Sunday, May 17, 1992
Sylvia Syms, One of Pop's Great Storytellers
by James Gavin
The extended Oak Room booking was a rare outing for a performer whose health problems, including emphysema, had limited her recent work to benefits and one-nighters. As she left the stage last Sunday, almost midway through the five-week engagement, the 74-year-old Miss Syms collapsed and was taken to St. Clare's Hospital; she died of a heart attack.
Miss Syms was one of the last of a tradition. Like Felicia Sanders, Mabel Mercer and Billie Holiday, she was a master of the intimate storytelling style that flowered in Manhattan clubs of the 40's and 50's. It is a genre in which singers transform lyrics into deeply personal, one-to-one conversations between themselves and their listeners. Miss Syms had often called her rapport with audiences a love affair, and at the close of her Algonquin shows, she had greeted her final ovation by speaking the words of Frank Loesser's "My Heart Is So Full of You." Her show, "Syms Celebrates Sinatra," was a tribute to her friend and mentor of five decades, who had once pronounced her "the best saloon singer in the business."
Short, plump and round-faced, with large eyes and arms that stretched wide to emphasize a point, Miss Syms, when seated on top of the Oak Room piano, looked every bit the "Buddha," the nickname given her by Mr. Sinatra. Although her throaty contralto had grown rough, and her breathing labored, she had sung as if determined to share the wisdom of a lifetime in the space of a single song. In a review of a show last fall at Eighty-Eight's in Manhattan, Stephen Holden of The Times said Miss Syms's singing "transcends the ravages of time through indomitable will combined with an interpretive wisdom that has deepened dramatically in recent years."
Born to a poor family in Brooklyn in 1917, Miss Syms had discovered jazz as a teen-ager while listening to live radio broadcasts from the stretch of clubs along West 52d Street, then known as Swing Street. She had been eager to learn how to sing this music. "Here I was," she remembered that day in the coffee shop, "a fat little girl with long braids, walking around the street from club to club. It was summertime. There were no air-conditioners in those places, and all the doors were wide open. I would stop and listen. I only had a nickel, how was I gonna get in?" Eventually, she was befriended by performers like Art Tatum, Lester Young and Holiday, who was known as Lady Day.
Allowed to stand in the checkroom of one of the clubs, Three Deuces, she would watch Holiday night after night. The expressiveness of Holiday's voice had impressed Miss Syms, in part because its coarseness and limited range had reminded her of her own. She liked to tell a story from this period that has become a part of jazz lore: one night in the dressing room, Holiday burned her hair with a curling iron. Miss Syms placed a gardenia over the burned spot in Holiday's hair; the flower became the singer's trademark.
When Miss Syms made her professional debut at Kelly's Stable, a club on 52d Street, in 1941 at the age of 23, she unsurprisingly sounded a lot like her idol. "Leonard Feather, the jazz critic, finally told me, 'Hey, we already have a Billie Holiday, who needs you?' " she had recalled. "But I swung, and I had heart. The reason for that is an understanding I got from Lady about being a storyteller, which was more important than the way you sounded."
The mid-40's began a busy period of nightclub work for Miss Syms with frequent appearances at New York rooms like Le Ruban Bleu and the Bon Soir. She gained a reputation for combining standards with new works by young composers. One of them was Cy Coleman, whose songs entered the saloon repertory years before his first Broadway show, "Wildcat," in 1960. "Sylvia was extremely generous in her support," says Mr. Coleman. "She never missed an opportunity to tell people about my songs." Miss Syms went on to record for several major labels, scoring a hit in 1956 with "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady." She also won acting roles, notably Bloody Mary in several regional productions of "South Pacific."
In the late 60's, however, Miss Syms's health had begun to deteriorate. A heavy smoker, she developed emphysema and was then stricken with lung cancer, costing her part of her left lung, her spleen and a portion of her intestine. Shortly after recovering, she broke both legs in a car accident and spent a year in a wheelchair. Miss Syms finally went back to work in 1974. She performed sporadically at nightclubs until her death. Miss Syms had considered her 1982 album, "Syms by Sinatra," in which she is backed by a 34-piece orchestra conducted by Mr. Sinatra, a highpoint of her later career.
Over coffee, Miss Syms spoke with sadness about the dearth of opportunities for newcomers today. "Where do you go to learn your craft?" she had asked. Even the word cabaret, she had said, sounded suspicously grandiose for what those of her generation still call saloons. She found that although many younger performers had mastered the technical skills, they lacked "the dedication of busting your behind."
"If Laurence Olivier just had technique he would never have been who he was," she had said. "In these little rooms you have to be totally truthful, or else you smell like cheap perfume."
Rosemary Clooney, who began singing in clubs in 1979 after a long career as a recording star, acknowledged Miss Syms's sharp analytical eye. "She could walk into your dressing room and tell you what you did that was good and what you did that was bad, and be very close to the mark every time," Miss Clooney said.
Miss Syms had been looking forward to a November concert at Town Hall, to be called "A Walk Down Swing Street: Sylvia Syms's Recollections of 52d Street," and the release next month of her 15th album, "You Must Believe in Spring: The Words of Alan and Marilyn Bergman," a tribute to the pop-music and movie lyricists. Miss Syms made the album while caring for her ailing 94-year-old mother, who died in April. "The voice isn't clear or beautiful," she said of the album. "But it's me, and it's real."
She had relished the Oak Room engagement as another chance to spend time with her audience, though she had still fretted about her looks. "Why don't I go and have a face lift? Because, honey, what you see is what you get. I'm gonna try and convince you that I'm Miss America? I'm not. I'm a mean old lady, and opinionated. But it's my privilege."
Miss Syms lived alone in a small Manhattan apartment. She often reflected on a craft that had meant more to her at the end than it had when she began: "I can live without a lot of things, but I can't live without singing. This is the most glamorous I'll ever be, the most loved I'll ever be. It's the most love I can give. I'm down to the bottom of my sound, but I'm up to the clearest understanding of my life."