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Book Showcase: Getting Fab with Sylvester
The Fabulous Sylvester by Joshua Gamson (Henry Holt; $26)
2005-10-01

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Reviewed by Andrew Davis

Pictured

One of the hits by '70s male disco diva Sylvester was 'You Make Me Feel ( Mighty Real ) '—and he succeeded in making everyone who listened to his music feel mighty fine.

In The Fabulous Sylvester, Joshua Gamson examines the life and times of an entertainer who was truly entertaining but who lived through some brutal situations. Born in 1947, Sylvester James first had sex in 1955, but he never claimed he had been abused. Three years later his mother learned he was a homosexual when he required rectal surgery, and by 13 he had quit the Palm Lane Church of God in Christ. By 1963, he was the most fabulous of the Disquotays, a group of Los Angeles-area gay kids who had stars in their eyes.

By 1970, though, Sylvester had moved to San Francisco, where he joined the drag troupe the Cockettes. Almost as quickly, he abandoned them to record two rock albums in 1973. However, those records tanked—and it was not until after he hooked up with belters Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes ( known as Two Tons o' Fun and, later, The Weather Girls ) that his career took off.

But, whether he wanted to or not, Sylvester became much more than a singer—he became a symbol and a crusader. The latter became especially true as the gay liberation movement became the target of powerful foes and as the specter of AIDS loomed over the gay community. Sylvester saw how the disease robbed him of his friends and, ultimately, his own life. He lost his battle against AIDS in 1988.

The Fabulous Sylvester details the rise and fall of an entertainer who longed for the limelight—and also examines the legacy he created by becoming the icon of those who were different. Photos present a timeline from his childhood to those life-changing days and nights in San Francisco.

Gamson is a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco. He previously taught at Yale.


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