'Fabulous Sylvester': Chronicles of a Disco Icon

Author Joshua Gamson discusses his new book The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the 70s in San Francisco. Gamson charts the life and times of the late disco icon Sylvester from his roots in South-Central Los Angeles to the height of his fame as an out, gay, African-American who became a legend in the gay San Francisco nightlife — before AIDS ended the party.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of song)

SYLVESTER: (Singing) Looking for my feet in the disco heat, dancing through the night.

ED GORDON, host:

For about 15 minutes, the singer Sylvester was fabulous. As a black man in drag with a couple of hit records, he became the king of disco, high priest of the idea that it's OK to be who you want to be and do what you want to do. But that was the 1970s. By the early '80s, AIDS began to ravage the gay community, and then finally the disease came to claim Sylvester himself. Josh Gamson has written a new biography about the former disco icon. It's called "The Fabulous Sylvester."

Josh, thanks so very much for being with us.

Mr. JOSH GAMSON (Author, "The Fabulous Sylvester"): It's a pleasure to be here.

GORDON: Do you believe that this man has been, to some degree, minimized because of his outward appearance, in terms of his importance in the industry and what it did in terms of opening doors for so many others?

Mr. GAMSON: Yeah. Being on the edge in that way is a hard thing for a lot of people to deal with. And I think that was threatening to a lot of people in the music industry, threatening to a lot of people in different communities who would rather just have forgotten him.

GORDON: When you did the research for the book and started talking to people who knew him, did they speak of what clearly had to be his ability to be brave in a world that was going to throw stones?

Mr. GAMSON: Yeah, but it's interesting. I always saw it as courage, and he and a lot of his friends just didn't see it that way. It was just matter of fact. It was much more just, I guess, shamelessness than courage. It was just, `This is who I am. This is who I'm going to be. If you can't deal with it, you know, I'm not going to be bothered with you.' It was just being. People, you know, certainly tell a lot of stories about Sylvester insisting on being who he was, you know, when the music industry couldn't deal with him, when his record company was trying to transform him into a kind of Teddy Pendergrass--you know, butch him up a little bit. There's a story of him walking into the president's office at the record company in a blonde wig and a negligee and saying, you know, `This is my image, and I'm not changing it.'

(Soundbite of "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) You make me feel mighty real. You make me feel mighty real. When we get home, darling, and it's nice and dark, and the music's...

GORDON: To a great degree, he was RuPaul long before RuPaul, yet...

Mr. GAMSON: Yeah.

GORDON: ...in terms of just being able to sing, here was a man who really--among his hits, "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real," which is probably his biggest hit, and "You Are My Friend," which was later immortalized to a great degree by Patti LaBelle. But here was a man who had real talent musically.

Mr. GAMSON: Yes, and that made him stand out all along the way. I mean, he stood out in church, he stood out among the hippies when he was performing with a hippie group called the Cockettes. So, you know, really, when you ask people who were not comfortable with his flamboyance why they listen to him and so on, they usually say, '`Cause he could sing.'

(Soundbite of "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real")

SYLVESTER: (Singing) You make me feel mighty real. You make me feel mighty real.

GORDON: What gave him, in your opinion, the fortitude that he had to deal with all of what came with the lifestyle he chose? Was it his family background? Was it simply innate in his personality? What do you believe it was?

Mr. GAMSON: I believe it's a combination. I've come to think that some people are just born with that, that strength of character, and I think he's one of those people who came into the world not interested in hearing `No' and not interested in hearing that he was not of value. But it was really reinforced. I think, ironically, it was the church and his mother and grandmother that gave him that strong sense of being loved no matter what, even though those are people that he eventually kind of got pushed away from and by. And...

GORDON: And that's what I was going to raise next, the irony of--here's someone who really was raised and came up through the church, and as we know, particularly in African-American churches in the United States now, there is this battle of acceptance of gays who often have grown up in these churches. And there is this dichotomy of what they teach and who is housed there.

Mr. GAMSON: Right. And Sylvester saw that pretty early on and was not really having it. I mean, he was told by the church, you know, that we are all loved. But at a young age, he was, I guess, too much for the church, too real for the church in his flamboyance and in his girlishness, really. And he got pushed out at the same time as he was--I don't know--having his first sexual experiences with people from the church, adults from the church. So he saw a lot of what he saw as hypocrisy early on. He said once about the church people, `The people that turned me out turned me out.' And that was his experience. But he took it with him when he left, the experience of music and the experience of ecstasy, of singing till you're out of your body, kind of. He took that with him and kind of strangely brought it into disco.

GORDON: Now some have tried to paint him a tragic figure.

Mr. GAMSON: Yeah. That was one of the interesting things for me writing it, was that I thought it was kind of a tragic story, too, in the end. You know, disco crashes, his career falls apart, and, you know, eventually he died of AIDS, which is not a happy ending. But at a certain point he made a decision that was very, very in keeping with his character all along the way, which was to be open about who he was and what he was going through at that time. And he made a decision, for instance, the summer before he died, to march in the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco in a wheel chair with the People With AIDS Coalition. So he was right out there in a floppy hat, emaciated, carrying a balloon and symbolizing for people the courage to be `who I am' again.

GORDON: Finally, what do you hope the book does for his legacy?

Mr. GAMSON: First of all, I hope it brings back some of his music and reminds people of the experience that he was trying to create, which was bringing people of all different kinds together on a dance floor for a kind of secular church, where all kinds of difference and craziness and strangeness is accepted and loved. That's what he was about. So, you know, he was kind of preaching that message, and I hope that I'm bringing him back to preach it a little bit.

GORDON: Well, the book is "The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco." Joshua Gamson, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. GAMSON: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of song)

SYLVESTER: (Singing) You know, I saw it coming. Baby, you've got me humming. One look...

GORDON: That's it for our program today. To listen to this show, you can log on to npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American public radio consortium.

(Soundbite of song)

SYLVESTER: (Singing) ...for your reaction. It took just a sexy star.

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Books Featured In This Story

The Fabulous Sylvester
The Fabulous Sylvester

The Legend, The Music, The Seventies In San Francisco

by Joshua Gamson

Hardcover, 306 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • The Fabulous Sylvester
  • The Legend, The Music, The Seventies In San Francisco
  • Joshua Gamson

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: