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'Fabulous Sylvester' vividly revisits the high life of a gay icon

Sylvester was fierce.

Not necessarily combative or mercurial, although the flashy performer could certainly be those things, but fierce in the singular way that an unabashedly saucy, openly gay black diva has to be, and can only be.

Best remembered for a handful of disco warhorses, including "Dance (Disco Heat)," "Do Ya Wanna Funk," and especially "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," Sylvester was a singer, drag performer, and a natural-born partyer.

Born Sylvester James Jr. in 1940s South Central Los Angeles, he was reborn in 1970s San Francisco, at the gaudy dawn of the modern gay rights movement. Dead more than 16 years, he remains one of that era's most enduring icons.

"The Fabulous Sylvester," Joshua Gamson's affectionate biography of the late entertainer, is almost as engaging as the times it so energetically resurrects. Filled with interviews from Sylvester's friends, family, fellow musicians, and admirers, Gamson vibrantly reconstructs pre-AIDS San Francisco -- the baths and bars, the dizzying sense of personal freedom, and the tragedies that followed when the drugs-and-discofueled bacchanal came crashing down.

Growing up, Sylvester always stood apart from other children. While his brothers played baseball and marbles, Sylvester preferred dressing up in his mother's jewels and shoes and his grandmother's furs and hats.

And, he could sing. By the time he was 6, folks at the Pentecostal church had him standing on a milk crate belting out songs in an impossibly high, clear voice that would leave the congregation shouting.

Still, as he neared his teenage years, "his effeminacy was now hard to write off as child's play, and Dooni [Sylvester's childhood nickname] wasn't working very hard to be like the other boys."

Unlike other biographies of notable gay figures, there's no handwringing, no teeth-gnashing about sexual identity. Sylvester's homosexuality may have been an issue for others, especially his mother, yet he was always matterof- fact about his attraction to men and affinity for women's clothing.

"When I was little I used to dress up, right? And my mother said, 'You can't dress up, you can't dress up,' " Sylvester once explained. " 'You've gotta wear these pants and these shoes, and you have to like, drink beer and play football.' And I said, 'No, I don't,' and she said, 'You're very strange,' and I said, 'That's okay.' "

He would find common ground with a group of black drag queens, the Disquotays, whom Gamson describes as "a cross between a sorority and a street gang," the "most fabulous girls around, and the toughest." (While looters were stealing groceries and televisions during the 1965 Watts riots, Sylvester and his friends scooped up hairspray, wigs, and lipstick.) Their ideology -- "be fabulous, be the party, look good" -- became Sylvester's mantra, and it would carry him to San Francisco and a starring spot in a lovably wacky gender-bending hippie troupe.

Because Sylvester was known for performing in drag, it was easier for his detractors to dismiss his talent, which was considerable. Unlike his fellow troupe members, Sylvester was more concerned with creating art than in simply creating a spectacle.

But he knew how to work a room. A critic once wrote that Sylvester made "David Bowie look like Lawrence Welk." Even though he left his church when he was a teen, he always kept some Sunday morning shout in him. He could thrash a crowd into a near-religious frenzy, and after an especially fiery show, Sylvester liked to proclaim, "We had service."

A University of San Francisco sociology professor, Gamson effi- ciently weaves, among what sometimes seems a never-ending party along Castro Street, the serious issues San Francisco also grappled with, including antigay crusades and the shocking assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk. Of course, as the book reaches its later chapters, the shadow of AIDS grows more ominous. Complications from the disease would claim Sylvester in 1988.

Yet, this isn't a dour book, and Gamson's descriptions of places and people crackle with humor and zest. Of Martha Wash, a member of Sylvester's full-figured backup singers Two Tons o' Fun, Gamson writes she "had a voice that could kill you dead right where you're standing."

But the star is always the music and madness of Sylvester. He once told his audience, "Sometimes folks make us feel strange, but those folks, they'll just have to catch up." All sequined and sassy outrageousness, Sylvester, with his unshakable confidence in the glory of being different, was as mighty as his gospel-cured falsetto. Even today, the world is still trying to catch up.

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