful, i.e. not by pushing outwardly in extrovert ways as masculine signs also indicate, but by waiting, planning and adapting, collaborating and intuiting his way forward in a more Moon-like manner. This traditional approach to interpretation also exalts Venus in a night chart, and his Venus is business-like in Virgo in the lower hemisphere. He did what was necessary to succeed.

But natives are never just one way or the other. Sylvester was multi-faceted as shown by the number of different types of music he could sing. His co-performers added that he could be ‘stubborn’ and ‘unpredictable’ – his Uranus was in Gemini in the 12th house, perhaps bursting out unannounced, is square to Mercury in Virgo and which is in the 3rd house of Gemini, so it could be that his maleness was softened by this making him more attuned to the needs of his audience. Moon in Taurus in a night chart would have made him want to be loved and adored, needing that somehow. But he was also a prima donna and ‘always speaking his mind’ -triggering more of his Mercury square Uranus. If we consider a few other famous Virgos who work to the very best of their ability- Beyonce, for example, and Michael Jackson, and even Madonna who while being a Leo has planets in Virgo making her the ‘material girl’ – Virgos work tirelessly to develop themselves pushing to new goals. Goddess energy could manifest in a male performer too, why not? Sylvester’s asteroid goddesses – Vesta, giving devotion to a cause is conjunct his Mars in the 12th House.

Martha Wash, Sylvester and Ivora Rhodes
Martha Wash, Sylvester and Ivora Rhodes

He didn’t want to be associated only with the disco scene, as he said ‘there is so much more to me’- he wanted to do ballads, but those disco hits with Cowley still sound fresh today as they are guaranteed to get  people on the disco floor. They have become the iconic sound of early Disco. He was practical – Earth is by far the most represented modality in his chart and there are few planets in Air signs- and he and tried many group arrangements before eventually finding Martha and Ivora to play off that threesome and the public loved it.

Sylvester died of AIDs in 1988 and he performed for AIDs charities, and left most of his money to AIDs charities. For that streak of compassion he is well remembered as a kind of sacrificial lamb of that era,  and still the unofficial ‘mother’of the San Francisco pride celebrations. He was both radical and totally authentic, teaching us that Chiron in Scorpio lesson that music is deep and transformative by focussing on the present reality in the body, and through being creative (Chiron in the 5th House) we can leave a mighty real kind of legacy. In 2020 we have a Pluto Saturn conjunction, par for the course for Sylvester who was born with that conjunction in his chart.

 

©Proteus Astrology, September 6th, 2019

Kieron Devlin

 

Kieron is a London-based and trained astrologer at Proteus Astrology on Facebook:

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