Just Want To Tell Her Goodbye

In America, the day of the phone booth has come to an end, because widespread use of mobile phones has alleviated the need to provide another way for people to make or take calls while they are out and about.  When our decedents watch Superman movies in the future, they will have no idea what Superman is searching for.  In 1971, pay phones were common and this guy calls his girl from one, but her mother picks up instead.  Silvia’s mother is polite, but she does not want to let him speak to her.  She tells him that, “Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone, that she is trying, to start a new life of her own and that she is happy and she wants him to leave her alone.”

Today the telephone operator has also become obsolete and it is hard to believe that the human being who was always there on the other end of the phone is no longer around.  Actually phone operators still exist for people that want to place collect calls, but they are not as prevalent as they used to be with all of the unlimited cell phone calling plans around these days.  In order to use a coin-operated public telephone, which was often located in a telephone booth you would need to remove the phone from the hook and listen for a dial tone and then dump enough coins in to make your call.  If the call was prolonged past the time allotted by your deposit, the operator would come on the line to inform you that you had to put more money in the phone.  This is the part of the song that always makes me laugh, as this guy is not able to get through to his girl and the operator keeps on saying, “Forty cents more, for the next three minutes.”

This song ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ was the first single released by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, who later became simply Dr. Hook.  It was written by Shel Silverstein and many of the songs that he wrote for the band were works of comedy and he is also known for writing ‘A Boy Named Sue’ for Johnny Cash.  This band had two lead singers, in the video Ray Sawyer is the one with the eye patch the other is Dennis Locorriere.  Locorriere was only 20 years old, but he delivered the vocal with a sincere sorrow.  After this song became a hit, audience members would sometimes throw coins at the band when the line “40 cents more” was sung, and this could hurt, especially when they were launched from the balcony.

Shel Silverstein was a brilliant storyteller with a vivid imagination, but this story was real.  The poor guy in the phone booth speaking with Sylvia’s mother who he calls Mrs. Avery, was actually him, trying to get through to his girlfriend Sylvia.  Her real last name was changed, because it didn’t fit the rest of the story and the story may be a bit exaggerated, but it was mostly true.  It happened around 1964 and when he called Sylvia, he was only able to reach her mother who told him, ‘She can’t talk to you.’  He asked her, ‘Why not?’ and her mother responded by saying that Sylvia was packing and she was leaving to get married, which was a big surprise to him.  The guy was in Mexico and he was a bullfighter and a painter.  After begging with Sylvia’s mother, “Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her I’ll only keep her a while”, he finally got to talk with Sylvia, but not before Sylvia’s mother issued this warning, ‘Shel, don’t spoil it.’

The identity of Sylvia was always kept a big secret, but a Dutch public television producer named Arjan Vlakveld eventually found out who Sylvia was, and he also was able to track down Sylvia’s mother.  He was at his brother’s place having a glass of wine in the garden when he met an American woman who he let know that he produced documentaries and did pop star interviews.  The American told him the story about Sylvia and her mother, who she knew and from this information Arjan hoped he could trace Sylvia.  Arjan ran down a few names and ended up in a telephone conversation with Sylvia Pandolfi, who at that time was a museum director in Mexico City.  The line in the song, “Down Galveston way” meant that she was getting married to a Mexican and moving there.

I can relate to this song even though I have never had to go desperately digging into my pockets for more coins, while I was trying to talk to a girl before she leaves town.  Younger people who have grown up in the age of cell phones may not be able to relate to this, but it wasn’t all that long ago when communicating with your girlfriend was much more difficult.  Twenty five years ago, hardly anybody had cell phones and parents considered it their duty to listen in on phone calls, so they could try and prevent their daughters from getting involved in some type of Charlie Manson cult.  Back in the day, when a boy called his girlfriend, he would often have to talk with her parents first, who would act as a gatekeeper, preventing their daughter from talking to someone unless they approved of him.

‘Sylvia’s Mother’ initially bombed as a single when Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show released the self-titled album in 1971.  But they had faith in the song, so instead of releasing another single, they released ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ again as a single in July 1972.  This time the song was a hit going up to the Top 5 in both the US and UK.  Silverstein eventually provided another hit to the band in 1973 with ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’, which charted #6.  After this hit, the band failed to come up with another successful follow-up single.  Between their two aptly-titled albums Belly Up! and Bankrupt, Dr. Hook would in fact declare bankruptcy, lose a founding member, and languish in self-pitying obscurity.  Shel Silverstein grew up in Chicago and he started out as a cartoonist, publishing his work in Playboy and the military publication Stars & Stripes, before he turned to writing children’s books.  The band Dr. Hook is an American blue-eyed soul, country-flavored novelty pop rock down-and-dirty Jersey bar band that formed in Union City, New Jersey.

If you watch this video you will see Silverstein playing the harmonica with Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show on his houseboat doing ‘Sylvia’s Mother’.

Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s busy, too busy to come to the phone”
Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s trying, to start a new life of her own”
Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s happy so why don’t you leave her alone?”
And the operator says
“Forty cents more, for the next three minutes”

Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to tell her
Goodbye

Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s packing, she’s gonna be leaving today”
Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s marrying, a fellow down Galveston-Way”
Sylvia’s mother says “Please don’t say nothing to make her start crying and stay”
And the operator says
“Forty cents more, for the next three minutes”

Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to tell her
Goodbye

Sylvia’s mother says “Sylvia’s hurrying she’s catching the nine o’clock train”
Sylvia’s mother says “Take your umbrella, ‘cause Sylvia it’s starting to rain”
And Sylvia’s mother says “Thank you for calling and sir won’t you come back again”
And the operator says
“Forty cents more for the next three minutes”

Please Mrs. Avery, I’ve just got to talk to her
I’ll only keep her a while
Please Mrs. Avery, I just want to tell her
Goodbye

Tell her goodbye
Please, tell her goodbye

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Trace and for Scotts Daily Prompt – Warning.

18 thoughts on “Just Want To Tell Her Goodbye

  1. You reminded me of college days. Some guys had girlfriends who were not allowed to speak to guys. So, they would ask one of the girls (us) to dial her number, get her on the line pretending to be a friend, and then, pass on the phone … all from those coin-operated phones. I wonder where are they now, and what do they think about those silly pastimes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting background info on this song and Shel Silverstein. I just watched the first video and am amazed that someone went out there and found Sylvia’s mother and Sylvia. Really brings the song to life.

    Liked by 1 person

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