Alphabetical Order: O
Over and Over by Sylvester, Fantasy records 1977.
Sylvester James was born in Kansas in the late 1940s. His grandmother was the jazz singer Julia Morgan and he began singing in church as a young kid, where his talent was spotted early – and as a result he found himself carted round the southern states of the US by the church as a kind of miraculous prodigy billed as the ‘Child Wonder of Gospel’. He didn’t get along with the Kansas way of life for long and bolted for Los Angeles at the age of sixteen, where he lived rough before he eventually moved to San Fransisco as a twenty year old, at the end of the 1960s. According to interviews with Sylvester, that was the point at which is life began.
In San Fransisco, Sylvester quickly got involved in the drag and cabaret scene, initially with a show impersonating the ladies of the Blues, before going on to join and start various bands including the Four A’s and the performance artists The Cockettes. In 1977, already a minor celebrity in certain circles, he attracted the attentions of the Fantasy record label, who signed him on a solo deal.
Over and Over was the first single off his debut, self-titled LP.
The song’s written by legendary songsmith Nick Ashford of Ashford and Simpson fame, and produced by prolific Motown man Harvey Furqa. Together, they draw out an intimate, bedraggled performance from Sylvester and his band that perfectly captures the atmospheric peaks and troughs of being at the best party in the world as it draws towards it’s end.
The track has a very organic arrangement, complemented by the masterful, natural live production. The groove is both loose and locked, at times dipping right down to a rhythmic murmur and just the chants of ‘Find yourself a friend’ from the dancefloor, before screeching back into a hedonistic rush of strings and Sylvester’s falsetto. The charm in the music is it’s shambolic nature, the freeness of it – the song itself sounds like it’s been dancing all night with fluid bass guitar and loose funk drums lurching up and down, left and right.
What is often overlooked about Sylvester in favour of his image of dragged up flamboyancy, is the fact that his voice is such a beautiful thing – capable of that searing falsetto he’s so famous for but also a range and tone that really touches the spirit. He was an adventurous artist who wanted to push into unknown ground and he also had an emotional range that pushed disco into new gravities, giving him as good a claim as Donna Summer to the Queen of Disco crown. Listening to Over and Over is like being parachuted into the room in San Fransisco 1977, the recording – a perfect facsimile of a particular feeling that was around at that time – belongs in a museum of anthropology as a document of one of the key moments in recent cultural history. Sylvester died young of AIDS, but he lives on through records such as this – introducing one generation after another into the charms and freedoms of disco.