Sylvia's Mother

Album: Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (1971)
Charted: 2 5
  • songfacts ®
  • Lyrics
  • Like most of the early songs recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, this was written by Shel Silverstein. Silversteen was a brilliant storyteller with a vivid imagination, but this story was real.

    In the song, Sylvia's mother is Mrs. Avery, and while that wasn't her real last name, the rest of the story - exaggerated a bit - was true. Silversteen told Rolling Stone 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 real Sylvia kept her secret to all but a few family and friends. Remarkably, it was a Dutch public television producer named Arjan Vlakveld who found not only Sylvia, but also Sylvia's mother. Arjan told Songfacts: "The search for Sylvia was a big coincidence. I was having a glass of wine in the garden of my brother. He had quests and there was an American woman who after I explained what kind of things I produced, told me the story about Sylvia and her mother, who she knew. It was an old story because it was about her mother working on a high school with 'Sylvia's Mother.' She was already old in the time of her story. She didn't knew if it was true but the woman had claimed ones that she was the mother in the song. I only had a few names to go on and ended up in a telephone conversation with Sylvia Pandolfi, who at that time was a museum director in Mexico City. ('Down Galveston way' in the song meant in real life that she was getting married to a Mexican and moving there).

    So I asked her the question: Are you by any chance the Sylvia in the song 'Sylvia's Mother?' She was very surprised because nobody knew, it was a personal and family story, she never told anyone. I filmed the interview with her mother in Homewood, Illinois. The same house where she had the telephone call with Shell Silverstein, probably even the same telephone number. She was 95 years at that time."

    Here is the segment on Sylvia and her mother.
  • The band had two lead singers: Ray Sawyer (with the eye patch) and Dennis Locorriere. It was Locorriere, then 20 years old, who sang on this one, delivering the vocal with sincere sorrow. Many of Shel Silverstein's songs for the band were works of comedy ("Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie," "The Cover Of Rolling Stone), and Dr. Hook had a bawdy stage show that wasn't to be taken seriously, so not everyone picked up that this was a serious song about heartbreak. "A surprising number of people thought it was a parody but I always saw it as a truly heartbreaking story and I did my best to portray the anxiety and sadness that I knew that poor guy in the phone booth would be feeling," Locorriere told us. Dr. Hook's next single, "Carry Me, Carrie," was another serious heartbreak song written by Silverstein.
  • Silverstein was a popular author and songwriter, who wrote for both children and adults. He was a writer and cartoonist for Playboy magazine, and a best-selling author of children's poems. He wrote "A Boy Named Sue" for Johnny Cash and another hit song for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: "Cover Of The Rolling Stone." He died of a heart attack in 1999 at age 68. Learn more about Shel Silverstein in our interview with Mitch Myers.
  • After this song became a hit, audience members would sometimes throw coins at the band Rocky Horror-style at the line "40 cents more." This could hurt quite a bit, especially when they were launched from the balcony.
  • This was the first single released by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, who later became simply Dr. Hook. While they were playing bars in the New Jersey area, they got a gig appearing in the movie Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, and signed with Columbia/CBS Records, which is the label that released the soundtrack for the film. "Sylvia's Mother" was their first single; it made the Hot 100 at #99 for one week when it was first released, but months later, after CBS (led by Clive Davis) started promoting it, it took off and became a hit.
  • After the band had been performing this song for a while, Shel Silverstein wrote a new version for them called "Sylvia's Father." Only the end of the song was different, with the last verse changed to:
    Sylvia's father says Sylvia's pregnant and you went and made her that way
    Sylvia's father says you motherf--ker I'm gonna kill you someday


    At this point, Dennis Locorriere would do a rant about the no-good scoundrel that knocked up Sylvia. This version was never recorded.
  • In the UK, this was kept out of the #1 spot by Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love."
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Comments: 27

  • Rickb from North AmericaSylvia's Father verse: There are live videos on YouTube with the Sylvia's father verse. The band had their fill of the song pretty quickly, especially as it was a satirical song that was being taken seriously. The first six lines of the "father" verse are the same in each version I've seen:
    Sylvia's father says, "Sylvia's packing
    She's gonna be leaving today"
    Sylvia's father says, "Sylvia's pregnant
    And you went and made her that way"
    Sylvia's father says, "You motherf--ker,
    I swear that I'll kill you some day"
    Next comes the part about "40 cents for the next five minutes," only the operator tells Sylvia's father that it's a collect call and HE owes the money. The father's yelling that the caller's a junkie, that Sylvia's 14 years old, and that he's going to "shove the money clear up" the caller's rear end. Hard to believe, I know, but singer Dennis Locorriere appears to be very, very drunk. It's much funnier to watch than to read about.
  • Seventhmist from 7th HeavenI didn't realize for a long time that the "Won't you call back again?" Line was because Sylvia was now standing next to her mother, so she was pretending it was some sales rep or such.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn March 26th 1972, "Sylvia's Mother" by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #100; nine weeks later on May 28th, 1972 it would peak at #5 {for 2 weeks} and spent 15 weeks on the Top 100...
    And on July 3rd, 1972 it reached #1 {for 3 weeks} on the Australian Kent Music Report chart...
    Between 1972 and 1982 the group had twenty Top 100 records; with six of them making the Top 10, their other five Top 10 records were "Sexy Eyes" {#5 in 1980} and four that peaked at #6; "The Cover of Rolling Stone"* {1973}, "Only Sixteen" {1976}, "Sharing the Night Together" {1979}, and "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman” {1979}...
    The just missed having a seventh Top 10 when "A Little Bit More" peaked at #11 in 1976...
    * They did make the cover of Rolling Stone on the magazine’s March 29th, 1973 issue.
  • David from Nottingham, United KingdomI saw Dennis Locorriere perform this song solo on guitar at this year's (2012) Cropredy festival in Oxfordshire. He gave a real heart-rending performance, considering the amount of times he must have sung it he managed to put so much passion into it. A true performer.
  • Roann from Apalachin, NyRod Smarr died yesterday from pancreatic cancer. May he rest in peace. Another great one joins that incredible jam session in heaven.
  • Carolyn from Knoville, TnParody or not, I really love this song! The enotional tension in Dennis Locorriere's voice is heart breaking. And truthfully, don't we all have a lost love so that we can relate to this? There are some wonderful videos of Dr. Hook's performance of this--and one they did on Shel's houseboat, with Shel playing harmonica!
  • Steve from Galveston, TxWell I am from Galveston Texas and in the early 70's when I was about 15, my Mom met a lady who had just moved to Galveston. I didn't know what her last name was but her daughter who was about 18 was named Sylvia. I think they were Italian and Sylvia was absolutley beautiful. So most of my life I swore that song was writtten about her.....
  • Bob from Berkeley, CaI heard a radio interview with the band on a San Francisco FM station after this song and "Cover of Rolling Stone" came out in 1972. They were singing gag lyrics on the air. One line they sang was, "Sylvia's father says, 'Sylvia's pregnant, you son of a bitch, don't come 'round here no more.'"
  • David from Liverpool, United KingdomLove this song and I used to sing it in bars. LOL! Just wanted to share a little anecdote.

    There was a radio quiz in Liverpool and the question was: 'What was the name of the daughter in the song 'Sylvia's Mother'?'

    The woman simply could not get it. She kept begging for clues!!! Maybe not so hilarious to read about but it was to listen to at the time. :)
  • Mariana from Timisoara, RomaniaI still remember the day I first heard this song. I was in high school back in Timisoara; I fell in love with this song. We used to listen to Mini-Max, a radio station in the old Yugoslavia; they played the song all the time. Unfortunately I couldn't understand the lyrics since the foreign language I studied in school was French. What made this song even more beautiful was the fact that it was translated to me by I boy I had a crash on in High School; he whispered the lyrics in my ear while we were dancing ..... the infatuation was on my part only for I never told him how I felt. I still love this song, I listen to it almost every day, it brings back such sweet memories :-)
  • Sylvia from Edinburgh, United KingdomHa! My mother gave this given name to me after the song was released in 71, although she swears it was after her best friend in the WRAC and I'm like........ 'yer, whatever' The song is kinda catchy, but I prefer 'spending the night together' however too long a title to name a child. I used to get so many torments at school for instance, 'Sylvia's mother said Sylvia's wet the bed' it was crazy.

    Great song though and I'm proud to be called Sylvia because if it meant so much to my Mum, it's good enough for me :)

    Cheers,
    Sylvia York
  • Karen from Austin, TxThe first time I heard this song was when my boyfriend and I had an argument in 1994. Since I was pregnant, I went back home to be with my parents. My mother really hated my boyfriend and tried to keep us apart. I had found an old Dr. Hook cassette of my dads an popped it in the tape player and heard this song. When my boyfriend and I worked things out and I moved back to Maine where we lived from Texas where my parents lived, he and I joked about this song and its meaning to our relationship. A few weeks later, we had another large dispute and I left again to live with my parents. He tried to contact me, his family tried to contact me--my mother never told me they called, sent every letter they mailed me back "return to sender" never mentioned a word to me. I thought he abandoned me. He later died, never having seen his son thinking I wanted nothing to do with him. I never stopped waiting for him to call... Powerful song!!
  • Budoshi from Sandnessjøen, NorwayA great song, especially with the voice it is sung with... Very heartbreaking.
  • Andy from London, United KingdomHere it is: He only wants to say goodbye, but Mrs Avery tells him where to meet her, telling him she is crying (raining). It's ironic.
  • Thomas from Somerville, AlI was just a young kid when this came out and I had a HUGE crush on my Mom's Spanish friend Sylvia...hhhrrruuuummmbbbaaaa.
  • Peter G. Brown from London, United KingdomWhen I first heard this song I was completely there with the hero of the song, living his emotional devastation. Tears poured down my face. What is particularly good is the line "thank you for calling sir, and please would you call back again" so he becomes a complete stranger, so the song has at that point a surreal quality - is this really real?
  • Eric from Nairobi, KenyaI googled "doctor Hook/Sylvia's Mother' and look where it has brought me.The sense of dramatic urgency (and teenage desperation) is attenuated by the operator's "forty cents more for the next three minutes....."
    Brilliant.
  • Bill from Howard Beach, NyI am surprised that many of you who posted comments find the song enjoyable and emotional. When listening to it, I laugh, because to me it is one of the silliest and most ludicrous ever written or performed.
  • Howard from St. Louis Park, MnThis was one of many songs Shel Silverstein wrote for Dr. Hook. When Dennis Locorriere sang it, he sounded like he was in tears, especially on the line "And the operator says forty cents more for the next three minutes please."
  • Kris from Wichita, KsI grew up reading Shel Silverstein so when my dad played this for me and i found out he wrote it i instantly fell in love with this song.
  • Madison from Norway, MeBy the time the end of the song comes, its so melodramatic, it's funny...Were they really trying to convey desperation or were they going for that over the top effect?
  • James from Wichita, KsI saw Dr. Hook in concert in the 70's. There was an additional verse regarding Sylvia's father. It had something to do with Sylvia being pregnant and the caller was the baby's father. I have never been able to find the lyrics, so it must be in concert only.
  • Dave from Austin, TxI have to admit, after hearing the some over and over again, I got the impression that Sylvia's mother was giving out hints to the guy on the phone, telling him her every move, where and when she was leaving and to call back soon, bec she felt him and Sylvia were a good match and she wanted to give him another shot.

    Anyone else have that thought? or is it crazy? or is it obvious?
  • Lester from New York City, NyHas anyone seen these guys in concert? I understand that an additional part of the song in concert is a conversation with Sylvia's father.
  • Sylvia from Suva, United StatesIt is almost impossible for me to meet new people without them singing the first few lines of this song! Where at first I found it irritating, I now find it entertaining and have learnt to say: " I am busy so leave me alone!" Having one's name immortalized in song is flattering (risk of people forgetting you is slim) but scary at the same time especially when you find yourself living out some of its contents!
  • Dee from Khancoban, Australiai absolutly love this song! it is so sweet. its a really good song to belt out in the car. and it has the best lyrics. very underated
  • Richard from PanamaWasn't this song also the title song of a movie by the same or a similar name?
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