Sylvia Syms

Sylvia Syms (December 2, 1917 – May 10, 1992) was an American jazz singer. She was also this author’s friend. I met Sylvia in 1981 while I was performing at Ted Hook’s, Backstage Restaurant on West 45th Street, in New York City. The club was a regular hang out for the rich and famous and Sylvia was a friend of Ted Hook’s and a “regular” at the club. She had a wonderful style and very unique, raspy tone to her voice. In 1981 she performed at Backstage as part of our New Years Eve show, along with myself, Rip Taylor (remember him???) Wayland Flowers & his puppet, “Madame” and composer, Jerry Herman. I accompanied her on the piano for her show and we became friends from that point on. I had heard that she was close friends with Billie Holiday, so of course I had a million questions -which she was only too happy to indulge. She told me that on one occasion she attended one of Billie’s shows where Billie had just been released from jail on a drug charge. Billie was trying to pull herself together in time for the performance but she was not dressed appropriately or wearing any make up. Sylvia helped Billie fix her hair and then took the gardenia she was wearing on her lapel and pinned it to Billie’s hair. Billie liked it so much that she wore a gardenia from that point on in during her performances.

She was friendly and gracious. I would frequently run into Sylvia while attending a cabaret show, fund-raiser, or at a local restaurant. She would always invite me over to her table to sit and visit with her.

She was born Sylvia Blagman in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, she had polio. As a teenager, she went to jazz-oriented nightclubs on New York’s 52nd Street, and received informal training from Billie Holiday. In 1941 she made her debut at a club called ‘Billy’s Stable’.

In 1948, performing at the Cinderella Club in Greenwich Village, she was seen by Mae West, who gave her a part in a show she was doing. Among others who observed her in nightclubs was Frank Sinatra who considered her the “world’s greatest saloon singer.” Sinatra subsequently conducted her 1982 album, Syms by Sinatra, which I feel is her best recording.

She was signed to a recording contract by Decca Records, having her major success with a recording of “I Could Have Danced All Night” in 1956. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.[1] Syms made regular appearances at the Carlyle in Manhattan. At times, impromptu, while enjoying a cocktail in the bar of the Carlyle, she would walk on stage and perform with the cabaret’s other regular, Bobby Short.

She died on stage at the Algonquin Hotel in New York from a heart attack, aged 74. I learned of Sylvia’s death while I was on a train and happened to glance over the shoulder of the person in front of me who was coincidentally reading the obituary column in the New York Times. It saddened me that such a lovely woman was gone. At the risk of sounding cliché, she absolutely died doing exactly what she loved.


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