Milk Marched to a Disco Beat

The gay revolution that Milk launched in 70s San Francisco found its musical counterpoint in the Disco/Dance Scene happening in the clubs.

Midway through Milk, Harvey Milk is celebrating his victorious campaign for City Supervisor after many failed attempts. One of the people he greets at the party is Sylvester, the gender-mixing, falsetto-singing, black, openly gay man-diva who would pop into international disco stardom the next year with his hits “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).”  Sylvester and Milk were often at the same parties and gay parades—Sylvester performed at Milk’s last birthday party on earth, and also at his last Gay Freedom Day Parade, where a t-shirted, beaming Milk waved from a convertible. If Milk was the Mayor of Castro Street, Sylvester was its undisputed first lady, a cultural icon and the source of the movement’s most recognizable soundtrack. Sylvester and Milk were very much part of the same movement, and not just because they shared a home base. Their affinity illustrates just how integral music—and dance music in particular—was to gay movements in Milk’s time.

Every movement has its music: think “We Shall Not Be Moved,” think Buffalo Springfield, think Obama Girl. There’d certainly been music scenes in the 1960s and early 1970s that bolstered the growing push for sexual freedom: acid-hippie love-ins in the late 1960s, where freak flags flew to Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane; British glitter-glam shows in the early 1970s, where performers like David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music celebrated gender-fucky outrageousness and sometimes even homosexuality. But the music that the gay movement really made its own, without which there might not have even been a movement, was disco. The sound of the movement wasn’t so much “We Shall Overcome” as “We Are Family.”  At this revolution, you danced.

Disco Rising

The music eventually known as disco began as “party music” in black and Latino underground clubs in the late 1960s, and by the early 1970s had migrated to mixed underground clubs in New York like the Loft, mostly-black gay clubs like the Paradise Garage, and mostly-white gay clubs like the Tenth Floor. Early party music came out of Motown and Philadelphia International groups like the O’Jays and M.F.S.B. (whose “T.S.O.P.” became the Soul Train theme song in 1973). It took elements of rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, and funk, and added orchestrations and often big-band horns. In 1973, the same year that Billboard introduced the term “disco-hit,” party music had started to cross over from clubs into the Top 40 by way of “Soul Mokassa” by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango. When Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme” and the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” made it big the following year, the music industry started to smell the money. Most record companies opened “disco departments,” and in 1975 the first disco labels were formed, producing special, long 12-inch mixes for DJs, like Donna Summer’s orgasm-simulating hit “Love to Love You Baby.” In 1978, the year after Saturday Night Fever generated the biggest-selling soundtrack ever, about two-fifths of Billboard’s top one-hundred singles and albums were disco, the number of disco radio stations quadrupled in a six-month period, and both Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones had disco hits.

In San Francisco, at bars like the Mindshaft and the Shed on Market Street, the Cabaret on Montgomery, the Rendezvous on Sutter, and Toad Hall, the Castro’s first dance bar, disco had begun to take hold in the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s, both the sound and the scene of gay San Francisco nightlife were full-on disco. The Cabaret became the City Disco, the biggest discotheque complex the city had yet seen, with a glass tile bar lit up from the inside and a sixteen-hundred-bulb lighting system. DJs like Tim Rivers and John “Johnny Disco” Hedges became local celebrities, and won Billboard DJ of the Year Awards.

San Francisco Clubs

By 1978, when Harvey Milk was at the height of his political power, clubs like the I-Beam, the Trocadero Transfer, and Dreamland were booming. Dreamland was modeled after New York’s Flamingo, and was known for its state-of-the-art sound system, its pretty faces, and its drugs, mostly acid and MDA (sometimes known among insiders as “Mary, Don’t Ask”). It was light, bright and grand; the inside was all white, with balconies and a seashell-like stage a few feet above the floor. The Trocadero “was a place to get together with people and get high and spend ten hours tripping,” one of its regulars recalled in David Diebold’s oral history, Tribal Rites. DJ Bobby Viteretti and lighting technician Billy Langenheim would carefully chart the dancers’ experience—which people took to calling, tellingly, the “family experience.” “We’d beat the crowd with strobes and wild music,” Viteretti said, and then smooth them back out with Marlena Shaw’s “Touch Me in the Morning” or Herb Alpert’s “Rise,” to “bring everybody back together into the same head space.” Also influenced by the New York gay disco scene, San Franciscans started throwing mega-parties with themes like “Stars (Everybody Is One)” and “Salute to the Men of San Francisco” in huge venues like the Galleria and Pier 19. At one of the first mega-parties, “Night Flight,” in addition to dancing, the entertainment included acrobats, a talking robot, and an orgy room.

The late 1970s were really just the beginning of the explosion of San Francisco’s gay dance scene. In 1979, it was decreed across the land that disco sucked, but in the years that followed gay San Franciscans were not only filling up dance clubs but creating their own gay-owned-and-operated dance labels, Moby Dick and Megatone Records, and generating their own demi-stars, like Paul Parker, Frank Loverde, Patrick Cowley, and the Boystown Gang, a group modeled on the Village People, only gayer. Cowley, who had been the lighting guy at the City Disco, is largely credited with developing the “San Francisco sound,” an up-tempo, high-energy, pounding, mechanical-sounding style that took hold in the early 1980s. In 1982, he also became one of the first San Franciscans to die of AIDS, and an inadvertent symbol of changes to come: By the late 1980s, AIDS had flattened both the movement and the dance scene in San Francisco.

San Francisco Music

The music that got gay people going at 1970s San Francisco bars, clubs and parties wasn’t the blow-dried disco of polyester suits and Bee Gees. The musical sound that most brought gay people together was that of black soul divas singing over a thumping beat:  Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Melba Moore, Candi Staton, Gloria Gaynor. The gay men who came to San Francisco after Stonewall—and it was men, no doubt about it, who set the tone and the agenda of the gay movement at the time—were mostly not living under the long-suffering stars of Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich. As music critic Barry Walters has written, they were on the lookout for their own heroes. “For the generation of young men who grew up with the Supremes and discovered gay lib, R&B singers became the new divas of choice,” wrote Walters. “Early 70s soul sisters had one major thing in common with gay men—their suppression exploded in a torrent of sensuality. These aggressive black women providing the nighttime dancing sound track while they captured both the alienation and the fervor that gay men understood.” Tunes like Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the inspirational mainstay anthem of the gay dancefloor, were like the movement set to a beat. You think I’d crumble? You think I’d lay down and die? Gaynor sang. Oh no, not I. I will survive. I used to cry. Now I hold my head up high. And you see me, somebody new.

The Politics of Music

That the movement’s chosen music had a dance beat is no accident, either. Music fueled the movement, and dancing refueled its participants. A dance floor may very well be the closet’s antithesis, with all that flailing, sweat, bright lights, noise, and unapologetic throbbing. “The disco was ‘church’ in our community,” DJ John Hedges recalled. “It was a getting together of our people, and drugs were the communion of sorts.” What you experienced as a group on the dance floor was very close to what Milk and the gay movement were advocating you do off the floor: celebrate yourselves without apology, come out, feel your power, be free, unite. “I remember dancing at the Mindshaft,” the late Allan Berube said in the documentary film The Castro. “Those moments when you’d smoke a joint, and there’d be all these lights and fans and this wonderful disco music, where you felt this beat that really united you, I had this kind of spiritual moment or vision where I said, This is what it could be like. You could see what it could be like, and be inside it, and feel it, if we were totally free.” The disco experience offered a drug-fueled dream not just of shamelessness but of solidarity—an especially necessary dream for a movement as riddled with divisions along race, gender, class, and political lines as the rest of the country.

Sylvester & San Francisco

In the San Francisco of Harvey Milk’s heyday, no one embodied disco’s power more than Sylvester. In the Castro—which had quickly become uninviting to women, queens, radicals, and people who weren’t white—they worshipped Sylvester. Like Milk, he was a local hero. On Sundays in 1977 and 1978, Sylvester often performed, with his two jumbo sized background singers Martha Wash and Izora Armstead (“Two Tons of Fun”), in the cavelike Elephant Walk, a bar at 18th and Castro, a half-block down from Harvey Milk’s camera store. People would start showing up at the Elephant Walk early in the afternoon to get a spot and a beer, and latecomers would just stand out on the street. The windows at the Elephant Walk would open, and the music would fly out:  Sylvester’s churched-up covers of Ashford and Simpson’s “Over and Over,” Patti LaBelle’s “You Are My Friend,” Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover.” People—mostly white men in jeans and tank tops, along with a few women and a few men of different colors—would fill up the sidewalk and the street, dancing, blocking traffic on 18th  Street.

Like the dance floor, and like Milk himself, Sylvester bridged many of the schisms cutting through the movement: blue-jeaned, hypermasculine “clones” adored him as much as their nemeses, the flamboyant queens. Perhaps his blackness allowed white boys to identify with a queen from a safe distance, loving a sissy without the threat of becoming her; undoubtedly, Sylvester embodied the disco fantasy in which race and gender lose their relevance. With his falsetto voice, drag-fabulousness, and unabashed sexuality, he became San Francisco’s own disco-soul-diva and, the same year that Milk was murdered, a worldwide star and the city’s gay ambassador. Sylvester committed to who he was—black, gay, a woman, a man—with full voice, shamelessness, and soul. He made no apologies about his sexual desires. This was exactly what gay people had come to San Francisco to do: to take on new identities with total dedication, to celebrate gay desire, to dance to the sounds of their own newfound voices. “Everybody felt like they owned Sylvester,” recalls the poet and writer Aaron Shurin. “Everybody felt like he was speaking to them. He was like a people’s candidate.”

Keep on Dancing

Less than four months after Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated, Sylvester fulfilled a longstanding fantasy, playing to a sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The event was a full-on homecoming party, and also a big, fat, juicy kiss-my-ass to the Anita Bryants, John Briggses, and Dan Whites. As the finale, Sylvester, along with his background singers, his band, and a 26-piece orchestra, moved into the dance hit “Mighty Real,” in which Sylvester sings of meeting someone on the dance floor, bringing him home where it’s “nice and dark,” and getting loved like he should. They slowed it way down, turning it from disco into something like a hymn, perhaps implicitly acknowledging the sorrow that Milk’s murder had left embedded within any celebration. On Sylvester’s cue, each section of the Opera House sang you make me feel mighty real. After they listened to each other sing, Sylvester signaled the band to bring the sound back up and the Opera House audience to all join in. When they did, it sounded like they were all holding hands.

A few months later, on May 21st, 1979, a jury of his peers (no gays, no blacks, no Asians) convicted Dan White of two counts of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a seven-year, eight-month sentence. Thousands of people marched to City Hall, chanting “out of the bars and into the streets,” “avenge Harvey Milk,” “he got away with murder” and “Dan White, Dan White, hit man for the New Right.” Some smashed windows, and some set police cars on fire. The San Francisco police moved into the Castro with riot gear and clubs. They shut down Castro Street, and smashed up the Elephant Walk, where Sylvester had performed many Sundays.

The Elephant Walk opened back up the very next day, which also happened to be Harvey Milk’s birthday. Milk’s friend Cleve Jones organized a birthday party in the Castro, and around twenty thousand people showed up. “We’ll disco right in the police’s faces,” Jones said. The whole crowd sang “Happy birthday, dear Harvey,” smoked joints, drank beer, danced and, as journalist Randy Shilts put it, generally congratulated themselves “on the unique homosexual ability to stage a stormy riot one night and then disco peacefully on the streets the next.”  When Jones introduced Sylvester, who sang “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” they roared and danced and danced some more. When they come to kill you, the trick is to keep dancing.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is The Fabulous Sylvester:  The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco, a Lambda Literary Award finalist and winner of the Stonewall Book Award.