Norman Sylvester lends his blues licks to cause of universal health care

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO: LORI HALL - Norman Sylvester has always given his time to worthy causes, such RAD Rock Day at a West Linns Rosemont Ridge Middle School. Sylvester has been a hard-working musician known for his dashing wardrobe. He was there with a group of musicians playing a tribute when the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall reopened in 1984.

He played the first Waterfront Blues Festival in 1987, back when it was called the Rose City Blues Festival.

He opened for B.B. King in 1987 and '91. He was inducted into the Oregon Hall of Fame in 2011.

Norman Sylvester, "The Boogie Cat," is a fixture on the Portland music scene.

“He knows the scene and he wears many great hats. He pulls off some of the greatest suits, and I really love him for it,” says Don Campbell, a member of the Cascade Blues Association and fellow Portland blues scene musician since the early 1980s.

Sylvester came from a family of singers and developed a passion for the blues, starting his own band in 1985. There are not too many harder-working musicians around, as Sylvester plays gigs around town nearly every weekend.

These days, his passion extends to people in need, including his own musical brethren.

Sylvester says he has been blessed to have had access to health care his whole career, but there are others who are not so lucky. Sylvester puts in hours of his time contributing to benefits and causes to help out his fellow musicians who are suffering from illnesses, folks who can't afford to receive care due to lack of insurance.

On Saturday, April 13, Sylvester will perform for the second annual “Healing the Healthcare Blues” Inner City Blues Festival: “In the Groove of Love,” at the Melody Ballroom. The festival benefits the organization Healthcare for All-Oregon. The Norman Sylvester Band, with Ben Rice, will perform songs from its album released last year, "Blues Stains on My Hands."

Doors open at 6 p.m., the music starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through

"Health care is a human right," says Sylvester, 67.

The current health system has forced him into attending more and more funerals of fellow musicians as the number of illnesses and deaths rise from lack of health care resources.

On Feb. 4, sporting a red zoot suit on the steps of the Oregon Capitol, backed by a crowd of demonstrators, Sylvester played his song, “Healing the Healthcare Blues,” the performance a part of a rally put on by Healthcare for All-Oregon for the opening of the Legislature’s session. At the same time, the song contributed to the new name of the Inner City Blues Festival.

His words: “I don't care what party you're in, Democratic or Republican ... Heal the health care blues, It's the only way we can win.”

His cause has deep meaning.

Isaac Scott, a Seattle bluesman and Sylvester's best friend (he credits Scott with teaching him the blues), was a full-blown diabetic for many years and wasn’t able to find out because of his lack of health care and access to preventive checkups. Scott died in 2001 at age 56 from complications of his condition.

Messenger of peace

Sylvester grew up in a musical environment, although the need to provide good health care for his family prevented him from being a full-time musician.

From Bonita, La., Sylvester came to music through his family. His father, Mack Sylvester, was a spiritual singer who performed in a quartet. Sylvester says that singing was not a choice in his family. “My grandmother didn’t ask me if I wanted to sing in the choir,” he says. “She told me I was singing in the choir.”

After he came to Portland with his family in 1957, Sylvester began expanding his knowledge of music. His first guitar was an acoustic that his father bought for $11.95. A year later, after learning three songs, his father, as promised, bought him a mail-order electric guitar and a small amplifier for $99.

In 1965, Sylvester went to see Buddy Guy at Reed College Commons, and worked his way backstage with a friend. After being told that Sylvester could play, Guy handed him his guitar and told him to go out and open up the set for him. From then on, Sylvester was “hooked on the blues.”

Despite his love of playing music, when Sylvester was a young man it was never an option for him to be a full-time musician — as he calls it a “messenger of peace and happiness.”

Because of his need to provide health care for his five children, Sylvester worked in trucking for 25 years, playing music on the side when possible.

After the bankruptcy of his employer, and the fact that his children were grown, Sylvester decided to follow his love of music. The first Norman Sylvester Band started in 1985.

In trying to come up with a logo and name for his label, Sylvester’s name was connected to Sylvester J. Pussycat of "Looney Tunes"; after putting together a logo of a zoot suit-wearing cat with Sylvester’s nose and chin, Boogie Cat Productions and "The Boogie Cat” were born.

After being remarried in 1994, Sylvester’s family grew to eight children. Later, he would have his own medical issues. In 2000, Sylvester was told that both his hips were being worn down. That year, he had two hip surgeries. Luckily, Sylvester had insurance at the time, a luxury that cost his family $640 a month, a figure that would later skyrocket to $1,200 a month.

Sylvester went on to have two more hip surgeries, one in 2006 and one in 2008. Since his hips have now been completely replaced, Sylvester calls himself "a bionic blues man."

Campbell also has had hip replacement surgery. “It’s weird,” Campbell says. “We used to know each other as the young guys, and now we’ve turned into the old guys.”

Campbell says that since many musicians cannot afford health insurance, a lot of them take the chance that nothing’s going to happen to them and go without it. But when something happens, others involved in Portland’s music scene are there to help.

“When a fellow musician goes down,” Campbell says. “We all try to pitch in.”

“The community is really strong,” says Sylvester, who participates regularly in benefits for musicians who have fallen to various illnesses, including most recently a benefit for Linda Hornbuckle in November 2012.

“If there’s a benefit of some kind, Norman’s one of the first people to sign up,” Campbell says.

The Inner City Blues Festival has a long history of playing blues to support the community, and Sylvester has been involved from the beginning. From 1988 to 2003, the festival, then called "Jam for Jesse," happened to benefit the Portland Rainbow Coalition.

After a short hiatus, the festival started up again last year with its new cause. Last year, "Healing the Healthcare Blues" pulled in more than 900 people and volunteers, and raised $10,000.

The beat goes on, thanks to people such as Sylvester.

"We expect once again to sell out the Melody Ballroom," event organizer Bob Gross says.

Sylvester says the event is about getting the word out — although what has been tabbed "Obamacare" has definitely been in the news the past couple years. 

“It is a big business, there’s a lot of money in the medical field, and it’s not trickling down,” Sylvester says. “It’s time in 2013 for the government to look at it.”

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