Singer Sylvia Blagman Syms dies during standing ovation
On May 10, 1992, at New York City's Algonquin Hotel, Sylvia Syms finished singing her last song, raised her right arm to acknowledge the audience's standing ovation, and collapsed of a heart attack. The cabaret singer died the same evening at age 74. Syms's death ended a career that had spanned half a century.
Born in New York in 1917, Syms first became interested in jazz through radio broadcasts of live shows on New York's famed 52nd Street, then also known as "Swing Street." As a teenager, too young and too poor to be admitted to the city's jazz clubs, she hid in coatrooms to listen to such greats as Art Tatum, Lester Young, Mildred Bailey, and the woman who would become her mentor and role model: Billie Holiday. Syms made her own debut in 1941, at a 51st Street club called Kelly's Stable. In 1946, she made her first recording, "I'm In the Mood for Love."
In 1949, Syms was discovered by Mae West, who gave the singer the role of Flo the Shoplifter in a revival of Diamond Lil. Syms would go on to play Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, and Gypsy in Tennessee Williams's Camino Real. At the same time, she continued to perform in jazz clubs as a cabaret star, or as she preferred to call herself, a saloon singer. The intimate atmosphere of the club or saloon suited Syms, who told a 1974 interviewer that "her religion [was] people" and once said that "when you perform, it's a one-to-one love affair with the people out there. That's how it has to be."
The people loved Syms back. She recorded fifteen albums, of which the major hit was her 1956 version of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. It sold more than one million copies. She was also popular with her fellow performers, earning the nickname "Buddha" (for her short stature and round figure) from Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, who also called Syms "the best saloon singer in the business," produced and conducted her 1982 album of jazz classics, Syms by Sinatra. The 1992 Algonquin show was entitled "Syms celebrates Sinatra," and was intended to be a tribute to her longtime friend and mentor. Syms's last album, You Must Believe in Spring: The Words of Alan and Marilyn Bergman was released posthumously, in June 1992.
To learn more about Sylvia Blagman Syms, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Listen to Sylvia Syms' recordings.
Sources: Jewish Women in America, pp. 1364-1366; New York Times, May 11, 1992, May 17, 1992.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Singer Sylvia Blagman Syms dies during standing ovation." (Viewed on June 26, 2019) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/may/10/1992/sylvia-blagman-syms>.