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The Fabulous Sylvester

The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco

Joshua Gamson

Picador

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.

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Praise for The Fabulous Sylvester

"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

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Joshua Gamson

  • 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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Available Formats and Book Details

The Fabulous Sylvester

The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco

Joshua Gamson

Lambda Literary Award - Nominee, ALA Stonewall Book Award - Winner

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FROM THE PUBLISHER

Picador

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