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December 2: “The World’s Greatest Saloon Singer”

December 2, 2015

1927Sylvia Syms (Blagman), whom Frank Sinatra called “the world’s greatest saloon singer,” was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1917. She recovered from childhood polio to become a hanger-on at jazz clubs in New York, where she met and received informal training from Billie Holiday. Syms made her own debut in 1941, and signed a record contract with Decca in 1956, which brought a million-seller hit with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady. By her death (onstage at the Algonquin Hotel at age 74), she had recorded fifteen albums, and appeared in several films and numerous television shows. “With her deep, grainy contralto, I’ve-been-through-it-all air of sophistication, and sinuous phrasing that echoed her idol, Billie Holiday,” wrote Stephen Holden in a New York Times obituary, “Miss Syms was a quintessential saloon singer, a term she said she preferred to cabaret singer. In the saloon tradition of Mr. Sinatra, she treated everything she sang as an intimate personal communication.” To see her performing in 1983, look below.

“It was while appearing at the Cinderella Club in Greenwich Village in 1948 that she was discovered by Mae West, who gave her the part of Flo the Shoplifter in a revival of “Diamond Lil.” Favorable notices from the show helped propel her into a dual career in nightclubs and the theater.” —Stephen Holden