Cabaret Through Time Fridays At McElrath Cabaret: Sylvia Syms–Join Us!

Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, entertainers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!

Sylvia Syms–Cabaret Legend

Sylvia Syms on Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s classic “As Long As I Live.”

Today’s post features the sublime Sylvia Syms, a saloon singer, a cabaret singer of note.  My sources for today’s entry come from The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook by Bob Harrington and edited by Sherry Eaker, as well as Wikipedia and a website called Oldies.com.  Unfortunately, there is no official website for Ms. Syms, so it is a matter of piecing together bits of information from various sources to try to get a sense of this wonderful performer.  There are several great You Tubes available, and during her life she recorded several albums as well.

 

 

Portrait of Sylvia Syms and Bob Wyatt, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948

 

Ms. Syms was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York.  As a child, she suffered from polio, but this did not stop her from attaining star status later in life as a singer who understood the lyrics.  At one point during her teen years, she had opportunity to study for a time with Billie Holliday, and eventually began singing in clubs in 1941.  At one of these appearances by Syms a few years later, Mae West spotted her and Syms was given the opportunity to appear on Broadway in Diamond Lil, which starred West.  Syms was not only a great singer but also a talented actor, who performed at regional theatres in such roles as Bloody Mary from South Pacific, and Dolly Levy from Hello, Dolly.

She was a prolific recording artist during her working years.  Some of her albums include:

  • Songs By
  • After Dark
  • Sylvia Sings
  • Songs Of Love
  • Torch Song
  • That Man
  • Fabulous
  • Sylvia Is!
  • For Once In My Live
  • Love Lady
  • Lovingly
  • She Loves To Hear The Music
  • Syms By Sinatra (this album was produced by Frank Sinatra, a long-time admirer of Sym’s work, in 1982)
  • A Jazz Portrait Of Johnny Mercer
  • Then Along Came Bill
  • You Must Believe In Spring
  • The Columbia Years

Her 1956 recording of the Lerner and Lowe classic “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady, sold over one million copies.

She performed in a variety of nightclubs in New York City.  Some of them were:

  • Billy’s Stable (her premiere NYC performance)
  • The Cinderella Club in Greenwich Village
  • Eighty-Eight’s
  • Michael’s Pub
  • Freddy’s
  • The Cafe Carlyle (at times she sang with Bobby Short here)
  • The Algonquin Hotel
The Duplex is a notable club where Syms performed.  In The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook, Bob Harrington recounts that “The Duplex became a cabaret in 1948, when Bret Morrison, radio’s famous Shadow (‘Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?  The Shadow knows!’) decided he wanted a room for his wife to sing in on a regular basis.  His wife?  Sylvia Syms . . .” (21).  Ms. Syms is quoted by Harrington as saying, “When I began in this business, they called the cabarets saloons.  And I was a saloon singer.  In the last few years, I came back to work in what they now call, quote unquote, cabaret.  And it’s the same as working in a saloon!  Which just goes to prove the old adage, what goes around comes around, no matter how many times it goes around” (43).

She died doing what she loved:  after performing a Frank Sinatra tribute set at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on May 10, 1992, she came down off the stage, and seeing Cy Coleman in the audience, walked over to talk to him.  As she reached him and leaned over at the table to speak, she had a heart attack and died on the spot.

Today’s cabaret entertainer can learn a great deal from Sylvia Syms.  Listen to her exquisite phrasing of the lyrics.  None of her singing notes are pinched, but smooth and flowing from idea to idea in both the melody and the lyrics.  She is a master storyteller in song.

Frank Sinatra called Sylvia Syms “the world’s greatest saloon singer.”

Some great videos of Sylvia Syms:

“Lonely Woman” by Benny Carter, in this recording accompanied on piano by Barbara Carroll

“My Ship” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin

Noel Coward’s “Mad About The Boy”

 

What are your favorite songs that Sylvia Syms recorded?  Did you have opportunity to see Ms. Syms perform live?  Please leave a comment below and tell us about it–I would love to hear from you!

 

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ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party will begin anew on Monday–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or now website link through Thursday.  Link is below.

 

Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays:  Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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