SYLVESTER & THE HOT BAND: The Blue Thumb Collection (Label: Hip-O Select)

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SYLVESTER & THE HOT BAND: The Blue Thumb Collection

Five years before Sylvester, the androgynous king – or should that be queen? – of camp disco, smashed his way into the UK Top 10 with the energised dance floor anthem ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ in 1978, he was toiling for recognition at the indie US label, Blue Thumb. Together with his long-haired, hippie-looking backing group, the Hot Band, the west coast singer and former member of the San Francisco drag act, the Cockettes, cut a self-titled debut album in 1973 that came to be known by fans as ‘Scratch My Flower’ (the reason being the front cover depicted a small gardenia flower in the shape of a scratch-and-sniff sticker). That very album – long out of print – is now available together with ‘Bazaar,’ Sylvester’s second album for Blue Thumb, as part of a 19-track compilation anthologising the singer’s pre-Fantasy oeuvre. It proves to be a fascinating aural document. Judging from the artwork, image-wise, Sylvester early on in his career was as outrageous as he was at the late-’70s climax of his career – the music, though, only hints at the disco style that was to follow in the later-’70s. For the most part, both albums demonstrate an eclectic meld of soul, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and pop. His debut album opens with a funked-up, R&B-infused rendering of Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ and includes startling deconstructions of ‘God Bless The Child’ – apparently at this stage of his career, he claimed to be related to the song’s author, Billie Holiday – James Taylor’s ‘I’m A Steam Roller,’ Procol Harem’s ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and Bessie Smith’s ‘Give Me A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer.’ Despite the disparity of the material in terms of style, the album has a real sense of artistic cohesion, thanks to Sylvester’s passionate falsetto vocal and his band’s deft organic arrangements. The same can be said for the second Blue Thumb album, which features unique versions of songs by James Taylor, Allen Toussaint, Otis Redding and country rocker, Gram Parsons (a soulful version of his tune, ‘She’). Also included in the package are two cuts that originally appeared on a Blue Thumb sampler LP called ‘Lights Out San Francisco.’ Though these early Blue Thumb recordings by Sylvester James failed to ignite the charts, they are well worth investigating. Also noteworthy are Brian Chin’s expert liner notes, which put the music into its rightful historical and cultural context. In terms of his career, the Blue Thumb LPs were valuable in getting Sylvester noticed by the movers and shakers in the music business: so much so that in 1977 he got a deal with Fantasy Records and turned his hand to disco music. The rest, as the say, is history‚Ķ