We Had Sylvester
Sylvester and the
Hot Band, The Blue
San Francicso didn't need
me. They had Sylvester.
-- Bowie on his failure to
sell out the Bay in '73
This might be my fav-
orite release of 2009—
it's certainly in the top
five. No matter that
The Blue Thumb Collection contains material recorded between 1972-73.
The time is ripe for a Sylvester revival. And I'm not just talking
about the disco icon behind "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,"
but the man as a whole: drag performer (see The Cockettes), Bay
Area icon (read The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music,
the Seventies in San Francisco), and gospel-funk entertainer
(hear these two LPs: Sylvester and the Hot Band and Bazaar).
Click here for The Cockettes trailer
Of course, you've got to have a high tolerance for falsetto, since
that was Sylvester's thing. And I do mean thing—or specialty—
and not schtick. There's nothing comical about his use of the up-
per range (to paraphrase an old Southern saying: the higher the
note, the closer to God). Throughout, he shouts, soars, testifies,
and torches it up like a super-powered preacher-turned-diva.
According to Brian Chin's first-rate liner notes, Sylvester lik-
ed to think of himself as Billie Holiday reincarnated, hence the
scratch 'n' sniff gardenia sticker that emblazoned his self-titled
debut, AKA "Scratch My Flower"; he also used to claim Nina
Simone as a relation (my only complaint: the booklet repro-
duces the original artwork but drops the "sniff" option).
Despite his love for the ladies, Sylvester and his Caucasian co-
horts concentrate on material originally written and recorded
by men. In each case, he reinvents the number, rendering some
barely recognizable. What was macho or masculine before—ar-
guably even misogynist—becomes intensely androgynous.
Sylvester shapes his persona
You won't hear Neil Young's "Southern Man," James Taylor's "I'm
a Steam Roller," or Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" the
same way once you've experienced Sylvester's radical reinterpret-
ations. Though I could do without the bitchy screech on "one of 16
vestal virgins," there's a certain poignance to the way he sings,
"wife and the family, kids playing in the driveway" (born in 19-
47, Sylvester died of AIDs-related complications in 1988).
That isn't to suggest that he doesn't rock the hell out of these
joints. On the contrary, Sylvester gives Bowie, Mick Jagger,
Elton John*, the New York Dolls, and Prince a run for the
money in the hard-rocking androgyne sweepstakes—
if such a thing existed, which, of course, it should.
* "Benny & the Jets" era.
Other covers of note: "God Bless the Child," "Nobody's Fault But
Mine," "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," and "Hey, That's No Way
to Say Goodbye." On the Leonard Cohen composition, from 1972's
Lights Out San Francisco, he's joined by Family Stone drummer
Gregg Errico, Santana guitarist Neil Schon on guitar (who would
find even greater fame through Journey), and the Pointer Sis-
ters (the Weather Girls backed Sylvester's disco incarnation).
Lest it seem as if I'm
giving the originals short
shrift, that's only because
there aren't as many of
them. And if they don't
surpass these classics,
they hold their own, par-
ticularly Kerry Hatch's
"Down on Your Knees"
and "All That I Need"
(Hatch played bass and
keys in the Hot Band).
If anything, the new tun-
es funk even harder than
the covers, but of the 19
tracks, my favorite is "My Country 'Tis of Thee," a
song that never meant much to me, at least musically.
Sylvester turns it into an epic Americana jam to rival Funk-
adelic's "One Nation Under a Groove." The instrumental in-
tro offers JBs-style horns, hyperactive harmonica, wacka-
wacka guitar, rubbery bass, and flutes galore. Then our lady
of the lungs enters the scene to bring it all home. (When a
black man sings, "Land where my fathers died," it's hard
not to pause for a moment of uncomfortable reflection.)
For fans of torch singers, glam rock, New Orleans R&B, P-
Funk, and Bay Area titans, like Tower of Power and Sly Stew-
art (San Francisco's other eccentric-genius Sylvester), this siz-
zling set isn't just worth a listen: it's absolutely essential.
Endnote: Images from Imageyenation and The Cockettes.