My parents were talk-radio listeners when I was growing up. My mother played New York’s WOR, programs like "Rambling with Gambling" and the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. My father listened to news, weather and traffic reports. So the only exposure I had to contemporary pop music was through the school bus radio.
A lot of the songs I remember from that era I first heard sitting on those yellow school buses, either parked at the bus dock waiting to leave, or navigating the curving suburban streets or narrow farm roads. Our bus trip was about a half hour each way, which gave time for lots of listening. And sometimes I’d stay after school for the Math Team or Forensics or Drama, and I’d take the late bus home, which took a much more meandering route, and I’d hear a lot of late-afternoon music.
I can remember riding along to “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest; “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” the song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, sung by B.J. Thomas; and songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Three Dog Night and The Carpenters. But one of the songs that still sticks with me is “Sylvia’s Mother” a 1972 hit by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
I’m not sure why it keeps resonating with me. It was written by Shel Silverstein, who went on to best-seller status with Playboy cartoons and children’s books. He also co-wrote “A Boy Named Sue” with Johnny Cash.
“Sylvia’s Mother” was apparently based on a failed relationship he had with a woman named Sylvia, and calls he himself made to Sylvia’s mother. The singer is trying to get hold of his ex-girlfriend, but her mother is playing interference. Though Sylvia’s there in the background, it’s clear that her mother isn’t letting her know who’s on the phone.
Maybe I like this song so much because it tells a whole story in just a couple of stanzas and a chorus. I can hear the pain in Dr. Hook’s voice as he begs, “Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to talk to her. I’ll only keep her a while.” And then there’s the chorus, where “the operator says forty cents more, for the next three minutes,” which is a reference I doubt anyone born after the demise of pay phones will understand.
The song reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and charted in many other countries, including Australia, Ireland and South Africa. It spawned covers, including on by Jon Bon Jovi, translations and even a follow up song by British folk rockers. So maybe I’m not the only one still haunted by it.