Saluting Sylvia Syms

“She lifted the art of life and sang to the height of excellence…” Rex Reed

Helmed by journalist/author Rex Reed, her intimate friend, Thursday’s New York Cabaret Convention salute to Sylvia Syms (1917-1992) is as illuminating as it is entertaining. The well produced event features affectionate, amusing, well balanced recollections by Reed and those appearing vocalists who knew her, as well as numbers out of Syms’s repertoire.

In 1992, Reed tells us, he was awakened by “an angry, urgent phone call” from Liza Minnelli. “We lost her,” she sobbed. Sylvia Syms had a heart attack and “dropped dead into the arms of Cy Coleman” while in performance at the Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel. “When I go,” she told me a thousand times, “I wanna go in the middle of a standing ovation.” Our host is a terrific storyteller.

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Rex Reed

We begin with the inimitable Barbara Carroll. Syms asked the pianist to play on her first album in 1951. Discovering Carroll worked until 2 am, the recording was schedule for that hour. A piano tuner was even awakened when the studio instrument was found lacking. With Jay Leonhart on bass, Carroll plays “I Wanna Be Yours” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” making them, as she does everything, her iconoclastic own. Listen to the winking integration of classical influence, to the reflective retards, complex notations, and utter clarity.

Highlights of the evening:

“As wonderful as she was with ballads, she could also be a very funny broad…she said: If you wanna know what I sing like baby, go home and tear up a rag…I don’t care what anybody does in bed. I just wish they’d do it to me once in awhile.” Jay Leonhart’s rendition of “I Always Say Hello to A Flower” is perfect, deadpan drollery. One forgets how well the consummate bassist can sing. (Tomoko Ohno-Piano)

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Barbara Carroll; Carol Woods

Syms, it seems, liked to rescue songs. “Big Fat Heart” was cut from the musical Seesaw. Carol Woods’s version is conversational and expressive. There’s an oomph to her delivery adding geniality. Later we hear “Pick Yourself Up” from this vocalist. It’s kind of preaching, full of infectious brightness and optimism.  (Barry Levitt-Piano)

“Despite her impeccable taste in ballads, she would also swing…” At 17, Syms would be snuck into 52nd Street jazz clubs by sympathetic doormen, sequestered in hat check rooms so she could listen and observe. Reed credits her with spontaneously supplying Billie Holiday’s famous gardenia, apparently meant to cover a hole burned in her hair one evening before a show.

Nicolas King swings in with “Looking At Me”/ “That Face”/ “Look At That Face” as polished and robustly rhythmic as a full fledged member of the Rat Pack. The man gets this to his bones. In Act II, King offers “Here’s That Rainy Day” with full, rarely heard verse. The melancholy number emerges meticulously controlled, subtly modulated. A lovely interpretation. King covers the stage, drawing in his audience with awareness and flair. (Jon Weber-Piano)

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Nicolas King; Billy Stritch

Accompanied by Tedd Firth, Billy Stritch takes center stage, offering only vocal for a change. “Mountain Greenery” is jacked-up and jazzy. The understated Stritch plays with repetition, octave slides, scat, and rhythm making a virtuoso turn seem easy. Later, at the piano, he sighs “It Amazes Me” leading us to empathize with every surprised and grateful lyric. There’s no doubt the performer could’ve made a career as a vocalist if he so chose.

There are stories about Syms’s 3am telephone calls, her appreciation of gossip, uncensored, sometimes caustic opinions, terrific loyalty, generosity, and of Francis Albert Sinatra’s undying devotion.

The ever vital and savory Marilyn Maye sings “Fifty Percent” with powerful authenticity: I don’t share his name/I don’t wear his ring/There’s no piece of paper saying that he’s mine/But he says he loves me, and I believe it’s true/Doesn’t that make someone belong to you? We believe every dramatic, confessional word. Maye returns with “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” starting with unexpected a capella, launching into swing with her very own superb grace and brio. (Tedd Firth-Piano)

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Marilyn Maye; Ann Hampton Callaway

Ann Hampton Callaway is, for my money, the highpoint of the evening. When this vocalist is on stage, she becomes an additional musical instrument. An originally interpreted Fats Waller medley is propulsive, crisp, and sassy. The artist steps from side to side, shoulders slightly swaying and covers a bit of ground as if she can’t stand still. It’s Happy. Her second contribution is one of the plumiest versions of “Skylark” I’ve ever heard. Tedd Firth caresses the piano; Hampton Callaway embraces lyrical meaning-both swept away romantics. Leonhart’s bass solo is like a bird hitching a ride, backstroking on a breeze. Radiant.

Reed himself sings two heartfelt numbers. The second, “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” reflects “how I felt about her personally and saying goodbye.” It’s moving.

Before we close, our host has the discernment to play Syms’s own voice for those who are unfamiliar and to remind others. “At the time of her passing, she was planning a new album …”  We hear an ardent “I’ll See You Again” (Noel Coward) with almost constant, quiet vibrato, lyrics exiting like smoke rings. Silvia Sym’s portrait looks on smiling.

Also featuring: Joyce Breach, Maud Hixon, Daryl Sherman, Marti Stevens, Sally Mayes, Tom Wopat, Jay Leonhart-Bass; Ray Marchica-Drums

All unattributed quotes are Rex Reed

Opening: Stephen Sorokoff; Other Photos Maryann Lopinto

The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents
Saluting Sylvia Syms
Hosted by Rex Reed
The 27th New York Cabaret Convention
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
October 20, 2016

About Alix Cohen (1288 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.