The Story of Shel Silverstein and Sylvia’s Mother

Collage of Shel Silverstein and the album cover of Dr. Hook's Sylvia's Mother

This is the story of Shel Silverstein and Sylvia’s Mother.

Shel Silverstein (Sept. 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999) was a well known writer and poet. Perhaps known most for his beloved children’s book, The Giving Tree, other titles to his name include Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and A Giraffe and A Half. A fact not so quickly recognized is that he was also an accomplished song writer. Writing for popular country artists such as Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Buck Owens, Shel also wrote the comical and popular Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.”

A popular band that Shel wrote multiple songs for was Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, a Union City, New Jersey rock band. One of their more popular collaborations is a song called “Sylvia’s Mother.” This song, while embellished for dramatic purposes (as many great works are), was based on a true-life experience of Shel. Upon hearing the news that an ex-girlfriend was to move away to wed another, Shel attempted to call her one final time… from a payphone. [Probably a good time to mention this song was initially recorded in 1971, so payphones were everywhere.]

The call went through but it wasn’t Sylvia that picked up, it was Sylvia’s mother. Per a Rollings Stones magazine interview from 1972, here is Shel Silverstein himself talking about this song:

“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.”

Part of the appeal of this song was the hook (no pun intended) that Shel wrote for the chorus. As the caller in the song pleads with the mom to let him talk to Sylvia, he repeatedly gets a prompt from the operator to deposit more money as his time for the call is running out (remember, he’s on a payphone): “… and the operator says, ’40 cents more… for the next… three… minutes’…”

Another reason this song connected with listeners is the voice of Dennis Locorriere, one of the band’s lead singers who was the lead for this particular song. The pain, hurt, and desperation in his singing comes across so poignantly, that one can’t help but feel like it’s them in that payphone, all alone, making this last call, wanting one more chance to speak from the heart, yet encountering multiple obstacles. That’s a feeling that just about everyone can relate to in some way or another.

I’ll end this post with a WARNING: After watching the video below and listening to this song a few times, it WILL get stuck in your brain and you will hear it replaying in your mind for many days to come.

Photo Sources:

Picture of Shel Silverstein:

Picture of Dr. Hook’s Album Cover:

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