On the verge of his 65th birthday, boogie cat Norman Sylvester isn't slowing down a bit.
"I've got to set up at 7 a.m. for a 9 o'clock show, and I play Clyde's tonight. And then I'll go set up at Persimmons Country Club in the afternoon after AM NorthWest. And I'll do Vancouver Wine and Jazz from 4 to 5:30, then head over to Persimmons," he says.
Finding the energy to keep up with the summer festival and gig season can be downright tough when bar food is more plentiful than healthy food. But Sylvester says he's been trying ever harder to eat balanced meals as he gets older and has seen the devastation that diabetes can cause.
"What has touched me in my life? Diabetes is the number one thing," he told The Skanner News. "My mom passed away in 2001 from complications from diabetes … My sister's on dialysis. Diabetic. My keyboard player who went to high school with me, Frankie Redding, who plays with me from time to time … is four or five years on a kidney transplant."
The friends and loved ones affected by the disease don't end there, so in response, Sylvester will be holding a fund-raising gig for the Diabete's Association's Tour De Cure for his 65th birthday at 9 p.m. on Sept. 18 at Domenic's Bar and Grill on 16065 SE McLoughlin Blvd.
Although he doesn't suffer from the disease himself, it's been a facet of his life since his beginnings in Louisiana.
"Back down home, you'd hear the old folks say, 'yeah, old what's his name got that sugar, diabetes,'" he said.
Portland's longtime "Boogie Cat" is positive that fans will turn out to support the cause. He says that over the years, fans give – and ask for – a lot of emotional support from the band. Even Redding's life was saved by a fan.
"She came up and said in passing, 'I'll give Frankie a kidney,' and we said 'yeah right,'" he says. "When he really needed it, she stepped up, went in and they had a match and she went on a regiment to get a healthier state of life, for her benefit as well, for her recovery. She gave him a kidney. That's a second chance, man. It's quite a story."
Sylvester is deeply touched by the support he's been given by fans over the years. They've kept him going from the early days in a soul cover band in the '60s called "Rated-X" to his debut as the Norman Sylvester Band in 1987 when he opened for BB King at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and played the first Waterfront Blues Festival (then the Rose City Blues Festival).
Throughout the years, Sylvester says he's played with and nurtured some of the finest names in jazz and blues in the Northwest. From a young Patrick Lamb, a budding Janice Scroggins and his own daughter, Lenanne Sylvester Miller, the list of Sylvester's musical "family" is long and growing to this day.
When one of his fellow musicians dies, it has a profound effect on the community and the tunes. In 2001, after multiple amputations that left him wheelchair bound, Sylvester's guitar mentor and high school friend Isaac Scott died.
"His passing inspired me to listen to his music and try to carry on some of his style," he says.
It's also inspired him to get routine evaluations and encourage his friends to do the same. Scott didn't have insurance and found out too late that he'd been a full-blown diabetic for years.
Sylvester says that in addition to his advocacy about diabetes, he's worked closely with Ethos music center and Portland Public Schools to bring "blues to the schools." In one class, he helps students write and perform songs. He listens to their lyrics, records some tunes to fit them, gives students a CD with the music to practice and they perform the end product.
He also devotes a lot of time trying to teach children the history of music, so they can understand that modern hip hop didn't just form out of a bubble, that is the end product of hundreds of years of soul, blues, slave songs and African folk music.
Check www.normansylvester.com for music samples, discography and a list of gigs where you can see the Boogie Cat and his band play.