A country music crush, illustrated
Sylvia was only 23 when she released her first single for RCA records, “You Don’t Miss a Thing.” She had spent her previous years in Nashville as secretary-with-stars-in-her-eyes for Music Row producer Tom Collins, followed by a brief run as a studio backup vocalist, and when that first single was released, she had only recently made her first stage appearance as a solo country act. She had caught the attention of RCA label executive Jerry Bradley when auditioning to be the latest Sugar of 'Dave and Sugar' fame. She ended up landing a solo deal instead.
Her first two singles barely dented the top forty. Then, she and Collins -- now her own producer -- went for a sound he called "prairie music" – Western-type lyrics with a disco beat. Some artists make music that changes the sound of their time, and some adapt to the current scene, shaping their sound to match what’s popular now. Sylvia is one of those artists who rode the latter wave, a Patsy Cline-tinged singer who corralled the 'Urban Cowboy' mechanical bull, employing synthesizers and (alternatingly sweeping or chirpy) background choruses that echoed the lines she sang. The combination was both commercial and mesmerizing. Her first top ten hit, “Tumbleweed”, and her first #1 single, “Drifter” both exude an instantly iconic sound.
Collins toned down her western flavor by the time Sylvia released the biggest hit of her career, and it was a whopper, a charming, sauntering ditty called “Nobody.” The impossibly catchy single was a Billboard smash, conquering the country charts before also topping the pop hit parade. It reached #15 on the Hot 100, was a million-selling single, and was BMI’s across the charts most-played song of the year in 1982. If any song ever deserved the late of 'Crossover,' this was it. Sylvia even sang it on 'American Bandstand'. Its success led to Sylvia winning ACM’s Female Vocalist of the Year award, as well as scoring a Grammy nomination -- deservedly so, since the corresponding album, Just Sylvia, was a solidly engrossing countrypolitan affair, and she shored up her country bona fides with a gorgeous rendition of "The Wayward Wind" accomplished alongside renowned flautist James Galway.
(with acknowledgement to 100 Women of Country Music)
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Sylvia continued to have hits in a similar vein, with the top five hit “Snapshot” featuring a video that showcased both her personality and her striking looks. Until Shania Twain came along a decade later, she was arguably the most photogenic female country singer of the video era, in a more innocent time when a wink or the flash of a smile was replaced with the self-conscious grind. Her first three platters remain her best, charting her artful evolution from Country Western to Pop. With Surprise, she fell prey to a female Samson complex, shedding her chart muscle along with her abruptly shorn locks. On One Step Closer Sylvia seemed to deliberately shift back to a twangier country sound under second producer Brent Maher (The Judds), but RCA killed her contract as the Nashville 80s wound down: the label chose to leave her last album in the can. That was a shame, since Knockin' Around, he last LP, found Sylvia hitting pay dirt with a handful of happy numbers that were as uncloyingly infectious as either country or pop has any right to be. "Nothin' Ventured, Nothin' Gained," "Makes You Wanna Slow Down," and the title track are three of the best Disney show tunes that never were.
She's also haltingly staged something of a midlife reinvention as a singer/songwriter, an experiment that's led to some pleasant if mixed results. A brand new indie album, It's All in the Family, contains a bit more roots music and pop psychology than advisable, but also boasts a couple of fine songs, most notably the breezy, countrypolitan-tilting "I Didn't Know What I Was Missing," that pleasantly calls to mind Petula Clark's heyday.
Sylvia was routinely dissed by critics. Stereo Review infamously described listening to her vocals on Surprise as an experience akin to watching Bambi try to walk on ice. But People Magazine's Ralph Novak had a more discerning ear and a soft spot for her niche. And she still is an easier listening than the preachy grandtstanding of current acts like Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Nettles. Here are Nocak's reviews (all the first being an imaginary indulgence), along with album covers, a couple of vids, and the hand-addressed envelope to a Christmas note she sent one particular fan way back when...
Drifter (5.26.81) A distinctive debut in almost every way, from the singer's vocal range on "Tumbleweed" to the Jordanaires' backgrounds and the Roy Rogers-inspired cowgirl cover shot. "No one rooks the wind." Maybe not, but Sylvia still comes close, arriving as a stylist with lilt, verve, and a some sawdust from the Hopalong Trail. --JM
Just Sylvia (7.19.82, People Magazine)
With her long brown hair and ability to deliver a lachrymose lyric, Sylvia is a natural competitor for Crystal Gayle. This album is a little more on the suffering side than her debut last year; it includes such tunes as "I Feel Cheated", "Nobody" and "Sweet Yesterday." There's also "You're a Legend in Your Own Mind," Nashville's spin on Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." A high point is the song, "I'll Make It Right With You," dedicated to the late Patsy Cline, an early idol of Sylvia's. The message of the album is a downer, but the performance is upper-class Nashville all the way.
Snapshot (6.27.83, People Magazine) Recently voted the Academy of Country Music's top female vocalist, Sylvia has a hot single (the title track) to go with the gold records she collected for last year's single "Nobody" and her album, Just Sylvia. She just might be the hottest thing to hit Nashville since Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. This album should consolidate her position nicely. Much of the material was written by Rhonda Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. That includes "Snapshot," a betrayed-wife tune; "Bobby's in Vicksburg," a contemporary Civil War ditty; a pleasant love song, "Jason" (written with Mack David); and "Tonight (I'm Gettin' Friendly with the Blues)." Sylvia is among the most restrained of today's women country singers. She'll never stun anyone with her vocal agility, but she always sings with control, feeling and grace.
(5.14.84, People Magazine)
Not only has Sylvia changed her look (with the help of makeup artist Way Bandy) to something that's as close to punk as any Nashvillian is likely to get, but she has also gotten a little rambunctious musically. Most of this album, such as William Davidson's "On the Other Side of Midnight," is typical Sylvia, fetching ballads rendered with just the right touch of heartbreak. But there are also a couple of atypically revved-up tracks, especially "Give 'Em Rhythm," a rockabilly stomper by Morgan and Skeeter Davis that includes homages to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a lathered-up "One Foot on the Street." Sylvia is not likely to threaten, say, Lacy J. Dalton or any other honky-tonk honey, but she pulls off this digression with style and zest. It provides an enjoyable change of pace in an entertaining LP. (RCA)
One Step Closer
(4.15.85, People Magazine)
Composer Brent Maher, taking over as Sylvia's producer for the first time, seems to have said to her, in effect, "Slow down, darlin,' and let the people know how you feel." In any case, this album is filled with a far moodier, more introspective batch of country music than has been typical for Sylvia, who leaned toward easygoing ballads and gimmicky country pop tunes under previous producer Tom Collins. She brings off the change nicely, emoting away on such numbers as "I Can't Help the Way (That I Don't Feel)," "Breakin' It" and "Only the Shadows Know" (fun title!). Sylvia's intensity can get a trifle piercing at times, and softening her voice for this kind of down-tempo material seems to have generated a productively moderating effect. The album displays a new side of an established performer and accomplishes that in a most entertaining way. (RCA)
(1987) Her last album was to be titled "Knocking' Around," but RCA shelved the platter and instead used the proposed cover art for a Greatest Hits album. The collection skimped on hits but did include a cover of The Association's "Never My Love" and better, a not-to-shabby Patsy Cline-like throwback on which Sylvia shared writing credits with The Statler Brothers' Jimmy Fortune.
"Snapshot." One of the first country vids. Watch the lips move in the developing tray!
Sylvia seeming genuine -- and genuinely surprised -- on snagging the 1983 ACM Award despite all the Nashville insider haters of "Nobody"...
...Who had to grudgingly acknowledge the impeccable delivery of her cover of Gogi Grant's "Wayward Wind," a track that emerged from a left-field musical corner just prior to that ceremony.