Sylvester songs profit local AIDS agencies
by Matthew S. Bajko
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 that the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand split a check from the drag performer's estate totaling nearly $140,000.
"When I came into this job seven and a half years ago, I inherited three bankers' boxes filled with all of the early records from Sylvester's estate. The documents were page after page of all the financial records of his estate, which clearly showed tremendous amounts of debt and no clear path to having them paid off," said Mike Smith, executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund. "AEF never expected this estate to pay out the way it just has."
The story of how the money ended up in the two local nonprofits' coffers stars a gay Castro estate lawyer, an executive at an East Bay record company, a biographer researching a book on the singer, and of course, the enduring popularity of disco.
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.
But the two charities never received any payments as Sylvester had taken advances on his royalties and owed upwards of $350,000 at the time of his death, said Roger Gross, an openly gay lawyer who helped Sylvester draw up his will.
Gross, at the time, was an attorney for Sylvester's manager and friend Tim McKenna. Sylvester named McKenna executor of his will, and he oversaw the handling of Sylvester's estate until his own death two years later in 1990.
At that point the executors of the will became Tony Elite and his wife Ourania Marcandonatou, as stipulated by Sylvester. The Elites contacted Gross to help sort out the legal issues surrounding both men's estates.
"When Tim passed away and we started on Tim's estate, Sylvester's estate was just hanging there. Nothing had been done," recalled Gross in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter this week. "One of the challenges was what Tim had done and what Tim hadn't done."
In terms of the royalties from Sylvester's albums, by then disco music had faded from the airwaves as grunge and other genres surged in popularity. Gross said he was advised by several music industry insiders not to expect much in royalty payments.
"In communicating with record industry people in Los Angeles, the feeling was that Sylvester's time had passed and it was very, very unlikely that in the future there would be any royalties to pay off the advances and to fund these requests," said Gross. "Basically, Sylvester's file was inactive so there was nothing to do. There was nothing to probate at that point in time because nothing had value."
Research reveals royalties
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.
Gamson had also contacted Bill Belmont, formerly vice president of international operations for Fantasy Records, which produced some of Sylvester's earliest albums. (The Berkeley-based company merged with Concord Records in 2004 to become the Concord Music Group and has offices in the East Bay and in Beverly Hills.)
It turned out that disco, had in fact, never really died and the use of Sylvester's songs, either on the radio, in movies, or on television, had produced a steady stream of revenues. Beginning in the late 1990s 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.
"We didn't know who to pay them to. Nobody stepped forward and said we are the estate," Belmont said. "We tried to figure out who was entitled to it but record companies are very cautious about this stuff. You need direction from a court, a lawyer, a certified grant. In this particular instance, we really needed a will."
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. 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.
Under the terms of the estate, AEF receives 75 percent of Sylvester's royalties with the remaining 25 percent going to Project Open Hand. The amounts per song can vary from a few cents when a person downloads a track to $10,000 for it to be used in a movie.
Bob Brenneman, director of development and marketing at Project Open Hand, said the money will be designated for use only with the agency's 1,000 HIV clients it feeds everyday. The $34,000 it received last week will pay for 13,000 meals, he said.
"We had no idea how much or what this would actually mean," said Brenneman. "Since so many of us were here in San Francisco at that time and we knew Rita Rockett, we were thrilled. We knew this was something Sylvester would have been happy with. ... It is a very important donation."
Just in the six months from July to December 2009 the royalties for the two agencies totaled $18,000. There is another $20,000 in an account managed by SoundExchange that is from Sylvester's music being played on satellite radio or in video games; Gross is working on filing the necessary paperwork to have the funds released to the two agencies.
"We owe a lot to Roger and Bill for working on this for years and years," said Smith.
Belmont noted that the arrangement is rather rare, as most artists designate a family member or friend as their beneficiary. He added that Sylvester would be delighted to finally see the two nonprofits benefiting from his work.
"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."