In a business where clones abound, Sylvester is the real thing.
A genuine original, he’s one of that special breed of performers who come fully to life onstage, who have the unfailing instincts to ignite an audience with sophistication, sass, and style.
On Sylvester’s new Fantasy album, Sell My Soul, the singer blends all the colors in his musical palette into a work of remarkable imagination and spirit.
First, there’s that voice, described variously as “a positively enthralling falsetto,” “a soaring, leaping, inspirational thing,” “a disarmingly powerful, stratospheric instrument.”
There’s his unerring choice of material. Sylvester never merely sings other people’s songs; he totally recasts them. Witness his startling transformation of “Fever,” on the new LP, from sultry torch song to kinetic dance anthem. The ballad “Change Up” (previously recorded by Jean Terrell) is likewise created anew in Sylvester’s bands, as is the contemporary standard, “Cry Me a River.”
Sylvester, along with his producer Harvey Fuqua and arranger Louis Small, also draws on the talents of several fine young songwriters: guitarist Greg Crockett, who wrote the supremely funky “Doin’ It for the Real Thing” with Sylvester; Englishman Lionel Azulay, composer of the title selection; and pianist Eric Robinson, who contributed two extraordinary tunes, “I Need You” and the ballad “My Life Is Loving You.” (Robinson and bassist Ron Carter provide accompaniment on the latter.)
“Now to me, ‘My Life Is Loving You’ is the most interesting song on the whole album,” says Sylvester. “I can’t wait to see how it’s going to go over.”
The release of Sell My Soul is the latest chapter in several years of nonstop activity for Sylvester, which began when his now-classic 12-inch single, “Dance (Disco Heat)”/”You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” propelled his Step II album to gold status. He was subsequently showered with awards, among them Best Male Singer at the 1978 Billboard Disco Forum.
He made an appearance in the Bette Midler film The Rose; his Stars album was released; and he toured Europe and Brazil with great success. He also did numerous TV guest spots, including Merv Griffin, Dinah, Dance Fever, Midnight Special, Don Kirshner Rock Concert, and American Bandstand.
On the evening of March 11, 1979, declared “Sylvester Day” by San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, the singer presented a grand-scale, triumphant concert at the city’s Opera House.
Sylvester feels that Living Proof, the double album recorded at that concert, is “the best representation of what people had been writing about me since the day I started performing. All the energy is there.” The album contained a typically eclectic mix of blues, ballads, and funk, and produced a sizable hit single, Patti Labelle’s “You Are My Friend.”
Sylvester sums up his biographical details as follows: “I was born in Los Angeles, and moved to San Francisco about 13 years ago. That’s when my life started.”
Not long thereafter—in 1973—Sylvester signed with Blue Thumb, for whom he recorded three albums; in ’76, he met Harvey Fuqua and his partner Nancy Pitts, who brought him to Fantasy Records. Fuqua has co-produced all of his albums for the label.
Sylvester has an abiding love for his musical antecedents, and for the last seven years or so has been researching a book which will discuss the transition of black music from gospel and spirituals to blues and jazz.
“Information on this subject is not at all easily accessible,” Sylvester explains. “You have to look for it, and I found a lot of material in the Library of Congress, and the Jazz Library in New York. I have an extensive record collection of my own, and I’ve also met and talked with John Hammond, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter.”
One of the things Sylvester discovered in his research was the great tradition of theatrics that dates from the turn of the century. “I had dreamed about these things,” the singer continues, “and had incorporated a lot of my fantasies into what I did onstage. Then I found out this incredible tradition actually existed!
“One dream of mine, always, was to meet Josephine Baker. I finally saw her perform twice, and got to talk to her. She told me that the illusion you create from the stage is very important, because people pay for fantasy.
“That reassured me about what I was doing with my own performances, and I’ve gone on from there.”
Sylvester may indeed dish out fantasy and illusion from the stage with unparalleled imagination and flair. But the bottom line of his performances—onstage and on record—has always been the music.
That’s for real.
Sylvester died December 16, 1998.