A year after signing a record contract with Fantasy Records in 1977, and releasing his debut solo album Sylvester, produced by legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua, Sylvester would release his second album Step II. On Step II was a track that would forever be synonymous with Sylvester, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). Later, in 2004, the year before Sylvester’s death, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. However, that wasn’t the only huge hit on Step II. Dance (Disco Heat), was another track that would give Sylvester a number one US Dance single. This was a long way from Sylvester’s debut album Sylvester, which, upon its release failed to chart. It seemed that a year was a long time in music for Sylvester James, as you’ll see, when I tell you about Step II and them the music on it.
After signing to Fantasy Records in 1977, Sylvester released his debut solo album Sylvester. Like the two albums Sylvester recorded as Sylvester and The Hot Band, Sylvester failed to chart. This was despite having legendary Motown producer Harvey Fuqua producing the album. Undeterred, Sylvester and Harvey Faqua returned to the drawing board and studio, preparing to record what would be Step II. With a collection of seven songs, Sylvester, his band and backing singers Two Tons O’ Fun headed to the recording studios. Recording took place at the Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and Conway Studio Los Angeles. With Harvey Fuqua producing the seven tracks were recorded and the album ready for release. Sylvester found himself hoping that Step II would be the album that kick-started his career. Little did he know what would follow.
On the release of Step II in 1978, it reached number twenty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. Then two singles were released from the album and Sylvester found him self with two US R&B number ones in the space of two months. Dance (Disco Heat) was released first, reaching number nineteen in the US Billboard 100, number four in the US R&B Charts and number one in the US Dance Charts. Next to be released was You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) which reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 100, number twenty in the US R&B Charts and number one in the US Dance Charts. Five years after releasing his debut album with Sylvester and The Hot Band, Sylvester’s music had become hugely popular. Partly, this was thanks to Patrick Cowley, his longtime collaborator, encouraging him to move his music in a more dance-floor oriented direction. This worked, with the results being heard on Step II, which I’ll now tell you about.
Opening Step II is the track that forever more will by synonymous with Sylvester, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). A combination of pounding drums and synths are at the heart of the track, while a bass pounds in the background. Sylvester’s falsetto vocal is full of joy, as the arrangement combines disco, funk and Hi-NRG. Handclaps and synths that reverberate above the arrangement, while this joyous, celebratory track explodes spawning a new musical genre in the process, Hi-NRG. His vocal is theatrical and dramatic, as he vamps his way through this epic six and a half minute track. Although Sylvester recorded seven further albums and released countless singles, nothing quite matched the joyous, celebratory sound of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), a true disco and Hi-NRG classic.
Dance (Disco Heat) was the second number one US Dance single Sylvester had within two months in 1978. Here, Two Tons of Fun, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes feature heavily on this track, their soulful vocals providing the accompaniment to an arrangement that’s 134 beats per minute. Sylvester just provides occasional punchy backing vocals, while the rhythm section are like a runaway juggernaut, with the rhythm section and synths, driving the track along. A testifying Two Tons O’ Fun are key to the track’s success, their powerful, impassioned vocals encouraging and cajoling. When their vocals drop out later, the synths and rhythm section combine to produce a funky backdrop, replaced by what became known as the Hi-NRG sound. While Sylvester only plays a supporting role on Dance (Disco Heat), Tons of Fun make this track their own, testifying soulfully, while issuing an impassioned cry to dance.
After the joyous explosion of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) comes You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Epilogue. It sees a thoughtful, introspective Sylvester giving a heartfelt and hugely soulful vocal, accompanied by gospel tinged backing vocals from Two Tons O’ Fun and a meandering arrangement. Later, Two Tons O’ Fun testify and give thanks, adding handclaps and emotion to what’s a beautiful reply to Sylvester’s earlier Magnus Opus.
The drop in tempo on the previous track was merely temporary, as Grateful sees Sylvester take the tempo higher, reaching 139 beats per minute. His soaring, emotive falsetto is accompanied by an arrangement that mixes drama and beauty. Drums, Two Tons O’ Fun backing vocals, percussion and piano provide drama, while punchy, blazing horns punctuate the arrangement. Providing the beauty are lush strings and the emotion and passion in Sylvester’s vocal. It’s contrasted and complimented by the power, passion and soulful strains of Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes. Together, with a band that fuses disco, soul and funk seamlessly, Two Tons O’ Fun and Sylvester take you on a dramatic, beautiful and soulful roller-coaster journey of explosive, dynamic music.
I Took My Strength From You lets us see a very different side to Sylvester. It’s a much more introspective, thoughtful side. With an arrangement that’s jazz tinged and beautiful, with lush strings, an understated rhythm section, atmospheric Hammond organ and bursts of punchy, rasping horns. There’s a tenderness and fragility in Sylvester’s vocal, while Two Tons O’ Fun’s gospel tinged vocals add to the emotion and tenderness of what is a quite bewitching track.
Was It Something That I Said is mid-tempo track that shows a hugely soulful side of Sylvester. Opening with interplay between Sylvester and Two Tons O’ Fun, what unfolds is soulful and deeply satisfying. There’s a classy soul sound to the track, from Sylvester’s half-spoken vocal and an arrangement that combines soul and jazz. Two Tons O’ Fun add soaring, then dramatic but soulful backing vocals. Flourishes of piano, lush strings and bursts of blazing horns all play their part in a tracks that, thanks to Sylvester and Two Tons O’ Fun, is deeply satisfying, and hugely soulful.
Closing Step II is Just You And Me Forever, which is a slow, ballad opens with flourishes of piano, before Sylvester’s thoughtful, yet emotive vocal. He’s accompanied by Two Tons O’ Fun who add soaring, soulful, gospel-tinged backing vocals. Meanwhile, bursts of atmospheric Hammond organ drift in and out of the track, as the piano is at the heart of the tracks success. It’s occasionally augmented by sad strings, that add the finishing touch to the track. Here, there’s a real gospel sound, to the arrangement, especially with Sylvester’s vocal, the backing vocals and the Hammond organ. Together, with the piano, they contribute to a track that displays a different, thoughtful, introspective and somewhat spiritual side to Sylvester’s music. Not only that, but there’s a fragility and beauty in a track, that’s the perfect way to end Step II.
It’s remarkable the difference a year can make to an artists career. In just one year, Sylvester went from an unknown artist, who’d been struggling since 1973 as a singer. Then, on his second album Step II, he was propelled to superstardom, with the help of longtime collaborator Patrick Cowley and producer Harvey Fuqua. the result was Step II, seven tracks that display the different sides to Sylvester’s music. On tracks like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Dance (Disco Heat) and Grateful sees his music full-on, joyous disco and Hi-NRG music. However, on You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)-Epilogue, I Took My Strength and Just You And Me Forever displays a quite different, thoughtful and introspective side. Here, there’s a fragility and tenderness, with Sylvester a different singer and person. His vocals are soulful thoughtful and even, gospel tinged. He seems caught between two styles of music, but is just as comfortable with either style. While many people might remember Sylvester for songs like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), I prefer to remember both sides of his music, because both have much to commend them. There’s the flamboyance and joy of his faster, dance tracks and the thoughtful, introspective and sometimes, even insecurity in his slower tracks. On Step II, Sylvester lets us see both side of himself and his music. For anyone who hasn’t heard Step II, i can thoroughly recommend it, as this is one of the greatest albums Sylvester ever recorded. Standout Tracks: You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Dance (Disco Heat), I Took My Strength and Just You And Me Forever.