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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    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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    “It’s All In the Game”: The Hit Song Co-Written By a Vice President

    It's All In the Game Charles G. Dawes served as Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge during 1925-1929. At various times, he was a banker, a military general, and the co-winner of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize (for his work on a post-World War I plan to help Germany stabilize its economy). If all that was not enough, he also co-wrote “It’s All in the Game,” the 1958 hit song recorded by Tommy Edwards.

    Dawes’s Melody in A Major

    Dawes wrote the music for what would become “It’s All in the Game” in 1911 while he was a banker. The amateur pianist and flautist then played his composition, “Melody in A Major,” for a musician friend who then took the sheet music to a publisher.

    The tune became popular and was often played at appearances by Dawes. Below is a 1924 recording of “Melody in A Major,” featuring Carl Lamson on piano.

    “It’s All in the Game”

    Dawes, who was born in Marietta, Ohio on August 27, 1865 and passed away on April 23, 1951, just missed seeing his tune become a chart-topping pop standard. In the summer of 1951, not long after Dawes’s death, songwriter Carl Sigman took the melody that Dawes wrote and added lyrics to create “It’s All in the Game.”

    Many a tear have to fall,
    But it’s all in the game;
    All in the wonderful game,
    That we know as love.

    Tommy Edwards Versions in 1951 and 1958

    A number of artists sang “It’s All in the Game,” including Dinah Shore and Louis Armstrong. The Virginia-born R&B singer Tommy Edwards had a popular version of the song first with his 1951 recording.

    But seven years later, Edwards recorded it again in 1958 in a rock and roll version.  This recording went on to top the charts, becoming the version most people recognize today.

    First, here is Edwards’s 1951 version.

    Now, listen to the differences between that 1951 version and Edwards’s 1958 recording of “It’s All in the Game.” The later recording illustrates the influence of rock and roll in the intervening years after Elvis Presley first recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Studios in 1954.

    Edwards also performed this version of “It’s All in the Game” on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 14, 1958 (only two years after Presley’s first appearance on the show).  Below, though, is his hit recording.

    Edwards had some other minor hit songs, but he never again matched the success of “It’s All in the Game.” Edwards died on October 22, 1969 at the age of 47.

    The Songwriters

    As for the songwriters, Sigman wrote lyrics for other popular songs, including “(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story” (the theme from the 1970 tear-jerker movie Love Story) and “Ebb Tide,” the 1965 Righteous Brothers hit.

    Sigman passed away on September 26, 2000 in Manhasset, New York.  He was 91.

    The other songwriter who wrote the melody, as noted above, went on to become the only U.S. Vice President to co-author a hit song.  On top of that, he also is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a hit song (so far).

    While you may not remember much from school about Dawes’s political career or his Nobel Peace Prize or his years as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, you likely recognize his important work on a great song that was made an American classic with some help by Carl Sigman and Tommy Edwards.

    “It’s All in the Game” continues to touch people, whether in the version by Edwards or by other artists like Nat King Cole, Cliff Richard, the Four Tops, Van Morrison, George Benson, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Nelson, or Michael Buble. So, while I am still waiting for that hit song from Dick Cheney or Joe Biden or Mike Pence, for now, Charles Dawes remains the only vice president to get so many greats to sing his tune.

    And that is the story behind the song.

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

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    What Is “City of New Orleans” About?

    Steve GoodmanOne of the great American songs of the late twentieth century is “City of New Orleans.” The song was originally written and recorded by Steve Goodman but made famous by Arlo Guthrie.

    “City of New Orleans” was a top 20 hit for Guthrie in 1972, and numerous artists have performed and recorded “City of New Orleans.” While the song recounts the story of the Illinois Central Railroad’s City of New Orleans train, one might read a little more into the story by knowing more about the songwriter.

    Steve Goodman and “City of New Orleans”

    Goodman was born on July 25, 1948, and when he was in college, he was diagnosed with leukemia. While the disease was often in remission, Goodman always recognized he was living on borrowed time.

    Goodman died at the young age of 34 on September 20, 1984. Knowing about his diagnosis, one may see more in the sadness of the song about the end of the life of a train.

    The Real Train

    The City of New Orleans itself was a train that the Illinois Central Railroad began operating in April 1947, a little more than a year from Goodman’s birth. The overnight train had the longest daytime regularly scheduled route in the country for a time.  The train went between New Orleans, Louisiana and Goodman’s birthplace and hometown, Chicago, Illinois.

    In May 1971, though, Amtrak took over the City of New Orleans train.  The company converted it to a nighttime route, renaming it the Panama Limited.

    Goodman reportedly came up with the idea for a song about the train while riding on a trip. But it is hard not to see some heartfelt connections between Goodman’s life and the train in his most famous song.

    “Half way home, we’ll be there by morning,
    Through the Mississippi darkness. . . .
    This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.”

    Below is Goodman performing the song live in 1972.

    Arlo Guthrie’s Version: Changed Lyrics

    While Arlo Guthrie’s famous verion of the song follows Steve Goodman’s lyrics, there is one exception. Note in the video above, Goodman sings about “passing towns that have no name.” In Guthrie’s famous version, he sings about “passing trains that have no names.”

    One commentator has explained that the difference between the two versions comes from Goodman’s knowledge of train travel.  Goodman would know that traveling on the train, one would go through many towns without seeing any signs. But perhaps Guthrie did not understand or he thought city listeners would not understand a train traveling through nameless towns.

    In this video, a young Guthrie performs “City of New Orleans.”

    “City of New Orleans” Today

    Sometimes we all forget that we have a limited time on earth to make a difference, but Goodman’s leukemia diagnosis at a young age made him want to do as much with his life as he could. And his song about a train did make a difference.

    After the song “City of New Orleans” became popular in the 1970s, Amtrak, hoping to capitalize on the song’s popularity, brought back the “City of New Orleans” train name in 1981. Thanks to Steve Goodman, you may still take a ride on the City of New Orleans today. And thanks to him, you may also sing along to one of the great American songs.

    And that’s the story behind the song.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Why Is “Unchained” In the Title of “Unchained Melody”?

    unchained melody origins

    One of the great songs of the 1960s is The Righteous Brothers recording of “Unchained Melody,” a song that has been covered by many great stars, including Elvis Presley. But The Righteous Brothers were not the first to record the song. And why is the song called “Unchained Melody” when the word “unchained” occurs nowhere in the song?

    Although The Righteous Brother version was released on July 17, 1965, “Unchained Melody” had its origins decades earlier. Songwriter Alex North worked on the music in the 1930s, and at one time Bing Crosby turned down the opportunity to record an unfinished version of the song.

    The Movie That Gave the Song Its Name

    But North did not give up on the music. In the 1950s he and Hy Zaret were contracted to write a song for a prison movie. With Zaret adding lyrics to the music, the two came up with the completed song for the 1955 film, which was called Unchained. Hence, the song from the movie became known as “Unchained Melody.”

    The movie Unchained was about an inmate who struggles with the decision of whether or not to try to escape.  Todd Duncan recorded the song on the soundtrack and he appeared in the film as a prisoner singing part of the song.

    Duncan had the chops for the song.  He was the first black singer to join the New York City Opera when he performed there in 1945. Below is the clip from Unchained with Duncan singing “Unchained Melody.”

    The Righteous Brothers Hit

    Others recorded versions of the song before The Righteous Brothers. Performers who recorded “Unchained Melody” included bandleader Les Baxter, Al Hibler, and Jimmy Young.

    Of course, the version we know best is by The Righteous Brothers.  But the original recording did not include both brothers.  It featured only Bobby Hatfield and did not include the other “brother” Bill Medley.

    After the song was a hit in 1965, it once again climbed the charts in the early 1990s after it was featured in another movie, Ghost (1990). We should be glad that the song was first featured in Unchained. Otherwise, we would be calling it “Ghost Melody.”

    And that’s the story behind the song.

    What is your favorite version of “Unchained Melody”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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