NORMAN SYLVESTER BAND
by Ardis Hedrick
The hardest working man on the Northwest blues scene has got to be
"The Boogie Cat," as he is fondly known, Mr. Norman Sylvester.
The Back Room at Billy Reed's was a perfect place for Sylvester to
showcase his unique urban sound on a recent Saturday night. Norman Sylvester
has brought his musical talents and his entourage to the stage in Portland
full-time since 1990.
Before then, Sylvester worked his way up the ranks during 22 years
of employment at a large local trucking firm, limiting the time he could
devote to his musical career.
A major layoff at the company where Sylvester had invested so much
time caused a change in direction for him and created a break for local
Since that time, The Boogie Cat has carved out a special niche for
himself and his band. He steadily developed his signature guitar and
songwriting styles, while the band and the local blues scene grew up
Born in Louisiana in 1945, Sylvester moved to Portland with his family
in 1957. His father Mack sang in a gospel group, giving Norman an opportunity
to experience the power of music from an early age. Norman played for
the first big blues festival on the Portland Waterfront in 1988 and
has become a local favorite of blues, R&B and dance music fans
Through the years, many changes evolved for the man and his music,
but many constants remain contributing to the shaping of Sylvester's
style and stage persona.
Sylvester believes that "it's all about the show," and though
the group may bear his name, there is no doubt that this is a cooperative
effort. He gives credit where credit is due, acknowledging the contributions
of his "front woman" vocalist, LaRhonda Steele and his long-time
bass player Rob Shoemaker.
Shoemaker has stood like a rock by Sylvester's side since the start.
Always cool and collected, he lays down the back beat with a quiet
vengeance. Able to slide from a deep bluesy groove into a funky R&B
rift and right on over to one of Sylvester's upbeat urban originals,
Shoemaker has clearly remained a true friend and integral part of the
band and its development from day one.
Sylvester is a man who can inspire that kind of loyalty in a fellow
musician or in a wide base of fans. Well wishers, both known and unknown,
surround him during the one break the band takes this night.
Last year, an extended interruption occurred when Sylvester unexpectedly
developed hip problems from those years of working his way up the daytime
job ladder. Two surgeries later, Sylvester wants his fans to know that
he is now officially "the hippest cat in town!"
That attitude is a perfect example of the way this man appears to
take it all in stride. He seems blessed with a humble strength; his
music is key to that strength. He cites it as a healing thing, instrumental
during his recovery from surgery.
Sylvester told this writer how he found himself immersed in the current
events following tragic shootings in our nation's schools and many other
sobering incidents during the time when he should have been taking it
easy. He dealt with his concerns about these heavy reality-based issues
such as violence, education and communication by writing Redemption
Time; penned for the millennium as a commentary on the times. The
respite gave him time to write other songs he hopes to record in the
While many merely write and sing their songs decrying the state of
society, Norman Sylvester actually gets involved and makes a difference.
He truly walks the talk. Sylvester garnered one "Muddy Award"
from the Cascade Blues Association's annual pageant in all this time,
but it's the one that counts: The 1992 "Back What You Believe
In Award." He has booked music acts for the Inner City Blues Festival,
an annual benefit for the Rainbow Coalition, since its inception. This
year, the event moved to the Melody Ballroom, served up a great BBQ
and delivered a barrelhouse full of blues for one of the most colorful
and largest crowds to date.
Sylvester also books and rabidly promotes "Good In the Hood,"
an annual multi-cultural event presented for the last nine years at
Holy Redeemer Area School, 127 N. Portland Blvd. This year, he has 22
acts slated for the June 21-24 event that should appeal to all ages.
It's designed to expose people to diverse musical, cultural and dance
talents. Headliners set for the main stage include the Mel Brown Sextet,
Paul deLay, Linda Hornbuckle, Sonny Hess and the Power Band, Michael
Allen Harrison, Benny Wilson and Sylvester's own self-named band. The
multi-cultural stage will host a potpourri of International delights
from a 15-piece salsa band, to Eskimo, South Indian and Irish dancers,
to the Northwest African Ballet. The band Earthtones will headline
the kick-off party at McMenanim's for an Open House at the Kennedy School
location on June 21.
LaRhonda Steele has also walked with Sylvester many miles on his musical
journeys. Sylvester calls her "The Lady of Soul," and one
listen will tell you why. Raised in Oklahoma, Steele is a real professional
who strikes you as someone who would be successful at whatever endeavor
she pursues. She has that "winner" attitude and the talent
and experience to sing anything from traditional blues to R&B or
jazz. She also hails from a gospel music background and is an accomplished
acappella vocalist. It's obvious that Sylvester relies heavily on Steele's
positive and attractive stage presence and considerable talent to help
carry the show.
The band is incorporating more "cross-over" numbers as
it reaches for a wider audience and both Steele and skilled percussionist
Ashbolt Stewart fit the bill when it comes to the ability to cover a
wide variety of styles. Stewart plays drums, congas, marimbas and even
sings on a few tunes. Both Steele and Stewart joined the band about
five years ago and the effortless communication between the band members
onstage is evident.
The keyboard slot is currently filled by Dover Weinberg, a fixture
on the Portland music scene for many years. Weinberg sharpened his teeth
with The Paul deLay Band and is a welcome addition to many bands in
need of an ivory tickler on a regular or "special booking"
basis. Weinberg also works with The Duffy Bishop Band and is the host
for a popular and long-running blues jam Tuesday nights at It's A Beautiful
Pizza on S.E. Belmont. Weinberg's keys stood out on a cover of Stevie
Wonder's Superstition and added a special touch to numbers like
Knock on Wood, driven with a chugging beat by Stewart's tasteful,
Weinberg joined The Norman Sylvester Band at a time when illness
struck another long-time band member, Frankie Redding. Sylvester reports
that Redding, known for his "Funkmaster" keyboard style, is
Redding brought a "funky" sound to the band and his influence
is evident in the choice of material the band plays.
The presence of Pete Moss, master saxman, also adds a fuller body and
broader range to the Boogie Cat sound. Moss also plays flute on some
of the songs, providing a perfect point-counterpoint to LaRhonda Steele's
A sampling from the band's recent Back Room show includes a version
of When A Man Loves A Woman, given a new slant by a woman's interpretation.
Steele's heartfelt delivery was bolstered by Moss' soulful sax solo
and the tune caused the dance floor to fill. They next got funky with
one of Sylvester's special concoctions, a blending of Sly and the Family
Stone's I want To Take You Higher with their equally inspiring
Dance to the Music. They got serious with their production of
the aforementioned Redemption Time, then moved to an R&B
groove with Aretha's Respect. Steele positively glowed on this one,
while Sylvester slyly coaxed a purr from his trademark white Strat.
Swampy, rhythm and blues send-ups of versions of the traditional Let
It Roll and Use My Imagination made an appearance, along
with two Bill Withers' covers. The hit Use Me Up featured some
fine keyboard accompaniment that really pleased the crowd, while Ain't
No Sunshine When She's Gone received a moody, soulful presentation
topped with Sylvester's finger tapping finale. A bit more Sly with the
catchy Thank U For Letting Me Be Mice Elf joined the classic
road tunes Route 66 and Kansas City, capped with an inspired
version of Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay. This one gets special
attention from the band as they mix it up with a jumping interpretation
of Chain Gang. That, dear reader, is just a slice of The Norman
Sylvester Band pie!
Sylvester's real pride and joy are his original songs which he refers
to as "Northwest original music." Norman Sylvester is out
to make an original statement with his songs and says he is happy to
be alive and healthy, playing and writing the music he loves. Sylvester
recalls how his decision to play only original tunes at the first Portland
blues festival garnered his band a gig at the old Paramount Theater
opening for one of his icons, the great B. B. King. That still ranks
high on his list of favorite moments, as well as his band's inclusion
in last year's prestigious production, Jamming with Jimmy (DePreist)
with the Oregon Symphony. Sylvester proudly notes that the band played
an all-original set for that engagement, too. Another high point was
the 1991 Eugene Blues Festival where his band played a 90-minute set
before B. B. King and Buddy Guy's slots.
The Boogie Cat thanks his fans for keeping the momentum going and
reminds music lovers to always keep an open mind, heart and soul to
receive what's coming from the music. He admonishes the listener not
to be too critical in their dissection of an artist or their performance,
but to accept what they give at the time and savor it, embracing all
styles of music.
The Norman Sylvester Band is currently in rotation at the Edgewater
Lounge @ the Coliseum, Gemini Pub, The Trail's End, the M & M Lounge
and the Cascade Bar and Grill (see Bandstand). They have booked lots
of "casuals" lately such as weddings and corporate events.
In addition, the band plays as a quartet (minus LaRhonda Steele and
a keyboardist) Tuesday nights at the Tillicum Club for the last five
years and hosted the Boogie Cat Jam on Thursday nights at the Candlelight
Room for eight-and-a-half solid years. That must be a record!
Somewhere in there, Sylvester still finds the time with his wife Paula
to operate Rose Town Cleaning Services, a commercial cleaning business
Norman Sylvester has his eye on the prize and he's in it for the long
haul, hoping to continue making the Portland music scene his home for
many years to come. Get out there and show some support and remember
why this man is working so hard! It's for the music we all love to love.
(See Bandstand for schedule.)