Please Mrs. Avery . . . This Song Is Stuck In My Head

Sylvia's Mother Story

Anytime I hear the song “Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, it ends up stuck in my head for some time as an earworm.  It is one of those songs I have heard many times since its release in 1975, but I never thought too much about it even though it is an unusual song.  So, where did “Sylvia’s Mother” come from?

In “Sylvia’s Mother,” the singer calls a former lover but ends up speaking to her mother. Sylvia’s mother tells the man that her daughter is leaving town to marry another man. She tells the man not to say anything to Sylvia, but as the song continues the singer realizes that Sylvia is there with her mother, preparing to leave. But apparently Sylvia does not know it is him on the phone.

The power of the song largely comes from the aching vocal provided by Dr. Hook singer Dennis Locorriere as the singer begs with Sylvia’s mother: “Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her/ I’ll only keep her a while.”

One of the interesting things about “Sylvia’s Mother” is that it was written by Shel Silverstein, which helps explain why the song does not sound like most other songs.  Silverstein is noted for writing Johnny Cash songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “25 Minutes to Go.”  Perhaps he is even more well known for his drawings, poetry, and books, such as The Giving Tree.

“Sylvia’s Mother” was not the only song that Silverstein wrote for Dr. Hook. At the time Silverstein gave the band “Sylvia’s Mother,” Silverstein had already provided several songs to the band. But when the band was looking for a potential single to add to their first album, Silverstein offered them a new song, “Sylvia’s Mother.”

“Sylvia’s Mother” initially bombed as a single when Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show released the self-titled album in 1971. But they had faith in the song, so instead of releasing another single, they released “Sylvia’s Mother” again as a single in July 1972. This time it was a hit. Silverstein eventually provided another hit to the band in 1973 with “Cover of the Rolling Stone.”

Another interesting fact about “Sylvia’s Mother” is that Silverstein based it upon a true story from his own life. Silverstein had a relationship with a woman named Sylvia Pandolfi, but like many relationships, this one ended. Later, Silverstein, still in love, called her, but Pandolfi told him she was preparing to fly to Mexico to marry another man. The next day, Silverstein called again, talking to Sylvia’s mother, who reaffirmed to the distraught man that his relationship was finished.

The following short video tells the real story behind “Sylvia’s Mother,” featuring both the real “Sylvia” and her mother. Arjan Vlakveld directed the short documentary.  Some sources, like Wikipedia, spell the name of the real woman as “Silvia,” but this video and other sources indicate her name was spelled the same way as in the song, “Sylvia.”

The lead singer of “Sylvia’s Mother” Dennis Locorriere eventually saw the above video.  While he knew Silverstein wrote the song based on a true story, seeing the video left him “speechless.”  He eventually met the real Sylvia.

Other performers also recorded “Sylvia’s Mother.” Around the same time as Dr. Hook’s version was released, Bobby Bare recorded a country version of the song that also was a hit. In many ways, the song’s story and heartbreak theme fits the country genre like a glove.

Other artists have performed the song live.  For example, Billy Bob Thornton has performed a faster version of “Sylvia’s Mother” live with the Boxmasters.

Bon Jovi has covered “Sylvia’s Mother” in concert. This 2003 performance appeared on the Bon Jovi video This Left Feels Right Live (2004). In the performance, Bon Jovi works to recapture the aching pain of the Dr. Hook version.

The Refreshments, a band from Sweden, included a cover of “Sylvia’s Mother” on their 2016 album Straight Up.

The song also featured prominently in the second season of the TV series Fargo. “Sylvia’s Mother” played on the radio during the death of one of the characters.

Finally, one may wonder whatever happened to the singer and Sylvia’s mother. The British band, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, also wondered what happened to the singer in the song. So, they released a new song called “Mrs. Avery.”

In their sequel, The Men They Couldn’t Hang tell the story of the singer calling Mrs. Avery years later after he has been married and divorced. The song appeared on the band’s 2009 album, Devil on the Wind.

Silverstein throughout his life had a reputation as a ladies’ man. But one of his most-remembered contributions to the world is this song about a lonely man’s heartbreak.

Silverstein eventually married another woman, Susan Hastings. The two had a daughter, although Silverstein and Hastings divorced and then she died in 1975, not long after the success of “Sylvia’s Mother.” Although Silverstein had another child in 1983, he never married again.

And that is the story behind the song.

What is your favorite Shel Silverstein song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Peter, Paul & Mary’s Ode to Playing “Right Field”

    baseball card Ruth
    Some right fielders are good.

    It is that time of year when winter turns to a season of hope.  We hope for a beautiful spring as we welcome warm weather.  Also, we hope that this year will be “the year” for our baseball team.  But no matter what happens with the season, every team at least has a chance on opening day.

    For anyone who played baseball growing up, there is one position where they would stick the kids who were not very skilled at the game.  These were the kids who were hopeful enough to play the game.  But the coaches did not have much hope in them.  I know, because I was one of those kids.

    I still love baseball.  So it is worth celebrating those of us who grew up in right field.

    Peter, Paul & Mary wrote a touching ode to playing right field “watching the dandelions grow.”

    I’d dream of the day they’d hit one my way;
    They never did, but still I would pray,
    That I’d make a fantastic catch on the run,
    And not lose the ball in the sun;
    And then I’d awake from this long reverie,
    And pray that the ball never came out to me,
    Here in . . . Right field.

    Below, Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers perform “Right Field” at their 25th Anniversary Concert.  Check it out.

    Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo of Ruth card via public domain.

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    Marty Stuart Takes Us “Way Out West”

    Way Out West CD

    On Marty Stuart’s latest album, Way Out West, the country singer-songwriter finds inspiration in the western United States. But it is not an album of old cowboy songs. Stuart’s songs find their sources in a more modern West.

    These are the sounds of electric guitars, not harmonica and an acoustic guitar. The music of California plays a larger role in the album than a cowboy campfire, with songs inspired by the sounds of surf-rock or the Byrds or mariachi or spaghetti Westerns — with a little dash of visions of psychedelic aliens. Maybe this is what Gram Parsons meant by Cosmic American Music.

    The album features Stuart’s long-time band the Fabulous Superlatives, which includes Kenny Vaughan (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and new member Chris Scruggs (bass).  And Mike Campbell, the guitarist with Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, produced Way Out West.

    Stuart’s website boasts: “The new album, with its atmospheric production and primal rock & roll energy, evokes classics like Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and Cash’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash, one of the first albums Stuart ever owned.”

    Check out the title track of Way Out West, which gives you an idea of the atmospheric sound of much of the album, which also features several instrumentals.

    One of my favorites on the album is what sounds like a country road song. So, check out the first single, “Whole Lotta Highway (With a Million Miles to Go).”

    Marty Stuart continues to work as an artist exploring new sounds and concepts, not staying stuck in any one place. He has made some great concept albums during the last several decades, including The Pilgrim (1999). So it is cool to see him creating new sounds with a concept that ties together the whole album. It is more of an atmospheric ride or a late-night soundtrack than a collection of catchy songs, but that is okay. It is a fun ride out West.

    Way Out West hits the Internet on March 10, 2017.

    What is your favorite Marty Stuart album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Lloyd Price: Stagger Lee

    Stagger Lee

    I have at least sixteen versions of the classic song “Stagger Lee” on my iPod. Yet, I only recently discovered this version that I love recorded by Lloyd Price.

    Lloyd Price’s version of “Stagger Lee” topped the pop and R&B charts in 1958, and it also made the top 10 in the U.K singles charts. The folk song about Stagger Lee killing Billy Lyons, however, has been around since at least 1911 when it was first published.

    Price was born on March 9, 1933, and he is from Kenner, Louisiana. The town has a street named after him and celebrates an annual Lloyd Price Day.

    Although his first hit – “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” — was in 1952, he is still around. He gave this interview in 2013.

    Price, who is nicknamed “Mr. Personality,” was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked his version of “Stagger Lee” as among the top 500 greatest songs of all time (although the song dropped out of the top 500 in the 2010 ranking).

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Billy Grammer and Buddy Holly’s Opening Song, “Gotta Travel On”

    Buddy Holler Opening Song

    Buddy Holly opened shows on his final tour in 1959 with “Gotta Travel On” a song that was not one of his originals.  Crickets drummer Jerry Allison once was asked why Holly performed the song so much.  He explained, “Because Buddy liked it.”

    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long;
    Summer’s almost gone,
    Yes, winter’s comin’ on;
    I’ve laid around and played around,
    This old town too long,
    And I feel like I gotta travel on.

    Tommy Allsup, who played guitar for Holly on The Winter Dance Party Tour, also has noted that Holly liked “Gotta Travel On” as the opener on that tour. There are no recordings of Holly singing the song, but here the late Tommy Allsup plays the song in 2015 in tribute to Holly.

    Bob Dylan also had a fondness for the song.  He recorded “Gotta Travel On,” which appears on his Self-Portrait (1970) album.

    And, perhaps because as a 17-year-old he had seen Holly perform the song on The Winter Dance Party Tour, Dylan also often closed with the song during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1976. Additionally, The Seekers, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Dean, The Limeliters, Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, Jerry Lee Lewis, Peggy Lee, Boxcar Willie, and others have covered the song.

    So, where did Buddy Holly’s opening song come from?

    Origins of “Gotta Travel On”

    “Gotta Travel On” is credited as being written by David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, Paul Clayton and Tom Six.  But the song goes back quite a ways.

    The first time one hears the song, a listener may think the song is just about an adventurous person off to see the world.  But upon closer listen, there is a darker undercurrent.  There is a reason the person must be traveling on:  The singer has been gambling (“played around too long”), perhaps fraudulently.   And the singer also notes,”High sheriff and police riding after me.”  And Johnnie (the singer’s brother?) has “been on the chain gang too long.”

    The song has been traced to a song called “Yonder Comes the High Sherif” in 1891, although it also was called “I’ve Laid Around and Played Around.”  Ollis Martin made the first official recording of the song in August 6, 1927, with his version called “Police & High Sheriff Come.”

    The melody appears in different songs with different lyrics.  One song that uses the same tune is “Long Journey Home,” as in this version by The Delmore Brothers.

    A number of years passed before a variation of the original version of “Gotta Travel On” appeared through Sanga Music Inc. obtaining copyright in early 1959. The composers were listed as folksinger Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, and Tom Six.

    Clayton was an important figure in the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s.  In addition to his work on writing “Gotta Travel On,” he was a fine singer and scholar of folk songs.  He influenced a number of more famous artists, such as Bob Dylan, and also loosely inspired a character or characters in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. [Thanks to @pangurdubh3 for the additional information on Clayton.]

    The three latter names listed as writers were pseudonyms for members of The Weavers.  Ehrlich was a pseudonym for Lee Hays, Six was a pseudonym for Fred Hellerman, and Lazar was a pseudonym for Pete Seeger.

    On February 22, 1958, The Weavers performed the song with the title “Done Laid Around” live at Carnegie Hall (appearing on their album Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall).

    But it would take another singer to make it a massive hit.

    The Hit Recording of “Gotta Travel On”

    Billy Grammer — who was born on August 28, 1925 — took “Gotta Travel On” to near the top of both the pop and country charts in 1959.

    After the success of the song, Grammer became a regular member on the Grand Ole Opry.  Regarding his recording career, Grammer is largely known for “Gotta Travel On,” his one big hit.  But he had an interesting life.

    Billy Grammer’s Life

    In 1963, Grammer also was the first to chart with the “I Wanna Go Home.” The song later was a much bigger hit as “Detroit City” for Bobby Bare. Below is Grammer’s version.

    In the 1960s, Grammer formed a guitar company, RG&G Company, which after a sale was renamed Grammer Guitar, Inc.  Today, many collectors and musicians seek out Grammer guitars.  The first one made is on exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Grammer was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    Finally, Grammer and his band, “The Travel On Boys,” attended an infamous event in American history.  They performed at the rally in Laurel, Maryland where Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was shot and paralyzed on May 15, 1972.

    Grammer, who became blind in later life, passed away on August 10, 2011, after a long-term illness and an earlier heart attack.  He was 85.

    Although Grammer was not in the news toward the end of his life, many still remembered his work. The Grand Ole Opry honored Grammer for his 50 years of membership in February 27, 2009.  He was interviewed about his guitar for the NAMM Oral History Project in 2010.

    In this video from later in life with Grammer’s wife Ruth, Grammer tells the story behind another song of his and plays, “I’m Letting You Go, Goodbye.”

    And that is the story behind the song.


    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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