The Fabulous Sylvester The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco

Joshua Gamson




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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Winner of the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award

Imagine a pied piper with a dazzling falsetto, wearing glittering sequins, and leading the people of the nation to a place called liberation, where nothing was straitlaced or old-fashioned. And everyone was welcome, finally—to come as themselves. This was not a fairy tale. This was real, and disco sensation Sylvester, whose hits included "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Do Ya Wanna Funk (I Can Show You How)," was that piper, and San Francisco was the kingdom where he reigned supreme.

Our story begins in the mid-1960s with Sylvester James, a boy whose dreams were as big as his voice: a child whose family didn't quite understand the special difficulties of raising a potential superstar. Noted pop culture scholar and author Joshua Gamson follows this young diva-to-be from his church choir days (as the child wonder of gospel), through his adventures with a crazed gang of glamour-seeking L.A. gay kids called the Disquotays, and on to his move up north to San Francisco, where the hills were alive and where Sylvester began his rise in the notorious theatrical troop known as the Cockettes. When he links up with two amazingly gifted, but never slender, backup singers called Two Tons o' Fun (Martha Walsh and the late Izora Rhodes Armstead), Sylvester suddenly shoots to stardom. But he soon discovers, as the burgeoning gay liberation movement begins to provoke violent reactions and powerful enemies, that he stands for much more than he ever realized—a truth that is underscored when the tragedy of AIDS begins to rob him of the people he loves.

Set against the beat of a magical time, this is the story of Sylvester's life, his quest for stardom against all odds, and the legacy he created by standing up for everybody who was just a little different. Gamson uses Sylvester to lead us through the world of San Francisco in the seventies, when a new kind of music helped usher in a near of change that liberated us from conformity, boredom, and The Carpenters. Through Sylvester's journey, Gamson captures the exuberant life, feeling, and fun of a generation's wonderful awakening—the parties, the dancing, and, most of all, the music. The Fabulous Sylvester is the richly entertaining story of a singer who embodied the spirit of a pivotal and unforgettable moment in American pop culture.


Praise for The Fabulous Sylvester

"[This book is] almost as engaging as the times it so energetically resurrects. Filled with interviews from Sylvester's friends, family, fellow musicians, and admirers, Gamson's account vibrantly reconstructs pre-AIDS San Francisco—the baths and bars, the dizzying sense of personal freedom, and the tragedies that followed when the drugs-and-disco-fueled bacchanal came crashing down . . . Gamson efficiently weaves, among what sometimes seems a never-ending party along Castro Street, the serious issues San Francisco also grappled with, including antigay crusades and the shocking assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk. Of course, as the book reaches its later chapters, the shadow of AIDS grows more ominous. Complications from the disease would claim Sylvester in 1988. Yet, this isn't a dour book, and Gamson's descriptions of places and people crackle with humor and zest."—Renée Graham, The Boston Globe

"Biographers, says the truism, inevitably end up hating their subjects by the time they've finished writing the biography . . . Joshua Gamson, however, in his delightful look at Sylvester, the pop star whose most famous hit was 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),' defies this and much other received wisdom about what can and can't happen in considering a famous life. He is obdurate and excessive in the love that rarely speaks its name: the love, that is, for one's subject. I'm not sure I've ever read an account of a life that has so much sheer joy, raffishness, and humor on each page. Gamson, apparently, doesn't just admire Sylvester or wish to study him in a perceptive but cool cultural studies sort of way. He thinks Sylvester rocked the galaxy. And, from the evidence of The Fabulous Sylvester, Gamson is right. Indeed, it's Gamson's delight in Sylvester that not only brings Sylvester back to life on the page, but also reanimates a topic—the '70s, disco, and San Francisco's gay history—that might otherwise seem all too well-known by now. The culture has digested and redigested the '70s so many times that it's difficult to experience that history with any sort of perceptive edge. The fact that it was capped by the beginning of the AIDS epidemic also over-determines the way those years are often read: well, fun, yes, but look what happened. Gamson avoids these traps, first by looking with great care and specificity at the black drag queen and the radical commune scenes of which Sylvester was a part. But mostly he keeps the spotlight—where else?—on the tall, flamboyant, glowing figure of Sylvester himself . . . Somehow, one doesn't imagine that, say, Robert Caro had the same kind of fun with LBJ."—Stacey D'Erasmo, Newsday

"Gamson carefully paints the shifting social tapestry into his subject's life story without ever taking Sylvester out of the foreground. The sociology instead only serves as a rich, poignant backdrop for a wonderfully human story about a young man who dreamed big and lived as large as he dreamed . . . Gamson, a sociology professor at University of San Francisco, is neither a gay insider nor obvious music buff. He follows the twisting currents of Sylvester's career, love life, and struggle for his own liberation, and weaves this personal story against larger social forces that flowed through his world . . . Gamson presents a story, almost tenderly told, of a man, different from the rest since he was a small child, who lived life his own way and made everybody love him for it. It's a small tale told against cataclysmic social upheavals—from the rise of gay liberation through the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk to the onset of AIDS—that has all the pluck, verve, and old-fashioned sentiment of one of those black-and-white movie musicals that Sylvester himself loved so much."—Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle

"The Fabulous Sylvester is a well written, touching, dignified biography of a gay, black diva who never really fit into any minority but managed to achieve his dreams of stardom. Now that's what I call a man."—John Waters

"[A] superbly written, wildly entertaining, frequently hilarious, and finally bittersweet saga."—Time Out New York

"Delightful . . . I'm not sure I've ever read an account of a life that has so much sheer joy, raffishness, and humor on each page . . . As fables go, this is a good one."—Newsday

"[Gamson's] prose is playful and furious . . . putting the singer's story into sociological context [and capturing] the astonishing scope of AIDS with grace and indignation."—Entertainment Weekly

"Sylvester James was one of the more enchanting—and shocking—diva figures to emerge onto the American music scene in the 1970s. His falsetto voice, take-no-prisoners determination, and flight into fame were something to behold. Gamson tells this story with galvanizing insight, eloquence, and more than a little tenderness. It is quite an achievement."—Wil Haygood, author of In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

"Carefully researched . . . The grooving story of the disco sensation, freighted with a goodly amount of cultural analysis . . . Gamson's narrative is thoroughly grounded in Sylvester's work in the San Francisco gay club scene, where he remained a huge sensation well into the 1980s, before dying of AIDS in 1988. Sylvester's flamboyant diva style is excitingly rendered here, as friends and associates seemingly fall over each other to describe one more fabulous outfit or dramatic entrance, the best being that time Sylvester roller-skated through the streets of South Central in full drag and pigtails."—Kirkus Reviews

"Gamson's extensively researched volume is a vibrant and moving oral biography, with firsthand conversations with virtually everyone who knew or worked with Sylvester, from his youth in South Central L.A. through his successful music career, to his death from AIDS in 1988 at 41. The richness of this material (Sylvester's background singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead, who later became the Weather Girls, are particularly amusing and insightful raconteurs) reveals all the shadings of Sylvester's diva persona: he was fierce but generous, caustic but caring, temperamental but talented. Gamson's pulsating use of song lyrics, sounds, and descriptions also creates a tangible history of San Francisco as it changed from a joyous oasis of liberation to the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. Seventeen years after his death, this gay icon gets the celebratory biography he deserves."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Joshua Gamson teaches at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity and Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. He lives in Oakland, California.
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  • Joshua Gamson

  • Joshua Gamson is a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco who previously taught at Yale. The author of the highly praised Freaks Talk Back, a study of America's TV talk-show culture, and Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, he lives in Oakland, California, and Chilmark, Massachusetts.