It always sounded like a multi cultural celebration – upbeat and outta site – snappy and happy. And everyone was invited to the party. But one of the most frustrating aspects of being an ardent adolescent disco disciple during the mid and late ’70s was that legions of us were kids of limited means – unable to afford all the incredible records we craved. Today, as financially stable adults, it’s tough, if not downright impossible to acquire many of those long-since discontinued timepieces. Fortunately, thanks to caring, like-minded connoisseurs, such as the fine folks at Craft Recordings, many nearly-forgotten classics now are enjoying a well-deserved rebirth. One of the label’s latest reissues – Step II, the sensational 1978 set from San Francisco scenester, Sylvester.
A formidable force driving the experimental song and dance troupe, The Cockettes, during the early ’70s, Sylvester soon stepped out as the flamboyant frontman for the R&B-based rock combo, Sylvester and His Hot Band. Boasting a unique stylistic sensibility, the Hot Band was embraced less warmly than the day’s myriad of worshiped macho cock rock kingpins. As a result, the group’s two LPs enjoyed limited fanfare.
Around the same time, DJs were infecting discotheque dance floors worldwide with an exciting, fresh and sophisticated sound – a hypnotic, pulsating hybrid incorporating various configurations of (oft-orchestrated) R&B-fueled funk, Euro-style pop, Latin-flavored rhythms and island-inspired allure. By 1975, the newly-acknowledged genre was seeping out from nightclub confines and creeping onto the civilian charts. By 1977, the “disco craze” had become an international phenomenon. And it suited 30-year-old Sylvester like a form-fitting chiffon gown.
Another frustrating aspect of being a teenage disco aficionado was the task of convincing the Nugent nuts and other unsympathetic snobs of the legitimacy of the unjustly stereotyped music we loved. Truth be told, at its worst, disco could be dopey at times. Remember “Disco Duck?” But at its best, disco music was complex, intricate – well-crafted songs knowing few boundaries and involving master musicians – all under the precision guidance of world-class producers. Step II reflects the latter.
Released originally on the Berkeley-based Fantasy Records label, the seven-track collection will forever be known for birthing two of the most iconic, irresistible crossover anthems of the disco era – “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” Known then as Two Tons O’ Fun, the record’s featured back-up singers, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes would later be credited as The Weather Girls on their own dance floor classic, “It’s Raining Men” in 1982.
But Step II offered much more than Sylvester’s two signature staples. Residing stylistically at the intersection of Smokey Street and Bailey Boulevard, the songs showcased his remarkable vocal range, while revealing his authentic R&B roots.
Bursting with soaring vocals, the heart-racing, horn-heavy “Grateful” is a high-energy standout that also could easily have competed with the mightiest dance faves of the day. Accented by delicate violin and crisp acoustic guitar, “I Took My Strength from You” serves up a satisfying slice of supah-sweet soul – vocally through the roof – arguably Sylvester’s all-time most powerful performance.
Ah, have you heard the latest about Sylvester? Girl it’s a mess! Honey, he can tell ya better than I can – and he does, in the sassy, funky (and ambiguous) breakup romp, “Was It Something That I Said” – another delightful highlight, for sure. Closing out the record, “Just You and Me Forever” feels like an alter call of sorts – punched up by distinctive piano work, and bathed in authentic church-style organ- an elegant Gospel-soaked treasure.
He would release seven more albums before sadly losing his battle with HIV in 1988, at age 41. Decades later, Step II still stands tall as the most successful and important entry in Sylvester’s ever-impressive catalog.