SYLVIA: Possessing Determination To Make It In Country Music
A New Face Of The 1980s
With eight chart hits to her credit—including two number ones: Drifter in 1981 and Nobody just a few weeks ago—music secretary-come-recording star SYLVIA is one of the new generation of country music entertainers. Alan Cackett tells her story.
In a little over two years, Sylvia has established herself as one of the most distinctive and successful new female country singers, but her climb to the top has been a little unusual, to say the least. She's a real Southern girl with one of those storybook histories.
Unlike most aspiring singers, Sylvia’s initiation to the music scene came not through performing, but by drawing pencil portraits of top country singers like Tanya Tucker, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton and other when they appeared on the Little Nashville Opry, Indiana.
Sylvia Kirby Allen was born in the small town of Kokomo, Indiana, not far from Nashville, Indiana, where she grew up. She earned quite a reputation at the Little Nashville Opry for her proficient sketches, which she began to do as a way to get to talk to the artists. In fact her likeness of Barbara Mandrell so impressed the singer that she used it on her backstage passes. Meeting with the artists and being around singers and musicians fuelled Sylvia’s ambition to be a singer, and there was only one way to achieve that, by going to Nashville, Tennessee.
After graduating from high school in 1975, Sylvia headed for Music City, armed with a capella demonstration tapes she had made. Her first call was to Tom Collins, producer of Barbara Mandrell and Charley Pride and co-owner of Pi-Gem Music. He said he would give the tapes a listen and give the young, inexperienced girl a call if he needed a female singer for demo sessions.
Sylvia returned to Indiana to await the call. She took up secretarial work, but after a few months she got bored with the job and decided to return to Nashville with more solid plans this time. Once more she walked into the Pi-Gem office, this time asking for a job. Any job as long as she was working in the music business. Eventually she was offered a part-time secretarial job.
A dedicated and forceful young lady, Sylvia was confident that from this first foothold she could make it as a singer. “I’m a positive person,” she explains. “I knew that if it took me 20 years I could accomplish what I’d set out to do. I wasn’t prepared to let anything get in my way.”
Her persistence paid off and within a matter of months Tom Collins was using Sylvia in the studio to sing on demo tapes of the new songs being written by the songwriters he had under contract. She was eager to learn everything she could and soon Collins also used her as a back-up vocalist on recordings sessions for artists like Ronnie Milsap and Barbara Mandrell.
She first came to RCA’s attention when she auditioned for Dave & Sugar, a part which Sue Powell eventually landed. Jerry Bradley, head of RCA’s Nashville operations, was suitably impressed with Sylvia and signed her to the label in the summer of 1979. Her first record You Don’t Miss A Thing, a Kye Fleming/Dennis Morgan song which she had performed on the original demo, gave her a taste of chart success when in October of that year it reached No.36 on the country charts.
At this time she hadn’t done any professional performing, her rich vocal tones having been developed in the studio. “Everything I know I learned from Tom Collins. When I was his secretary, when he was in the studio with people like Barbara Mandrell or Ronnie Milsap. I was right there, learning all the time. Working on the road helps you to develop and strengthen your voice, but when you’re in the studio you can play back the tapes, see where you’ve gone wrong, go back over things and really develop style.”
When it came to launching Sylvia’s career, there were problems with her name. “I started out about the same time Deborah Allen was over-dubbing Jim Reeves’ songs,” she explains. “It didn’t seem to be a good idea for two young female singers to have the same last name. But I didn’t want to change my name. I wanted the folks back home to know who I was. So I suggested using just Sylvia, and everybody said: ‘Why not?’”
Her first professional experience was gained by touring with Charley Pride. Since then, as she has become more successful, the young singer has appeared all across America and on many of the top television shows. Her second single, It Don’t Hurt To Dream, a soft ballad with whining steel guitar and subdued strings, consolidated her chart success. But Sylvia was looking for a top ten entry to really establish herself.
That was almost achieved by Tumbleweed, a Kye Flemming/Dennis Morgan song with that whining steel guitar and a distinctive 'western' feel provided both lyrically and by the background vocals. Soft strings and percussion accented the melancholy mood. Finally, with her first release of 1981, Drifter, Sylvia made that all-important major breakthrough, as the record rapidly climbed up the charts and eventually hit the top spot. The modern western sound conjured up on Tumbleweed was expanded with steel guitar, fiddle, percussion and electric leads surrounding the lyrics and giving bright emphasis to the strong vocal work. Soon after this success came the release of Sylvia’s debut album DRIFTER, which really was a magnificent achievement.
Sylvia’s experience in the studio shone through on every track as she tackled almost all new material with much of it in a modern western style that was further emphasised by the excellent cover artwork. Whether it was an up-tempo movin’ tune or a fine emotional ballad. Sylvia handled herself with perfection. The songs themselves were tops and each one had a little surprise somewhere in the arrangement.
The next single, The Matador, co-written by the late Bob Morris, was another chart-topper. A powerful song, crafty use of guitar and percussion carried the song towards its strong, full-throated finale, and Sylvia proved to be a totally flexible vocalist.
“We purposely made the music danceable on that song because I found I was working a lot of clubs,” Sylvia explained. “It was very popular in Texas because it was a good song to dance the four-corners to.”
With three successful singles, each with a western feel, it would have been easy for Sylvia to maintain that styling, but it was decided a change was needed. So it was back to Fleming and Morgan for Heart On The Mend, a strong, melodic, mid-tempo ballad that deserved to do well. Unfortunately it only just scraped into the top 20. The same pair of songwriters were retained for the next single Sweet Yesterday, a string-filled, bitter-sweet ballad that is one of Sylvia’s most powerful outings. Again it failed to make the top ten, but it pointed out exactly what was to follow. There was a new-found confidence in her tones, underscoring the fact that she was developing into a strong rich vocalist. That was borne out by her second album, JUST SYLVIA, which reaffirmed that her critically acclaimed debut was no fluke. Throughout the album instrumentation is diverse and textured with plenty of guitar, keyboards, mandolin and synthesiser, in addition to bass, percussion and strings.
She plays tribute to the late Patsy Cline with the moving I’ll Make It Right With You, which both vocally and instrumentally owes much to the Cline style. Sylvia shows she can handle a sensitive story in You Can’t Go Back Home, and also pokes a little fun at her producer Tom Collins in You’re A Legend In Your Own Mind, a countryish You’re So Vain, but the most commercially viable tune is Nobody, once again from the pen of Kye Fleming/Dennis Morgan, and her latest single which went right up to number one in July.
In a little more than two years Sylvia has proved that she is an extremely good singer with the potential to become a great one. Many country fans would probably argue that she is not really a country artist, but there’s no doubt in Sylvia’s mind, she knows her roots and where she’s going.
“The days of Kitty Wells were good days. That was good country music,” She says. “But young people have been exposed to different things, have had different influences. I think I reflect what’s country today, what’s happening now. And ten years from now, I hope I can say I’m country today, too.”