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Joshua Gamson, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies in San Francisco (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2005, $26.00, 306 pages, ISBN 0-8050-7250-0—Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University


The Fabulous Sylvester is an attention-grabbing text that more than lives up to its promise of providing an extended inquiry into the life and times of its principal subject, disco queen Sylvester. Joshua Gamson deserves much credit for the work, although one wonders if it is possible to author a bad text about Sylvester, given the fact that the figure and persona is so remarkable on his own accord, as this work confirms.

In its revealing of the person underneath the persona, The Fabulous Sylvester is a worthwhile read. It proves that Sylvester was not only a consummate performer, but also an intelligent person, as evidenced in a fascinating excerpt that features Sylvester showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of “the transition of black music from gospel to spiritual music to blues and jazz,” including the recitation of facts that might strike a layperson as solely esoteric, but strike a music aficionado as mind-boggling and impressive [59]. Gamson mentions that Sylvester considered writing a book about these facts and the reader finds it a pity that he never did. Sylvester’s intellect signals a uniqueness that Gamson picks up in his examination of Sylvester’s relationship with/to the Cockettes, a 1970s Glam Rock outfit Sylvester was a part of (or, as Gamson alludes to, not so much a part of, rather associated with): “He usually stood a few feet back, among the Cockettes but never quite of them” [57, original italics]. Whether in his knowledge about the range and history of black music or his (dis)connection to the Cockettes, Sylvester insisted on doing his own thing, a statement befitting one who was steadfastly in a league of his own.

Notably and unfortunately, the association (read: reduction) black men / phalluses pervades this text. Consider this excerpt discussing the reaction of Michael, a man Sylvester married, on their wedding night: “Michael claims not to have slept with Sylvester before the Shakespeare Garden event [the wedding]. That night, he recalls, Sylvester pulled up his white wedding dress, to Michael’s horror. ‘He had this huge black penis and he wanted to stick it in my little pink twat’” [73]. This statement is made all the more interesting when read along with an earlier statement by one of the Cockettes, Scrumbly Koldwin. Discussing the cultural climate of San Francisco during this time, he notes, “We didn’t even look at differences” [58]. Another Cockette, Fayette, continues this sentiment, recalling, “Nobody ever talked about race […] Everything went right past that. People were totally individuated, and you met people on that level. People were expressing themselves as their individual persona, and that’s who you related to, whether they were black or white, gay, straight, bisexual” [58-59]. Gamson rightly troubles this notion by stating, “But theirs was a mostly white world” [59] with all the attendant circumstances—e.g., the stereotypic characterization of black men as penises yearning to penetrate the allegedly pure and innocent white body—that accompany that realization.  

In this instance, Gamson draws light to racial positioning in an effort to underscore his own cultural awareness. This illumination reinforces one of the reasons Gamson gives for his reluctance in not considering himself as the most suitable person to write this text. “I’m white,” he states in the acknowledgments [291]. Not only is he correct in that assertion, but his racial background and biases figure into the text because of it. Whether it’s in the aforementioned examples of the big fearsome black penis or other instantiations, race is heavily imbricated throughout The Fabulous Sylvester although it is, more often than not, left unremarked upon. Consider the relief expressed by two of Sylvester’s collaborators when music industry professionals Nancy Pitts and Harvey Fuqua stepped in to work with Sylvester: “Brent Thomson and Tim McKenna moved aside, relieved that someone—especially real music industry insiders, both black—could make Sylvester a full-time job” [123, my emphasis]. Curiously, Gamson refers to a “black awards ceremony” on one page and later on that same page refers to “music industry parties,” presumably white, ostensibly de-raced, ones [182]. These examples are revealing on their own accord; however, no other instance of race can compete with the descriptions of Sylvester’s penis. Another memorable reference occurs when Sylvester’s lover, the aforementioned Michael, recalls the events leading up to their breakup: “The only thing keeping Michael there was Sylvester’s ‘beautiful big, black, huge beautifully shaped dick’” [104]. That the member’s size and its “beauty” is described more than once is telling, evidentiary of the fetishization and exoticization of the black man.      

In his acknowledgments, Gamson notes that The Fabulous Sylvester is a departure from traditional scholarship [292]. I contend that both inform the other. He writes by infusing scholarship into popular culture, and his knowledge and love of popular culture informs academic scholarship. On that score, it should be emphasized that, for all intents and purposes, San Francisco is a character in this text in its own right, with frequent and lengthy examinations of the political climate in the city during the 70s [48, 108, 129]. This is fine in and of itself, although the frequent intrusions tend to detract from the focus on Sylvester, an individual with enough of a wallop to rule these pages on his own. In this regard, this is one way in which Gamson’s scholarship comes to the surface and will not recede. One notable exception to this tendency is a discussion of the “disco world”—which would necessarily include San Franciscoin toto which Gamson concludes by invoking Sylvester:  

In 1978 […] the disco world was brimful of strangeness, gayness, mixing, dress-up, drugs, androgyny, and excess. It included items like Disco Lashes, false eyelashes painted with multicolored glitter. It was a pretty good bet that in these environs nobody was going to run screaming from a black guy wearing womanly clothing and singing gospel disco like a sexed-up church girl [141].

Another well-placed and relevant analysis occurs in Gamson’s discussion of the enmity of largely-heterosexual white music fans towards disco music. There is a tactile sociological thread in evidence here, as revealed in the level of his discourse: Citing a rock critic’s statement that, “The real animosity between rock and disco lay in the straight white male. In the rock world, he was the undisputed top, while in disco he was subject to a radical decentering,” Gamson opines, “Being radically decentered can make you want to blow something up” [185] as a way of delving into a astute discussion of the cultural marginalization of blacks and women, two categories of individuals that found immense success in the production of disco music.

Throughout The Fabulous Sylvester, Gamson spices up the often abstruse language of the academy by including typically non-academic flashes of humor as evidenced in this relatively serious discussion of disco music (a statement that seems an oxymoron itself) with its unexpected and welcome conclusion: “Many kinds of music were labeled disco over the next few years—almost any music with a hundred and twenty-five beats per minute, or with a four-four kick drum and heavy strings and shakers, or with at least two beeps and two toots” [138]. Consider as well the way Gamson frames Anita Pointer’s (of the Pointer Sisters, Sylvester’s one-time backup singers) explanation of Sylvester’s musical expectations: 

“I was just amazed at how hard and how high and how strong he sang,” Anita Pointer says. “His voice was so powerful. He would just wail. Most falsettos are very small and thin. His was really gusty.” He wanted the Pointers to sing above him, and Anita thought the top of her head might just blow off [76].

or the description of communication between Sylvester’s band members: 

The straight guys in the band […] had actually begun talking like queens, calling each other Miss Bob and Miss Dave. Rather than saying “Dave’s really pissed off that the equipment’s late,” they would announce, without hesitation or winking, that “Miss Dave is too through that the equipment is late.” Rather than saying, “Good job on the solo,” they would say, “Miss Marc peed on that sax solo tonight, honey” [164-165, original italics].

 To reiterate, this doesn’t strike the reader as the usual academic fare, evidence of a successful marrying of academic scrutiny and rigor with popular cultural examination and assessment.

When the conclusion comes it is painful yet tasteful. The reader yearns for a different ending, but, of course, it doesn’t come. By this time, the reader has grown intimately acquainted with this larger-than-life figure and it is in Gamson’s favor that he doesn’t write an extended, maudlin death scene. Sylvester died from AIDS, certainly, but his death is not rendered as an overwhelming tragedy, because Gamson writes as if Sylvester had come to terms with his imminent demise. Whether that is true or not, Sylvester’s premature death left an irreparable void that has yet to be—and probably never could be—filled.  

By and large The Fabulous Sylvester is a well-written text although there are the occasional lapses in scrutiny. A case in point is this excerpt concluding a section about the Cockettes: “After less than a year, Sylvester moved to a dark, triangular house on Market Street with John Rothermel and another Cockette, Daniel Ware. They had a windup photograph on which they played their old records.” Gamson’s decision to conclude the section on this obscure note seems odd. Moreover, discussing the conception of one of Sylvester’s latter albums, Gamson reduces his description to two rather truncated paragraphs: 

Sylvester dedicated a song he wrote called “New Beginnings,” which opened and closed the album, to himself. He, Jeanie, and Maurice Long made chords with their voices; the song had no words. [...] The cover of Too Hot to Sleep shows a house in the desert. Sylvester is not pictured. In front of the house is a large cactus [198].
Again, the analysis is missing. An additional facet of the text that one might think would have been included, that is not, is a discography of Sylvester’s oeuvre including Billboard chart positions. Such a lack points to a troubling reality when it comes to Sylvester’s place in musical history, signaling a putative erasure. This erasure is made comprehensive given the fact that the vast majority of Sylvester’s albums are out-of-print.

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