by Linda Amiel Burns
The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret Convention paid tribute to the late Sylvia Syms in a gala evening hosted by Rex Reed.
The third night of the Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention on Oct. 20 was a salute to singer Sylvia Syms, hosted by her good friend Rex Reed. The stellar cast included Joyce Breach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Barbara Carroll, Maud Hixson, Nicolas King. Jay Leonhart, Marilyn Maye, Daryl Sherman, Marti Stevens, Billy Stritch, Carol Woods and Tom Wopat.
Sylvia was born Sylvia Blagman in 1917 and died in 1992 doing what she loved. It was on Mother’s Day, May 10th and she was performing at The Algonquin to a packed house. During the standing ovation, she gratefully said “my heart is so full” and collapsed into Cy Coleman’s arms and died.
Frank Sinatra called Sylvia the “world’s greatest saloon singer” and conducted her 1982 album, Syms by Sinatra. He nicknamed her “Buddah” and she called him “the Old Man.”
The legendary jazz pianist Barbara Carroll, accompanied by Jay Leonhart on bass opened the show with “You Must Remember Spring” and recalled playing on Sylvia’s first album for Atlantic Records in 1951. The session began at 2:00AM since she didn’t get off her gig at the Embers until late. Barbara has been at every Cabaret Convention for the past 27 years.
The program consisted of songs that Sylvia has recorded or sung in her acts. The dynamic Carol Woods performed “Big Fat Heart” a song cut from Seesaw and a lively “Pick Yourself Up.” Nicolas King was terrific on the medley of “Looking at You” and “That Face.” The wonderful Ann Hampton Callaway tore the house down with her Fats Waller medley of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin as did Tom Wopat on a swinging rendition of “Second Time Around.” Billy Stritch, accompanied by Tedd Firth on piano, swung on “Mountain Greenery” and accompanied himself on a tender “It Amazes Me.”
A special treat was the extraordinary Marilyn Maye’s beautifully acted “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom and her swinging “Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home.” A lovely photo of Sylvia taken by Eric Steven Jacobs was displayed on stage and a recording of Sylvia singing “I’ll See You Again” was played for the audience to hear her actual voice and understand why so revered.
This remarkable evening was filled with many recollections of Sylvia by the performers. Rex worshiped Betty Hutton and sang “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” from The Perils of Pauline. Sylvia once made Rex a birthday party at a friend’s penthouse and, as a surprise, she had arranged for Betty Hutton to bring out the cake! He said that despite health problems (her lung was removed in 1972) she was never despairing or self-pitying and had a great sense of humor.
I recall going to to see Sylvia’s show at Judy’s on West 44th Street with Sidney Myer and another friend. When we arrived we realized that we were the only three people in the audience and on the stage was Sylvia with a Trio. We told her that we would come another time and that she didn’t have do the show. Sylvia looked at us with fierce determination and said that “the show must go on” and she gave a remarkable performance. Now that is a trouper!
It is understandable why Sylvia deserved this heartfelt tribute from the Mabel Mercer Foundation, a special tribute at this year’s Cabaret Convention. The perfect way to end this salute to a very special lady who deserves to be remembered was having the entire cast close the show with Berlin’s “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song”
Photos: Fred Cohen Photography