When he was a kid, Norman Sylvester would get up on Sunday mornings before church and listen to his father’s gospel quartet sing on a radio station broadcasting out of Monroe, La.
“One of the most beautiful sounds you’d ever want to hear,” he says.
Sylvester was born in Bonita, La., in 1945 on his grandmother’s farm, and his family boarded a train for Oregon in 1957. He graduated from Jefferson High School in 1963, started a family early and worked for more than 20 years at a trucking company on Swan Island. He started in the grease pit and ended as a purchasing agent.
In the middle of that, he went to technical school and got an associate degree in heavy mechanics.
“I was on the apprenticeship list,” Sylvester says. “But I saw the mechanics’ fingers in the truck shop and decided I didn’t want to be a mechanic.”
Because all this time he was still a guitar player, and a guitar player with busted fingers is no good. He was working gigs, playing the blues and putting together bands on the side, never wandering too far from Portland, but never quitting, either. He was too good, and it was all too much fun. The payoff — aside from all the people he’s watched dance and smile over the years — comes Saturday night when Sylvester is inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
He enters in a class that includes the bands the Dharma Bums, Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones, Sequel and Wheatfield. Bassist Phil Baker and drummer Sam Henry will be inducted as sidemen. In the category of “Industry,” KINK-FM’s Bob Ancheta, who began his radio career in 1970, will be enshrined along with Satyricon owner George Touhouliotis.
Esperanza Spalding will be honored as artist of the year, because goodness did she have an amazing year.
It’s a lineup of artists and local heroes who give depth to the local music scene.
Sylvester has opened for B.B. King and other big names, but most of the time you can find him scheduled in clubs all over Portland. There’s been no reason to leave. Sylvester turned 66 last month. He has seven children (and nine grandchildren). Family has always been important in shaping his musical life.
“I was very shy,” Sylvester says. “I had to come out of my shell. My grandmother was a very religious lady, and she didn’t really like the blues. She wanted me to sing in the church choir, and I didn’t want to sing in the church choir. So she told me I was going to sing in the church choir.”
He sang in the church choir.
But she also liked the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” and when a guest would come by, she’d ask him to sing it.
He started playing guitar after moving to Oregon. His father, Mack, bought him an acoustic guitar for $11.95 from a downtown pawnshop and told him if he learned three songs, he’d get him an electric. Sylvester learned them, and his father stuck to his word, buying his son a $99 electric guitar from a catalog.
“That’s what I played my first gig on,” Sylvester says.
Since then, a lot of shows and a lot of people to thank on Saturday night. There’s his family, of course, but also his musical family. He’s been making music with Rob Shoemaker, his bass player, for 27 years.
“And Janice Scroggins,” Sylvester says, “she’s my music mentor. She’s been with me since 1985. She helped me formulate my first original album.”
It is nice to be honored. It’s a thrill. It’s well-earned. But, “I get an award every time I leave a club and someone tells me how good it made them feel that night,” Sylvester says. “I think that’s the one thing about music, if you use it positively, you can really change a person’s day. And if you can do it, how cool is that?”
Published: Friday, October 07, 2011, 2:04 PM
By Ryan White, The Oregonian
I got a chance to have one of Portland’s well respected blues musicians take time to say hi to Sarah Billings Fan. Norman Sylvester, aka Boogie Cat, has been a long time mentor and friend to many musicians including Patrick Lamb, LaRhonda Steele, Gretchen Mitchell, myself and many others. Take a minute to get to know the music man himself. – Sarah B.
Norman Sylvester joins the movement to “Heal the Health Care Blues”
Musicians are used to playing benefits for colleagues with medical needs and no health insurance. But this time, they’re being proactive — they’re playing a benefit concert for a movement that’s designed to get them all covered. If the campaign for single payer health care in Oregon succeeds, musicians should never have to play a fund-raiser for an ailing colleague again.
for Saturday, April 14, 7:00 pm to midnight, at the Melody Balloom.
It’s a benefit for the Oregon Single Payer Health Care Campaign,and features a host of blues, world beat and jazz artists.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Norman Sylvester understands the need first-hand. That’s why he volunteered to organize music and sound for the event. “One of the biggest things that can take you off the planet as far as finances go, is a catastrophic medical emergency,” says Sylvester, who’s spent 40 years on the Portland blues scene.
“I’ve had four major hip surgeries,” he says, “and I was blessed that my wife had a job and I was able to get on her insurance. A self-employed musician couldn’t pay for a $92,000 hip surgery.”
Now, Sylvester, 66, is on Medicare. But this cause goes beyond the personal for a man who plays multiple benefits for community organizations each year and mentored such musicians as Patrick Lamb, Gretchen Mitchell and his daughter, Lenanne Sylvester.
“It’s a humanitarian movement to advocate for change,” he explains. “Musicians basically try to stay neutral as far as politics go, but health care is a humanitarian thing. Everybody has to have a health care program.
“Where is the money for health care going to come from for a musician who has to haul his equipment across town, play four hours, and gets $300 for the whole band? Health care is this astronomical iceberg, and we’re on the Titanic now.”
The revival of the Inner City Blues Festival is an appropriate way to raise funds for the Oregon
Single Payer Campaign, too. An annual event from 1989-2003, the Festival was sponsored by the Portland Rainbow Coalition, which led many campaigns bringing together a multi-racial, multi-cultural alliance.
With its slogan — “Everybody in – Nobody out” — the movement advocates for a system in which “… all Oregonians would be covered for all medically necessary services,” and, according to the Oregon Single Payer Campaign website, “there would be no premiums or deductibles; simply a dedicated tax that everyone pays into, much like Medicare.”
Currently, 18 other states have organizations advocating for comprehensive, no deductible, no co-pay, all-medications included health care. Vermont has already adopted the system.
Sylvester has written and recorded a theme song for the movement called “HealthCare Blues.”
But, say a performer was to break their leg, chances are it would put them in such financial straits that it could take years for them to climb out. That’s because many performers can’t afford to buy health insurance. And it’s why more than a dozen blues musicians from Portland are getting together April 14 for a “Healing the Health Care Blues” concert at Melody Ballroom.
The concert is a reunion of the Inner City Blues Festival, a popular annual event that started in 1988 by the Portland Rainbow Coalition. The last concert was held in 2003.
This year’s reunion is a fundraiser for the Oregon Single Payer Campaign, a coalition promoting a universal, affordable health care system for all. Headlining the event will be the Norman Sylvester Band. Sylvester and his band mates are members of Portland-based Musicians Local 99.
The union is endorsing the event. In fact, the American Federation of Musicians was an early endorser of a national campaign promoting a single-payer health care system.
Musicians don’t work a typical 9-to-5 job with health care covered under an employer’s insurance plan, said Bruce Fife, president of Local 99 and an international vice president of the American Federation of Musicians. When Fife was performing decades ago, he had to buy his own health insurance, too. But, he said, pay was much better, he worked a steady five nights a week, and insurance premiums were more affordable.
“Union density in the industry at that time was more than 80 percent,” Fife said. “The union had agreements with booking agents and venues, and musicians could make a good living. Today, most musicians can’t survive playing music alone; they need other jobs to survive.”
Fife said the industry began to unravel starting in 1978, following a court ruling that declared musicians independent contractors. The decision stemmed from a lawsuit the music industry filed against the union.
“It took time for the lawsuit to affect the industry,” Fife said. “But it changed the whole dynamic in so many ways.”
[Symphony musicians are the exception. In fact, Local 99 recently ratified a new three-year contract with the Oregon Symphony that provides 100 percent employer-paid health insurance.]
Fife said one of the first things he did as president of the union was to reach out to Kaiser Permanente to acquire health insurance for musicians. He polled members, asking them what would be most beneficial in a health care package. Kaiser determined that it was impossible to provide a health care package because musicians have too many different employers.
“So we turned our focus to single-payer,” Fife said.
Reforming the health care system to a single-payer format would benefit all Oregonians, supporters say, by replacing an expensive and complicated system — dominated by a multitude of private insurance companies — with a single non-profit agency that would collect and distribute funds equitably and fairly.
One of the premier bluesmen on the West Coast, Sylvester has shared the stage with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Otis Clay, Tower of Power, Peter Frampton and many other national touring stars.
Early in his career, Sylvester needed to work a day job to survive. But even after becoming an established star he relied on his wife’s business to pay for his health insurance.
“I’m one of the blessed ones,” he said.
Sylvester worked for 23 years at P-I-E International trucking company — starting in the shop, moving to the parts department, and ending up as a purchasing agent.
He recalled a time in 1987 — after performing at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and partying most of the night with B.B. King — how he was up early the next morning at his Teamster job at P-I-E International.
It was only after the trucking company filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1990 that Sylvester took the bold step of trying to make a living playing music. Prior to that decision he was in a dislocated worker program (that tried to steer him toward accounting), and he relied on the government to pay for his health insurance.
“You learn to deal with pain, or you try home remedies or to diagnose and heal yourself using the Internet,” he said, pointing out that it didn’t take him long to discover that The Mayo Clinic “has a killer web site.”
There was a four-year stretch from 1990 to 1994 that Sylvester said he was under tremendous stress. What if something happened to him? What if his kid falls off the monkey bars at school (and gets hurt)? What if he cracks a tooth?
“One of the biggest health care issues out there is stress,” he said. “Stress can lead to a bunch of other bad things. Having universal health care would take a lot of the stress out of peoples’ lives.”
In 1994, Sylvester married Paula. She operated a small janitorial business and was able to pay for family coverage health insurance.
Today, at 66, Sylvester is in his second year under Medicare, a program that single-payer health care advocates would like to emulate.
To help promote the single-payer plan, the Sylvesters and more than a dozen co-sponsors have put together a show April 14 featuring a host of Northwest blues stars. In addition to the Norman Sylvester Band, which will unveil a new song, “Healing the Health Care Blues,” guests will include tap and sax sensation Shoehorn (members of Local 99), Lloyd Jones Struggle, Chatta Addy, Lloyd Allen, Sara Billings, LaRhonda Steele, Sonny Hess, Jim Mesi, Richard Arnold, Bill Rhoades, Peter Moss, Lenanne Miller-Sylvester and Janice Scroggins.
Sylvester said Melody Ballroom is donating the venue for the event. Music will be performed upstairs, and tables will be set up downstairs with information about Mad as Hell Doctors, Nurses for Single Payer, Musicians Local 99, the Fair Trade Music campaign, the Diabetes Association, and others.
Food will be for sale, along with a full service bar.
Tickets to the Inner City Blues Festival Reunion are $15 and can be purchased online. You must be 21 or older. Melody Ballroom is located at 615 SE Alder, Portland. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
For more information about the Oregon Single Payer Campaign, go to singlepayeroregon.org.
A Tribute To Ray Charles
by Thom Jurek – Allmusic.Com
This tribute to Ray Charles is performed by a host of regional artists from the northwestern United States. It’s well-meaning, and in some cases very well done. It’s also a benefit recording for the Oregon Food Bank, by Patrick Lamb Productions.
The best moments here are by Lamb himself on “Let the Good Times Roll,” with a solid horn chart; “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” by Olivia Warfield and Paul deLay; Norman Sylvester’s rollicking read of “What’d I Say” (not an easy tune to pull off convincingly, but he does it like he wrote it); Linda Hornbuckle’s “Unchain My Heart”; and Duffy Bishop’s beautiful read of “You Don’t Know Me.”
There is plenty, plenty soul on this tribute, and it’s a fitting one — far better in execution, passion, and intent than many recorded by the “big stars.”
A Family Affair Boogie Cat – bcp 103 by Jim DeKoster – Living Blues Magazine Issue 171, Vol. 35, #1
Norman Sylvester was born in Bonita, Louisiana, in 1945 and moved with his family to Portland, Oregon, when he was twelve. After picking up the guitar with his buddy Isaac Scott, he formed his first band in 1969 and has been an important player on the Portland music scene ever since.
As on his previous CDs, 1990′s On The Right Track and 1994′s It Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party, Sylvester “The Boogie Cat” purveys his own brand of blues, blended with soul and funk. He’s supported by a basic unit of keyboardist Janice Scroggins, bassist Rob Shoemaker, and drummer Ashbolt Stewart, but variety comes from augmenting the group at times with as many as five horns, a group of backup vocalists that includes Sylvester’s daughter Lenanne, a middle-school chorus, organist Dover Weinberg, harpist Bill Rhoades, or singer LaRhonda Steele. The generous seventeen-song playlist consists entirely of Sylvester originals. These range from the burbling funk of the opening All The Funk That You Want to the Caribbean feel of Redemption Time, the soulful blues balladry of the title track, and the humor-spiced Honey Do List and Soap Opera Blues (“the only time my woman goes into the kitchen, when she’s lookin’ for the remote control”). The toughest blues sounds come on the harp-backed Cheating Woman. There’s a tribute to the late Paulette Davis on Soul Diva, and Sylvester closes the program on a spiritual note with a touching, but not maudlin, Mother’s Prayer. The set is well recorded, and the booklet features more than a dozen photos of Sylvester with his family and colleagues.
With his tasteful but exuberant musical values and versatility, Norman Sylvester should be better known outside of Portland. Perhaps this CD will help him get some of the recognition his talent warrants.
Ross William Hamilton / The OregonianJuly 03, 2008
As outdoor music festivals go, it’s hard to imagine a more picture-perfect start than Thursdays kickoff of the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
‘It’s perfect,’ said Jean Kempe-Ware, the public relations manager for Oregon Food Bank. ‘We couldn’t have better blues-festival weather. It’s not too hot. It isn’t raining. And we got rid of that lightning.’
The festival, now in its 21st year, is the largest blues festival west of the Mississippi, and it’s a major fund-raiser for the Food Bank. The admission of $10 a day plus two cans of non-perishable food helps people who are hungry throughout Oregon and southwest Washington. This year, organizers are hoping to raise $500,000 at the gate, as well as 110,000 pounds of donated food.
Tualatin’s Karl Jensen and Seattle’s Don Davis are veteran blues festival-goers, having attended every year since it began. This year they plan on being there all four days. The draw is simple. ‘It’s the music, the music, the music,’ Jensen said. ‘And the atmosphere, too. The river, the fireworks, it’s just unbelievable.’ Ross William Hamilton / The Oregonian7-Month-old Halen Nordstrom, of Homer, Alaska hangs with his parents Josh and Lisa, left, well protected from the sun Thursday evening.
By late afternoon Thursday, the main bowl of the park was a tapestry of blankets and early stages of sunburn, with thick crowds jockeying for space near the festival’s Miller Stage, where Portland’s Norman Sylvester stoked the crowd into waving its arms and dancing. ’If you want a piece of the action, let me hear you say ‘yeah,’ ‘ he growled into his microphone.
Sylvester, who’s nickname is ‘The Boogie Cat,’ focused his set on the Memphis R&B sound, dedicating a medley of Otis Redding songs to the memory of Bo Diddley, the legendary blues singer and guitarist who passed away last month. As he sang ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,’ fans near the stage swayed to the beat.
As she looked over the scene, Food Bank Executive Director Rachel Bristol said she was wowed by the size of the crowd. ’Look at how early people have showed up,’ she said. ‘I think this is going to be one of the best festivals ever.’
The festival is known for its amped-up electric guitars and blues belters, but some of its quieter moments showcased the diversity of the music. On the A&E Front Porch Stage, which puts an emphasis on acoustic performances, Mark Lemhouse and the Hollars offered a mellow set combining blues with American roots music. And on the intimate Workshop Stage, lap steel guitar player Colin Lake described the intricacies of the instrument, commenting on the nuance that comes from playing it with his fingers instead of using picks.
One new feature this year is the Louisiana Blues Pavilion located near the Front Porch Stage, which features New Orleans-inspired paintings and photography, an array of Mardi Gras beads and information on local Zydeco dance groups. Adjacent food booths picked up on the Cajun-Creole groove, dishing up New Orleans steak sandwiches and sugar-coated beignets. With a portion of all food sales going to the Food Bank, you could munch without feeling any caloric guilt.
The festival continues through Sunday, with the biggest crowds of the weekend expected today for fireworks at approximately 10 p.m. This year’s display is twice as big as what the festival has offered in the past. Two separate barges will anchor on the Willamette River, with one positioned north of the Hawthorne Bridge, and the other to the south. Festival organizers say the addition of the second barge makes the Blues Festival fireworks twice as large as any other display in Oregon.
Kempe-Ware says the bigger display is a result of the Food Bank having friends in high places: ‘We asked the city if they would help fund it. They said ‘yes.’
“There are those who play music and then there are artist, the embodiment of all elements. Norman Sylvester is an artist and stylist who is a rooted singer/songwriter. The man hands down is an entertainer. Not only is he the quintessence of soul music with the funk, but also a gentlemen, which is hard to come by in music today.
Norman continues to prove that he is a true craftsman and artist, for he has been putting down his own thing for years now adapting and continuing to bring in people to his art. He is an artist, craftsman, originality all his own, soul man and a good friend of mine, someone worth knowing and aligning with in music.
Also, you cannot deny the man has style, with some of the best dress shoes I’ve seen in music. I’m jealous. I highly recommend Norman Sylvester, if you can handle true soul and all that funk baby.”
By The T
The Boogie Cat,- Norman Sylvester, says “Meow, Meow” to all you cats and kittens out there. WhenThe Boogie Cat says “Meow”, you can believe it! The anxious rumors creeping around town about him having a heart attack, while untrue, are testimonies to the man’s popularity as a performing artist, and as a person. The true rumor is that, during his 22 years working for a trucking company, he collected various physical injuries and insults, as is often the case with industrial strength labor. His hip was starting to cause him major pain, even while just playing his guitar. The Blues can cure a lot of stuff, but for some jobs you need a bigger hammer. His quality of life was deteriorating, and the pain was not biologically usefull, so he and his physician decided it was time to replace the hip, (“Getting hip” takes on new meaning), which took place in April.
Many musicians put off health care issues, mainly because of the cost, but sometimes also because, well, if you’re the Boogie Cat, you’re “busy”. Now recovered enough to start working again, Norman Sylvester talks about how he put his down time to good use.
During the time he was waiting for his hip to heal, The Boogie Cat was doing the Soap Opera Blues, since the TV news was too depressing and repetitive. Ordinarily, he was working so much he wasn’t getting any new tunes written; the words just weren’t coming. During his medical hiatus, he copyrighted eight new original tunes. These are be included in the new recording project.
This is where the Boogie Cat really shows his true colors. Before talking much about himself, he praises his co-workers, calling them a blessing. “I don’t believe so much in the omnipotence of one performer in a venue,” he says modestly. Bassist Rob Shoemaker has been part of the Boogie Cat family since 1985. Sylvester says Shoemaker is “as dependable as the rain in Oregon.” That’s a pretty strong statement. It’s a known fact that Shoemaker is absolutely the fight guy for a Blues/Soul groove. Regulars with the band include Peter Moss, who plays some horns that are bigger than he is. Fans can also enjoy the wonderful percussion work of Ashbolt Stewart, whose styles range across the international arena. Other guests often performing with the Norman Sylvester Band are award winning pianist and vocalist, Janice Scroggins, keyboardist/vocalist and Frankie Redding, and “blonde bombshell” LaRhonda Steele.
Frankie Redding, Sylvester’s high-school buddy and frequent band partner, is a popular personality and stylish keyboard player. He performed in the Portland area in his early years, at venues such as the Cotton Club. Redding is welcome everywhere, with his clever and great-sounding chordal contributions. He has a winning smile for everybody. Frankie Redding performs services on keyboards for any size group, from duo on up, and is a longstanding Boogie Cat music participant.
Norman Sylvester says, “When it comes down to puttin’ on a show, I have the right people to call upon. I consider myself blessed.” He reminisces about his very first recording, back in 1969, and today feels like he is “living a dream.”
“I love to see people having a good time,” he says. He considers it a privilege to be a messenger like that. “You can feel bad and sick,” he continues, “and after playing (music) you are ‘up”‘. Music and playing music are food for the soul. “That’s what keeps people here.” He notes that even if a musician is feeling down, “once you get to the gig, you feel fine.”
Sylvester cites some of his past performing credentials as if they were in fact a very good dream. He was invited to participate in James DePreist’s “Jammin’ with Jimmy” concert, and was backed by the Oregon Symphony. This kind of gig takes your performance to another level, and you ask yourself, “Where do you want to go from here?” “I’m doing just what can be done here in Portland,” Sylvesterstates. He describes himself as coming from the “old school” of valuing warm family relationships. He and his three sisters meet every Sunday to catch up on personal news and enjoy each other’s company. Sylvester has a 16 year old son, Norman Jr, who attends Benson High School. He has four daughters in Portland, a stepson Tyson, and two young grandchildren. Norman and wife Paula trade shifts caring for their four year old child, and working. Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester run Rose Town Cleaning Services, a residential and commercial cleaning business. After spending the day with his child, Norman will go to his bandstand “office”, play a gig, then go to work cleaning other people’s offices. “My night is real long sometimes,” he says in a modest understatement. When does this cat nap?
The Sylvesters bought a house that was built in 1903, and put a lot of work into it. Now, Norman looks forward to coming home after a gig.
“We are all over the place doing stuff,” he says of the band. Sylvester has booked the “Good In The Hood” neighborhood festival for 10 years, and still books music acts for the Inner City Festivalbenefiting the Rainbow Coalition.
The band would like to get out to other towns, doing more festivals and concerts. The recording on tape, “On The Right Track” has been re-mixed and is now available on CD, so if you wore out your copy, you can get a better one. The release titled, “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party” is also still in print.Sylvester says his legacy to the community and to the world will be his original compositions. “That’s my struggle, to keep my music original,” he says. Fans find themselves humming Sylvester’s tunes, requesting the tunes at live shows, and singing along with certain lyrics. Sylvester talks about “raising these songs up like children.” He talks about how every performance gives him something to take home. “If you didn’t learn something, you didn’t look at the show.” He says musicians need always to keep learning, and to try to keep remembering what people liked.
He says, “This is an open town – a lot is going on. This is as good as it gets.” Even so, he knows that musicians are often very self-critical, and promises that the newest recording project will be warm, live, not over-processed and good quality.
Norman Sylvester recalls jamming with and opening for artists such as BB King, James Cotton, andTower of Power. Sylvester especially treasures the memory of a trip to San Francisco in 1990 with local Blues hero, Mel Soloman, and the group, The Terraplanes, for an evening at the famed Mile High Club in Oakland, California, which was owned by the late Bluesman, Troyce Key. He jammed with Blues legend Luther Tucker on that memorable occasion. Sylvester, who shares a birthdate with BB King (September 16th) , has a lot of stories to tell. In looking back on the early years of the CBA, he talks about the great people and great organization. Special Boogie Cat thanks are relayed to Rick Hall, and to everyone, for their support while he was down and out. “I’m blessed,” Sylvester states often.
Job One for the Boogie Cat is “trying to keep the fans jumpin’.” Jump into a Boogie Cat Blues session soon. Check the Calendar listings or call the Boogie Cat Hot Line at 281-5989.