Norman Sylvester-Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series

Andrea DiPalma Yansane
December 24, 2020

Norman “The Boogie Cat” Sylvester (Portland) has aptly described himself as being “totally dedicated to the soul healing force of music” and when watching or listening to him, this is self-evident. He crafts an inclusive and communal musical environment where each listener is invited—with sound, emotion, and story—into a space where they can see themselves reflected. His lyrics rise directly from his life’s journey and his older electric styles, chord forms, and vocal expressions are influenced by the origins of American blues. In an interview with Vortex Magazine (full article here) he shares, “When I first heard the blues, I saw the tear-stained eyes and heard the mournful cries of people in bondage. The blues was the music the slaves carried from Africa. But the guitars and harmonicas were about freedom and transcendence.” The backbone of blues has always been the tradition of voicing black aspirations and experiences. Sylvester’s music travels through issues of social justice, economic struggle, longing, love, all joined in a cathartic liberation. But in the same note, in the same breath, he shares in a dance of celebration, joy, and humor.  

Sylvester was born and raised in Bonita, Louisiana, and his gospel and blues roots have deeply shaped his musical expression. He was influenced by his father who sang in a Southern Baptist gospel quartet called “The Spiritual Five,” as well as by the blues greats that wafted from jukeboxes across the Louisiana streets. In this endearing story, he describes his grandmother’s role in getting him to sing: “I was very shy” he said, “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.” His gospel roots still shine through in his performance—People Get Ready (Live)—as he encourages humanity to raise their hands and get on board the train, to come together in shared livelihood, with a unified spirit for change. Travel across a wide range of human experience and come out with uplifted faith in the power and goodness of the people.

At age 12, Sylvester moved from Bonita Louisiana with his family to the Northwest where he began learning to play guitar. For the last 30 years, Sylvester has been a staple of the local R & B scene in Portland. He is a mentor and teacher to many and is an active voice for social change in his community. He has taught courses for children on the “History of American Music” and "Music and Social Change.” He has worked with middle school students to write original songs across many genres, and he has been an advocate for Oregon’s Single Payer / Universal healthcare through volunteer work at the Inner-City Blues Festival fundraising event: "Healing the Health Care Blues.” (HCAO.ORG) He doesn't hold back and graciously shares with his community a message of resistance, resilience, and care.

Now 75, with seven children and nine grandchildren, he’s had many honors in his lifetime, including being inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame Live Performance, 2014, and opening for the likes of B.B. King, James Cotton, Mavis Staples, John Lee Hooker, Peter Frampton, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Tower of Power and many others. His band is a four-time winner of the Cascade Blues Association’s Muddy Award for Best R & B Band, Lifetime Achievement award 2013, and the 2017 recipient of George Page “Back What You Believe In” award. More on his achievements can be found on his website. But humble and kind as he is, he says, “I get an award every time I leave a club and someone tells me how good it made them feel that night. 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?”

His humor, charisma, and musical excellence in performances like “Fine as Frog Hair” might just change your day. So, treat yourself, check it out, and may it serve as a reminder that kindness is contagious! In the spirit of contagious goodness, you may just have to pass it along.  

By Sophia Kohl Enggren, Oregon Folklife Network Volunteer

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