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.