Sylvester James. 1948-1988. A voice that was raised in the Baptist church and on Aretha Franklin records; he developed a falsetto that put him on the Mount Rushmore of rock falsetti (see: Curtis Mayfield). Sylvester & the Hot Band was rock and roll, a San Francisco band that was a little too late for the 60s gold rush; they recorded two early-70s LPs. David Bowie beat him to the punch, by a year or so, in dressing in drag on an album cover, but Sylvester was the first American to do so, perhaps. Sylvester's first solo album came in 1977, after having been discovered by Harvey Fuqua, Marvin Gaye's former producer, who had actually been in the audience with the intention of hearing Martha Wash, one of the backup singers.

The album wasn't disco, but a continuation of the soul/rock thread of earlier years. The second album (Step II, 1979) wasn't meant to be disco either. But budding synthesist Patrick Cowley, in a move similar to Tom Wilson's adding a rock rhythm section to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence", added an "I Feel Love"-inspired electro-disco beat to a Fuqua-produced Sylvester ballad called "(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real". It worked; San Francisco now had its own home-grown Giorgio Moroder, and the Sylvester/Cowley melding of synthesizers and gospelly vocals formed a blueprint for house music and Hi-NRG productions in the subsequent decades. "Dance (Disco Heat)" repeated the success of "Mighty Real", and Sylvester henceforth was identified with disco. Aside from That Voice, Sylvester's Hot Band past and irrepressible personality made him a lot more interesting onstage than the average disco performer.

Cowley became persona non grata with the record label (Fantasy) when "disco" became a four-letter word. Sylvester jumped ship (after singing "as a man" on Too Hot to Sleep, a forced attempt at an non-disco LP, in which Cowley and the backup singers, Two Tons of Fun, including Wash, had been ousted), signing with Cowley's own Megatone Records. But Cowley died in 1982, an early victim of AIDS; their last big collaboration was "Do You Wanna Funk?", another classic. Sylvester himself became HIV-positive, becoming physically unable to sing after the mid-80s, dying in 1988. But he became the Aretha of disco, perhaps, during his few years of international prominence.

In Israel1, December 31 or New Year's Eve is commonly referred to as Sylvester. Nobody knows why...

Then again, it wouldn't be much of a write-up if I didn't check beforehand.

December 31 is known as Sylvester in the name of Pope Sylvester I (AD 314-335). Ol' Sylvie was one of the most notorious antisemites of his day, and backed by The Edict of Milan passed various laws that demoted Jews to second-class citizenship. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the influence of Sylvie's laws spread throughout Europe and became the basis of modern anti-Semitism, the cause for the persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, etc. The feast of Sylvester I (December 31, the date of his death) has been for centuries an occasion for Pogroms (including the first one ever, on December 31, 1400) and various Jew-mangling activities.

And yet it's still considered a (semi-official) holiday in Israel.

1According to smartalix, December 31 is called Sylvester in Germany as well.
"Which well-known cartoon character is famous for uttering the immortal words, 'Sufferin' succotash'?"

In 1985, Peter Tomarkin asked that question on the game show, Press Your Luck. The contestants all identified a certain cartoon cat. The host told them they were wrong, and attributed the line to Daffy Duck. Later in the show, Mel Blanc himself, for decades the voice of the Looney Tunes, called in, as Sylvester, to correct the error.1 Of course, Daffy has uttered the line on a couple of occasions but, as Sylvester explained to Tomarkin, "Daffy Duck steals from me all the time."

Of course, the cat first stole from the duck. Mel Blanc gave Sylvester a variation of his Daffy voice. Like most Looney Tunes characters, the cat suffers from a significant speech impediment—- in this case, a slobbery "S" lisp-- and he seems strangely drawn to selecting speech he cannot correctly say. These include such things as his own name, and his celebrated saying, which may derive from "suffering savior."

Fritz Freleng introduced the character in "Life with Feathers" (1945), a rather melancholy 'toon wherein a lovesick love bird tries to commit suicide by getting a cat to eat him. The cat is recognizably Sylvester, though he would not be named until the decade's end. Later that year he matched wits with an annoying woodpecker in "Lock Up Your Troubles." Warner producer Edward Selzer suggested developing the woodpecker as the cat's foe, but fate or, at least, Freleng intervened, and the feline was paired with a certain other bird in 1947's "Tweetie Pie." For the first of many times, Freleng's cat would fail miserably in his attempts to eat Tweety Pie. "Tweetie Pie" won the cat and bird team the first of their two Oscars. Sylvester, however, goes by the name "Thomas" in this 'toon. His prospective prey, it should be noted, made his/her debut in 1942's "A Tale of Two Kitties," facing down a pair of cats with Sylvester's distinct tuxedo markings.2

"Scaredy Cat" (1948) gave the cat his official name. He has since been identified as Sylvester J. Cat and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The name plays on Felis sylvestris catus, a one-time scientific name for the domestic cat.3

Sylvester has sometimes appeared as an alley cat, scrounging for food, harassing Tweety, and disturbing Elmer Fudd with his singing ("Back Alley Op-Roar," 1948). At other times he has been depicted as Porky Pig's pet, first in 1946's "Kitty Kornered." The Pig-with-cat 'toons include three memorable horror stories: "Scaredy Cat" (1948), "Claws for Alarm" (1954, and "Jumpin’ Jupiter" (1955). In these outings Sylvester cannot speak, and he's a nervous, shivering coward. Curiously, the first ends with Sylvester overcoming his cowardice and adopting his more familiar attitude, aggressive and proud.4

Most often, however, he has an affiliation with Granny, who typically owns Tweety Pie and, in some cartoons, a bulldog named Hector. Over the course of his career, however, Sylvester has played opposite nearly every major Loony Toon. After Tweety, his favorite potential prey is Speedy Gonzales. He even took on Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, who appear as parrots in 1947's "Catch as Cats Can."

In 1950's "Pop 'Im Pop" he was given a son, Sylvester, Jr., and several cartoons have been released wherein father attempts to impress his kitten. Frequently, these 'toons show Sylvester mistaking Hippety Hopper the kangaroo for a giant mouse—a gag first introduced in 1948's "Hop, Look, and Listen." The father/son pairings gave Sylvester new ground to cover, and many of these cartoons were selected for rotation on The Bugs Bunny Show.

Of Sylvester's many and varied roles, perhaps his most bizarre occur in "The Scarlet Pumpernickle" (1950) and "Tom Tom Tomcat"(1953). In the former, Sylvester plays a villainous aristocrat opposite Daffy Duck's titular swashbuckler. The latter features western settlers Granny and Tweety facing off against a band of Native American wildcats who all look like Sylvester.

His final appearance in Warner Brother's original theatrical cartoons was 1966's "A Taste of Catnip." In the 1980s, Warner licensed The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show, in which the Sylvester cartoons figure prominently. In the 1990s, he appeared in Tiny Toon Adventures and The Tweety and Sylvester Mysteries. He has since appeared in longer-running Warner Brothers films, such as Space Jam (1996), and various commercials. Sylvester has also prowled the pages of comic books, produced by Dell and later Gold Key between 1954 and 1972. Perhaps due to his tenacious character, he appears on the badges of the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and Marine Attack Squadron 311. And, of course, in 1985, he called in to correct an error on a popular talk show.

Sylvester has never achieved the fame of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, but he remains one of Warner Brothers most widely-viewed characters.

1. Actually, the producers of the show recognized the error, and arranged for the Mel Blanc call to be added in post-production.

2.Tweety's first cat-foes were based on comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Tweety himself lacked a name in his first appearance, and had more of a pinkish coloration. However, the character is unmistakably Tweety Pie. Warner Brothers, it should be noted, considers the character male, but many people think of Tweety as female. Strictly speaking, of course, Tweety is a cartoon drawing.

3. The domestic cat is now classified as Felis catus, while the wildcat is Felis sylvestrus.

4. A tongue-in-cheek essay attached to my review of "Jumpin' Jupiter" offers an explanation for his atypical characteristics in these cartoons. Sylvester has also been silent in two other early shorts, "Peck Up Your Troubles"(1945)-- his second screen appearance-- and "Doggone Cats"(1946).

Some sources:

Jerry Beck. Ultimate Looney Tunes. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2003.

Jerry Beck and Will Freidwald. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. New York: Holt, 1989.

Matthew Hunter. "A History of Sylvester in Warner Brothers Cartoons." Too Looney.

Brian Sapinski. "Press Your Luck Points of Interest." Sonic Whammy’s Realm of Game Shows.

"Sylvester." Wikipedia.

"A Tale of Two Kitties." Wikipedia.

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