Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Vintage Articles:
Sylvester Changes - by Douglas Price //
The Advocate - October 19, 1977

One week ago on December 16th marked 25 years since Sylvester's untimely death, from AIDS complications in 1988. Not that it hasn't been said before, but that someone who was not only openly gay, but as unapologetically individual as Sylvester could become one of disco's biggest stars, if there was anyone that symbolized disco at its most liberating, it was Sylvester..

Given the strides in LGBT visibility over the past decade, and having been the subject of documentaries, tribute shows and more recently, a long overdue reissue of his Greatest Hits; despite the 25 years since his death, his legacy and impact still feel as relevant as ever. Thinking about Sylvester lately, I began looking through my files and found this interview with Douglas Price from the October 19, 1977 issue of The Advocate..

Pre-Mighty Real, this interview captures a fairly pivotal moment in his career, having just released his eponymous album, his first for Fantasy, its cover image of a dapper suited Sylvester marked a fairly major departure from the days of the Cockettes and The Hot Band (even if the butch drag never did stick). Discussing his ambitions, like playing the San Francisco Opera House (which he eventually did), Sylvester seemed to be just on the verge of taking off and both artist and interviewer seemed to know it. Eminently quotable, those who have read Joshua Gamson's excellent biography - The Fabulous Sylvester will likely recognize a few quotes taken from this interview. If one didn't realize how perfectly suited that title was, 'fabulous' also appears to have been one of his most well-used adjectives in conversation, if this interview is any indication.

Before I give out any more spoilers, read on and enjoy...


Sylvester Changes by Douglas Price

"Changes... Lord I'm so tired of changes." But change seems to be the catalyst behind a singing career that has taken Sylvester from the raunchy drag days of the Cockettes' haphazard appearances at San Francisco's Palace Theatre to one-night stands in cabarets as the blackest Egyptian "queen" since Cleopatra; resplendent with feathered headresses, gold and silver trappings of the gaudiest proportions, to hot pants, sequins and more glitter.

Glitter and outrage: terms synonymous with a man possessing a voice that can range from down-and-out gospel to cool blues and jazz. Tender lyrics ... hot pulsating disco rhythm ... all delivered in a strikingly clear falsetto that belongs to Sylvester alone.

Those lucky enough to have followed his often erratic career see the changes. New changes: new album, a new record company, a new manager, a big new band, a new look ... toned down from the old days but nonetheless electrifying. And backing him up are two of the most talented women to hit the musical scene in some time. Their show saturates the audience with the real love of performing.

This man of changes lives quietly with his lover in a pleasant apartment tucked on the side of Twin Peaks overlooking Castro Village in San Francisco, his adopted home. No sequined curtains at the windows, no glitter on the ceiling; instead a quiet place to live surrounded by the things he loves. Most noticeable is a collection of his photographs grouped family-style around those of Lena Horne, Ivy Anderson, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. "They're my idols" he says quickly.

On the balcony two five-month-old Borzois are lounging against the San Francisco skyline. "One is Uri and the other is Festoff. Actually pets are my first real love," Sylvester says. "I love to train them to be perfect. Not show dogs, but to stand right and look good and go prancing around town looking fabulous!"

Prancing around and looking fabulous. It sounds like your life. It's all show biz isn't it?

Every day. My fantasies are my realities. I live that way ... then I'm happy. When I conform too much it makes me nervous.

Besides the changes in your management and band, are there any other changes?

Yeah, changes in myself. Changes from the old days. I'm more settled now ... less outrageous, I think, in the way that I think.

Less outrageous than in the days of total outrage, the Cockettes? Where are the Cockettes now?

I have no idea. That's all in the past. Their only claim to fame was the Cockettes and a lot of them never evolved any further than that. To me that's something in the past. That's something that happened along with my big Egyptian shows or blues shows. People who saw them got it; those who didn't, missed it. They can't be recaptured. The Cockettes died in New York and that was it. You don't die in New York ... in music, theatre, or whatever. That's when I decided I'd have to crank here in San Francisco again.

Why San Francisco instead of Los Angeles?

I grew up in L.A. and hated it. It's an awful place for artists and musicians. It's hard there. You could work your whole life and not get where you want. I was out of place. It was too straight ... too strange all the time.

I came to San Francisco and loved it. I saw things and met people I would have never known in Los Angeles because it was hush-hush or you had to belong to a certain clique to be involved. When I came here, everybody - the fabulous ones, the poor ones, the queens, the straights - were all carrying on together, having a good time. Moving to San Francisco was the turn in my life as far as my own personal liberation.

You speak of your personal liberation. What is that?

I strongly believe that I can do anything I want to any time I want to do it. I couldn't be that way in Los Angeles. Here I can do anything.

Was your early life centered in the black ghetto?

No! [laughter] A lot of people would generally associate me with that, but I don't know anything about it. I never knew what it was like not to have money, because I always had it, and when I got it I always went out and spent it on fabulous things. I wasn't from a general poor black family ... not at all.

Are you pleased with the new album?

Yes. The new album is the only one I've made that I like. I never listen to my own records. We don't play any of them here. I do play certain songs on this one. My favorite is "Tipsong."

You have aligned yourself with two great backup singers. Where did you meet them?

I went through auditions for three days. Martha [Wash] came first and I fell in love with her. I went through some more people, but they couldn't cut it. I finally went to Martha and asked her if she had a friend who was big like her and could sing like her, and she said, "Yeah." I met Izora [Rhodes] the next night and we rehearsed in the back of my V.W. van and we've been together ever since - a little over a year now.

How did the connection with Fantasy Records come about?

I met Nancy Pitts from Honey Records Productions at the Palms Cafe. She liked the show and told me she'd been looking for an act like mine. Then I met Harvey Fuqua. They came to the next show I did at Elephant Walk and were completely blown away. They told me they wanted to do this and do that and I said "Sure, all this time we've been looking for a manager; looking for a record company; looking, working and striving for this one goal." That night I thought, "Fuck it. I'm not going to be bothered. If it's going to come, it'll come. If not, I'm not going to die." That was my attitude. Lo and behold, everything I'd been looking for and working for did come. The negotiations and demo tapes were done; they came to me and asked how much money I wanted and I told them. They came back and said I could have this, this and this, and I started working on the album literally before the contracts were signed. That's how much faith they had in me. Before I knew it, the album was done and we were doing a thousand records a day. God, its been two months now and the record is number 20 on the charts.

Has success finally come for Sylvester?

Yeah, but I'm still not excited about it. I don't know when I'll get excited. At first I thought I'd be excited when I heard it on more than one radio station. Now they're coming in at three or four a day and it still doesn't excite me.

Do you think it is important that more gay entertainers begin to speak out on issues concerning human rights and stop hiding in the closet?

Oh God, yes.

Why don't they?

Why don't they? They must be scared, I guess - scared of themselves or the publicity. It might hurt their careers, especially if they're established from the past. But now it's O.K. No one really cares. My God, look at me. When I first went on the road I went to Kenosha, Wisconsin; Des Moines, Iowa; Duncan, Alabama; places like that. God, I had platinum hair down to my waist, birdseed tits, glittered high heels, and I was ragging and carrying on just like I was in San Francisco. I don't think you ever have to come right out and say "Look, I'm a homosexual; I'm gay; I do this; I do that." People should do what they have to do to make themselves secure. But when the time comes for a personal stand against bigotry, then I think people should get together. I am against discrimination on all levels, not just the gay level. My parents never taught me to hate or dislike or disrespect anyone.

In a song on the album, "I Tried to Forget You," you say, "You can have everything and be a king or a queen on a throne, but you still ain't nobody, baby, when you've got to sit there all alone."

It's true. Do you know where that came from? When I went to Europe I thought it was going to be the turning point of my life. I went by myself, which was awful. I really don't like being by myself. And there I was with all these things to see, places to go, and no one to share the experience with. No one for a second opinion. No one to say, "Look at that - isn't that fabulous?" So I came home and just started to work and its been going on ever since.

Why do you just use one name?

Because it's my trip, first of all. Nothing goes on with the band or the show that isn't from my head or energy. Before, when I gave all the credit to everyone, I'd get too many attitudes and couldn't really depend on anyone. I can always depend on myself. I will always know my material. I will always sing. I will always dress. So I decided since I'm doing all the work, I might as well let it just be me. All the way the responsibility is on me.

When you are working a show, you have an uncanny way of making people in the
audience, especially friends, feel as though you are singing directly to them.

God, I am. I always sing to people I know or a familiar face. Even when the audience gets really big, I have to have someone to work off. All I need to know is that one person gets it and then it works. Sometimes I just make a visual contact with someone and it takes up right there. Everyone sees me directing this attention at this one person and they think I'm cruising, but I'm not. Sometimes I'm just not physically up to doing a show, but the energy comes from the audience and I always get into it and figure I'll give it all 'cause I've got one more show to do.

Have San Franciscans seen the last of Sylvester in the gay bars on Sunday afternoons?

I'm afraid so, yes. It's sad in a way, 'cause I would always like a place where I could play for people for free. Like the Castro area. It is where I live, and performing in my neighborhood was my dream - like a workshop for new material. I got closer to people than ever before because I've always been afraid to be close to people. What people think scares me. I know they're going to think it anyway, but it really makes me nervous.

Where do you go from here?

The world. Everywhere that will take me. Anywhere. I'll play anywhere, anytime, to anyone. We're going to New York, Canada and probably Europe this fall. But first I'm going to have my birthday party in San Francisco at someplace fabulous like the Fairmont or the St. Francis, where lots of people can come and spend thousands on a big, big party. It's The Big One for me.

The Big One?

Yeah, my last birthday party. I can't say which one because most people ask how old I am and I just say I'm in my 20's, which I am. But this will be my last birthday party. I go to the lab shortly after, so I'll be ageless.

What do you want most to happen with your career

For it to be comfortable and not too demanding. But it's going to be. It's already started. I have no real projections except I want to play the San Francisco Opera House. I am - and I'm saying this - I am going to play the opera house! It's going to be a fabulous show with a full orchestra, lots of costumes, lots of lighting and lots of everything. Lots! And whenever you think you have too much, you should put on more, just to be safe.

Then the glitter, tinsel, outrage isn't gone?

No. Like I said, there's the streets and there's the stage. I just would not wear anything on the stage I wear on the streets. It is part of the illusion I want to create for an audience. So glitter and sparkle and lighting will always be there in some form. I always encourage people to smoke at my shows so that the lights will do little fuzzy things, because it creates a softness for me on the stage.

In other words, the theatricality of performing happens for you as much as for the audience?

Oh sure. I always get off on my shows. Even the bad ones. I've had shows I thought were awful, but there is always something to learn. I'm very critical of myself and the show. But if something goes wrong, I've learned to control it. Now I just burst out laughing.

Are there regrets looking back at 10 years of good times?

Yeah, I should have saved some money, but I don't really regret not saving it because I had fabulous times with all of it. Now I'm thinking of business ventures and investing my money.

In what?

Condominiums. Oh, and I'm going to open a chain of mortuaries. I really am. I'm going to open them, not work in them, although I did that for two years in Los Angeles. I was a cosmetician. I'll start off with one and have the best service available. I'm going to have Mercedes instead of Cadillacs. I am going to have a special hearse made by the Mercedes Benz Co. I will call it "Death with Dignity." Then I'll buy condominiums and live on a hill in San Francisco where I can see everything.

For a man who has spent the better part of his life making his fantasies his reality, it is hard to believe that Sylvester won't attain whatever goals he sets for himself. His show and album attest to that; they are as unique as the man himself: a person and product of his own invention, not perhaps for every taste; but for others there is no performer who can get down and sing with such style. He says it all in the last cut on the new album:

I don't care where you're going
I don't care where you've been
Going to keep you in my heart to be my friend
I'm going to love you more and more
'Cause I just want you to be my friend
And it's never too late, never too late ■


sylvester - official website
facebook: sylvester (official fan page)
twitter: welovesylvester (official feed)
discogs: sylvester - s/t lp
youtube: sylvester - mighty real (music doc short)
rate your music: venue: the palms cafe - 1977 sylvester performances
uncle donald's castro street: the elephant walk (1975-1995)
mighty real - a fabulous sylvester musical
goodreads: the fabulous sylvester: the legend, the music, the seventies in san francisco by joshua gamson


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It's a better than good time..

Recently I was tipped off by reissue consultant Donald Cleveland (who, for the record, was not involved in this particular project) to the quiet release of the full 12 minute Walter Gibbons acetate mix of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "It's A Better Than Good Time," as a bonus track on the Funkytown Grooves reissue of their "The One and Only" (1978, Buddah) album, just last month. For those who may be unaware, the Walter Gibbons mix of "It's A Better Than Good Time," is (or at least was), in both of its versions, one of the more coveted items among disco collectors. Originally released only in Canada as a 12" through Buddah's Canadian licensee, Quality Records, the released 12" version of Walter's mix ran at around half the time of the acetate mix, having been edited down to 6.53. However sought-after that Canadian 12" was (which has appeared on at least two compilations so far, mastered from vinyl - Strut Records' Bob Blank retrospective "The Blank Generation" and Joey Negro's "The Soul of Disco, Vol. 2"), the real rarity was the Sunshine Sound acetate, which until recently was the only place where Walter's full mix had surfaced. While the Funkytown Grooves reissue bills it as 'previously unreleased,' that's perhaps only partially true. The 12 minute acetate mix had appeared previously (and to much greater fanfare) on Strut Records' Walter Gibbons retrospective - "Jungle Music" (2010, Strut) a few years ago. That version was understandably lacking in sound quality, having been mastered from the acetate (which was also in mono). The Funkytown Grooves reissue however, is the very first time it has appeared in stereo, on CD directly from the master tapes, which like many disco masters from this time, had been assumed either lost or destroyed. That being said, while kudos are in order for the people at Battery Studios and Funkytown Grooves for bringing this forward, it's too bad they missed an opportunity here and neglected to mention Walter's name in the tracklist, anonymously calling it a 'full extended mix' instead and furthermore, repeating the typo from the Canadian 12" in the credits, attributing the mix to Walter 'Gibbens,' instead of Gibbons.

Written and produced by British writer Tony Macaulay, (who had come to prominence in the bubblegum era with songs like "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" and "Build Me Up Buttercup") and originally released as the single off "The One and Only," right at the acrimonious end of their tenure with Buddah, it's not entirely clear whether "The One and Only" was an actual album project they had embarked on, or whether these were leftover sessions cobbled together by the label. Whatever the case, this record had come out at what was likely the most tumultuous time in the group's history. With the flurry of back-and-forth suits and countersuits with Gladys (and eventually CBS - who signed her while still under contract) on one side, and Buddah, its then parent company Arista and their respective presidents, Art Kass and Clive Davis on the other, the lawsuits seemed to completely overshadow whatever music they were releasing at the time. As an example, in one issue of Billboard, the full-page ad (pictured here) trumpeting the album's release would appear, along with an article on the very next page, seemingly cancelling out all the hype - detailing the latest developments in the Gladys-Buddah suit.

Needless to say, it hardly seemed like a better than good time for much of anything. With all the ensuing legal action apparently preventing Gladys and the Pips from working together until 1980, if the whole thing wasn't messy enough, this was also happening in the midst of the divorce and ensuing custody battle between Gladys and her then husband Barry Hankerson (uncle of the late Aaliyah and one time manager of R. Kelly and with whom Gladys co-starred in their ill-fated film together, Pipe Dreams). Reflecting back on the brink of her and The Pips' return in 1980, Gladys would call this time "the worst period we've ever had in our entire career....the foundation [of] my family, my career.. everything just started shaking at once."

As far as the song itself goes, I had first come across it over a decade ago, when I had found a copy of Gladys Knight's first 'solo' record - "Miss Gladys Knight" (1978, Buddah). Even though I had no idea about the Walter Gibbons connection at the time, but having been after anything even remotely disco, it was this very song with the slightly altered title "It's A Better Than Good Time (Disco)" that prompted me to buy the record. Again, given that she was on the outs with her label, not sure if "Miss Gladys Knight" was actually intended to be Gladys' first 'solo' album, or just a bunch of leftover sessions assembled together (or in the case of this song, recycled) to make an album and/or fulfill a contractual obligation. Either way, I'd lean slightly towards the latter, since I remember being somewhat disappointed by it at the time. For an album that was supposed to be Gladys' debut as a soloist, the whole thing felt far too dull and pedestrian, and as far as "It's A Better Than Good Time," which was singled out as the album's disco showpiece, I have to admit, at the time the song (essentially a duller mix of the same one on "The One and Only") didn't strike me as anything special at the time, certainly not enough to redeem the record, or rise above anything else on it.

It wasn't until several years later, hearing about the how legendary its Walter Gibbons mix was, and the sums it commanded online (cut to me thinking: "that song? really!?") and later, finally hearing it for myself on someone's disco mix, that I finally realized what everyone was raving about. Listening back now, while the differences didn't render it unrecognizable, this is still one of those cases where this song's legendary status can't be attributed simply to its rarity, but true to Gibbons' form, to the fact that it's a genuinely excellent example of how a good extended mix can be more than just an excuse for extra dancing or mixing time, but how utterly transformative it could be in the hands of someone with the right amount of sensitivity and creativity.

Gladys Knight and the Pips - It's A Better Than Good Time (Full Walter Gibbons Mix)

While some are quick to point out Walter's awkward edits in places (one at the 6.09 mark, another at 6.48), what ultimately redeems it is the way he gave space to the vocals and the music; building and breaking down the song, amplifying all the emotion he could wring out of Gladys' voice. What Walter did not only gently deconstructed the layers of production, but also highlighted the feeling of the song in a way that the original version wasn't entirely able to. Take a line like "you could say I'm the classic case, my own thoughtlessness thrown back in my face," - which suddenly revealed itself on Walter's mix, but had completely passed me by on the LP, despite being one of the song's heavier lines. It's like all of the extra space - the subtle string passages, the newly prominent guitar and percussion, and all the ways he deployed the lead and background vocals gave extra opportunities for the song - its groove and the soulful touch of Gladys' voice to really sink in and make itself felt. After a little while, I can safely say that those awkward edits barely even registered to my ears. In spite of the whole thing running some twelve minutes, there's nothing about what Walter did that feels forced, arbitrary or overdone, like its length was not simply a consequence of a desperate disco extension, but simply the time that it took for a story to be told and for the song's emotions to be fully conveyed.

Apparently Walter's mixes of "It's A Better Than Good Time" and its B-side "Saved by the Grace of Your Love," a bit of gospel inspired disco-soul (which sounded like something Walter would have gone back to in his born-again days) which is also included on the reissue, were set to be part of an album Buddah was planning called "Dancing With Gladys," a companion of sorts to the "Dancin' With Melba" album they had released on Melba Moore (also reissued by Funkytown Grooves not long ago) - a collection of tracks from their Buddah back-catalogues remixed for disco play. Reported only briefly in one of Barry Lederer's Disco Mix columns in Billboard, given all that was going on, its release was more than likely thwarted by all the legal wrangling surrounding Gladys and Buddah at the time (and may also partly explain why the original Gibbons 12" only surfaced in Canada). Not sure if this means that there may be other mixes by Walter or anyone else from this project still lying in the vaults; for the moment though, while those who were lucky enough to have had an acetate copy of this all these years may find their copies significantly devalued, I think most of us can be grateful that this particular mix has been salvaged and is now fully available for everyone to enjoy, the way it was meant to be heard.


gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (expanded cd edition)

disco delivery #64: melba moore - burn (1978, epic) (saturday april 14, 2012)
r.i.p. loleatta holloway (tuesday march 11, 2011)
whitney does loleatta (friday august 7, 2009)
disco delivery #36: loleatta holloway - queen of the night (1978, gold mind/salsoul) (wednesday february 28, 2007)

discogs: gladys knight and the pips - it's a better than good time (sunshine sound acetate)
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - it's a better than good time (canadian 12")
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (lp)
discogs: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (expanded edition)
discogs: walter gibbons
djhistory: walter gibbons
tim lawrence: disco madness: walter gibbons and the legacy of turntablism and remixology (from the journal of popular music studies)
tony macaulay - official site
google books: billboard - closeup: gladys knight and the pips - the one and only (august 19, 1978)
google books: billboard - gladys knight and cbs face buddha records suit (august 19, 1978)
google books: jet magazine - gladys knight and pips file $23 million claim (may 25, 1978)
google books: jet magazine - gladys knight names brother, cousins, 2 disc cos. in $28 million suit (november 23, 1978)


Disco Delivery 3.0

Anyone whose visited the site in the past week or so may have noticed some visual changes here lately. It has been six years since I last made any major changes to the blog's appearance, so I figured an refresh was long overdue. It had been brought to my attention not long ago, how hard on the eyes the high contrast white-on-black of the previous layout could be. Since things can be a little text-heavy around here, I figured that was the first thing I needed to change. Still wanted to keep things as clean and simple as possible, but also take advantage of some of the new blogger features to help better navigate through the archives (see the Archive Navigation link, on the top bar) and as well, to connect this, the main blog, to all of my various Disco Delivery social media accounts (on the right).

While posts have been sporadic here, I've been thinking of moving this blog a little further along, from the mp3 blog which it started out as, to more of a personal disco archive (which it sort of is at this point, anyway). In the past several years, while researching things both disco and non-disco related, I've accumulated a bit of a digital scrapbook of vintage disco articles and visuals, so I hope to gradually share parts of that here in the very near future.

While some tweaks are still in order (I still have to clean up and organize the graveyard of on the right panel) I hope the new look here agrees with you all..


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