Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, “Sylvia’s Mother”

Written by November 12th, 2012 at 6:00 am

Shel Silverstein did a little bit of everything in his amazing career. A cartoonist, author, screenwriter, and much more, Silverstein will always be beloved among music fans for his songwriting output. Many of his songs were quasi-novelty numbers like “A Boy Named Sue,” recorded by Johnny Cash, and “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone,” which turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy for Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show.

Those songs relied on Silverstein’s inventive, subversive sense of humor. For “Sylvia’s Mother,” also given to Dr. Hook for what was their very first single, it sounded on paper like another comical set-up: A would-be suitor’s desperate pay-phone call to his ex-girlfriend is intercepted by her protective mother. Yet the song, which hit the Top 5 in both the US and UK, turned out to be surprisingly moving, thanks in large part to the tender performance of Dennis Locorriere, who sang lead on the track for Dr. Hook.

As for Siverstein, he didn’t have to use much imagination for the tale, since it actually happened to him. He told Rolling Stone about it in 1972: “I just changed the last name, not to protect the innocent, but because it didn’t fit. It happened about eight years ago and was pretty much the way it was in the song. I called Sylvia and her mother said, ‘She can’t talk to you.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ Her mother said she was packing and she was leaving to get married, which was a big surprise to me. The guy was in Mexico and he was a bullfighter and a painter. At the time I thought that was like being a combination brain surgeon and encyclopedia salesman. Her mother finally let me talk to her, but her last words were, ‘Shel, don’t spoil it.’ For about ten seconds I had this ego charge, as if I could have spoiled it. I couldn’t have spoiled it with a sledge hammer.”

The trick for Silverstein was converting that story efficiently into a song. He managed this in ingenious fashion by telling the story almost completely through the mother’s phone patter. Mrs. Avery alternates between polite small talk and stern warnings against the narrator’s attempts to reconcile with Sylvia, who’s preparing to marry a man “down Galveston way.”

The only words that the narrator can get in are his desperate pleas to at least say goodbye, but Mrs. Avery realizes that he likely wouldn’t stop there. That’s where Silverstein’s structure gets it right. It’s fitting that the guy’s feelings and thoughts on the matter should go unheard, since he’s the odd man out in this situation. The anguish in Locorriere’s delivery says it all anyway.

The early 70’s were a great time for sappy heartbreakers to break through on the AM dial, but “Sylvia’s Mother” is one that still holds up without any lingering aftertaste. Silverstein’s quirky talent, filtered through Dr. Hook’s earnest rendering, gets the credit for that. Anyway, the royalties probably more than compensated Shel for all that change he owed the operator.

“Sylvia’s Mother” 

Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s busy
Too busy to come to the phone
Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s tryin’
To start a new life of her own
Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s happy
So why don’t you leave her alone

And the operator says, 40 cents more
For the next 3 minutes
Ple-ease Mrs Avery, I just gotta talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs Avery, I just wanna tell ‘er goodbye

Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s packin’
She’s gonna be leavin’ today
Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s marryin’
A fella down Galveston way
Sylvia’s mother says, please don’t say nothin’
To make her start cryin’ and stay

And the operator says, 40 cents more
For the next 3 minutes
Ple-ease Mrs Avery, I just gotta talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs Avery, I just wanna tell ‘er goodbye

Sylvia’s mother says, Sylvia’s hurryin’
She’s catchin’ the nine o’clock train
Sylvia’s mother says, take your umbrella
‘Cause Sylvia, it’s startin’ to rain
And Sylvia’s mother says, thank you for callin’
And, sir, won’t you call back again

And the operator says, 40 cents more
For the next 3 minutes
Ple-ease Mrs Avery, I just gotta talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs Avery, I just wanna tell ‘er goodbye

Tell her goodbye
Please
Tell her goodbye

- Written by Shel Silverstein

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