THE FABULOUS SYLVESTER: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco

Joshua Gamson, Author . Holt $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8050-7250-1

In the world of that most disparaged of musical genres—disco—the subject of this biography commanded respect. By conventional standards, Sylvester James was an outsider—he was an out, gay, African-American who dressed in drag and sang with a thundering falsetto—but he found mainstream success in the late 1970s and early '80s with three Top 40 hits, Dance (Disco Heat), You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and I Who Have Nothing , and an international #1 sensation (Do Ya Wanna Funk ). At times, Gamson's (Freaks Talk Back ) 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. Photos. Agent, Ira Silverberg. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 01/10/2005
Release date: 03/01/2005
Paperback - 306 pages - 978-0-312-42569-2
Open Ebook - 320 pages - 978-1-4668-5016-3
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