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Mighty Wrong: Biography fails to capture the full fabulousness that was Sylvester

By |2005-07-07T09:00:00-04:00July 7th, 2005|Entertainment|

“At first, I thought maybe I was the wrong person for the job of writing this book,” writes Joshua Gamson in the acknowledgments section of “The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the 70s in San Francisco” (available now from Henry Holt & Co; $26 hardcover). I must say, I considered that notion myself a time or two while reading the book.
I was weary from the time I heard the subtitle and my uneasiness only grew when I saw the cover. I expected to find a wild, wonderful photo of Sylvester in all his gay glory and ferocious fabulousness awaiting me. Instead, the cover features only a glittering red sequined platform shoe with a thick, gold heel set against a bright red backdrop. I just didn’t get it. Why would there not be a photo of Sylvester on the cover of his biography? Then, slowly it dawned on me and I realized what I should have from the beginning. The subtitle, after all, was a dead giveaway.
Either Gamson or his editors at Henry Holt, one or the other or maybe both, obviously felt that Sylvester’s story alone was not a big enough – or most likely marketable enough – draw. So they transformed it into something bigger, the story of an era, of a genre of music, of a unique city and its colorful culture. Yes, “The Fabulous Sylvester” tries to be all this and more, and in so doing, it stirs in me two powerful and conflicting emotions.
While I’m thrilled that someone has finally had the foresight to write a book about one of the most innovative and vibrant icons ever to grace the popular music scene, as a great fan of Sylvester’s I’m offended for him that his story was treated in such a manner.
Gamson, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco, has really offered up more of dissertation than a biography. “The Fabulous Sylvester” is full of rambling essays designed to help the reader understand what made Sylvester who he was and why he did the things he did. This sort of intellectual rubbish only precludes the reader from drawing any conclusions on his own and takes far too many paragraphs away from what drew the reader to the book in the first place: its subject, the fabulous Sylvester, himself.
Sadly, Gamson makes the same mistake here that Nadine Cohodas, another white scholar writing about a black musical icon, made in “Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington.” Gamson dehumanizes Sylvester, treating him as a research subject instead of simply telling the story of a man, which underneath all the goo-gobs of glitter is exactly what Sylvester was.
Final analysis: True Sylvester fans will have to have this book despite its flaws. Casual fans will likely find little to interest them here. It’s long been rumored that a film or documentary about Sylvester’s life was in the works. Hopefully his story will fare better in those formats.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.