Sylvia Tyson | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sylvia Tyson

In the duo's last years, Tyson began to perform on her own and was host 1974-80 for the CBC radio folk music program 'Touch the Earth.

Sylvia Tyson

  Sylvia Tyson (b Fricker). Singer, songwriter, guitarist, broadcaster, b Chatham, Ont, 19 Sep 1940. Her mother was a music teacher, church organist, and choir director. Sylvia Tyson sang and played guitar and auto harp in Toronto coffeehouses (Bohemian Embassy, Village Corner Club, etc) and teamed up on occasion as early as 1959 with Ian Tyson in what would be a full-time partnership 1961-75 as the popular duo Ian and Sylvia. She contributed many songs to their repertoire. One, 'You Were on My Mind,' was a hit for the US group We Five in 1965, and has been recorded by other artists internationally. Others ('Sleep on My Shoulder,' River Road,' and 'Trucker's Cafe') remained part of her own club and concert programs and were re-recorded in 1989 for her album You Were on My Mind.

In the duo's last years, Tyson began to perform on her own and was host 1974-80 for the CBC radio folk music program 'Touch the Earth.' She maintained parallel careers in broadcasting and music through the 1980s, serving CBC TV as host in 1980 for 'Heartland' and 1981-3 for 'Country in My Soul,' and subsequently working as a scriptwriter for 'Video Hits.' Concurrently she performed in clubs and concert with successive versions of the Great Speckled Bird (the band formed in 1968 to accompany Ian and Sylvia).

Tyson recorded two LPs for Capitol in the mid-1970s (Woman's World, SKAO-6430; Cold Wind from the North, ST-6441), and two for her own Salt label in 1978 and 1979 (Satin on Stone, SR-101; Sugar for Sugar, Salt for Salt, SR-102). These were followed by two for Stony Plain, Big Spotlight (SLP-1100, issued in 1986) and You Were On My Mind (SPCD-1140, issued in 1989).

Two songs from Big Spotlight, 'Denim Blue Eyes' and 'Too Short a Ride,' were modest country hits in 1986 and 1987 respectively. Other Tyson titles of note include 'Smiling Wine' (from the days of Ian and Sylvia), later covered by Shirley Eikhard), 'Régine,' and 'Pepere's Mill'/'Le Moulin à Pépere,' the last written and recorded by Tyson with Lucille Starr. Tyson songs also have been recorded by Crystal Gayle, Jay and the Americans, the Lettermen, Chad Mitchell, Nana Mouskouri, and Kitty Wells.

The CD Gypsy Cadillac (1992, Silver City, SCD 2266), co-produced by Tyson with Tom Russell, contained her own songs plus efforts co-written with Eikhard, Colleen Peterson, and Russell. In 2000 she released River Road and Other Stories (Salt Music 23339-4004-2), from her autobiographical one-woman show. The Very Best of Sylvia Tyson: You Were On My Mind (Varese Sarabande VSD-6228) followed in 2001.

Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail (29 Nov 1976), Paul McGrath referred to her 'distinctive voice that some loved and others found affected.' He continued: 'She has a touch of a warble in her singing reminiscent of Loretta Lynn ... her songs, while written in faithful down-home style, have a sophistication that I would like to think comes from her Canadian roots ... They aren't hung up on the blues or on defining right-of-middle-of-the-road; they usually have simple stories to tell ... topics usually left unsung in the country vein.'

Tyson resumed group performance by co-founding, with Peterson, the ensemble Quartette. Their first performance, with members Cindy Church and Caitlin Hanford, was at Toronto's Harbourfront in 1993. The ensemble, with Gwen Swick replacing Peterson following the latter's untimely death, continued to record and tour as of 2003, to critical acclaim. Tyson pursued her solo career concurrently; as a solo artist she remained mostly in the country-folk vein. She also appeared in stage shows, with River Road and The Piano Man's Daughter ... and Others, based on the Timothy Findley novel, 1995-97.

Tyson served on the boards of FACTOR, the Juno Awards, and the Songwriters Association of Canada, and in 1994 served on a federal advisory committee on the cultural aspects of the information highway. As a broadcaster, she narrated the video series History Lands. She was recognized with the Order of Canada in 1994. She has been credited with inspiring the next generation of female singer-songwriters, including Eikhard and Marie-Lynn Hammond.

The guitarist Clay Tyson is Tyson's son.


'Songwriters as observers of life,' Country, May/June 1990

- and Russell, Tom, eds. And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks (Vancouver 1995)

Further Reading