British singer Sylvan released just one solo single, 1965’s ‘death disc’ We don’t belong, but went on to write the lyrics of many top tunes of the day, both with and without her husband Barry Mason.
She was born Suilven Whittingham (or Suilven Alexandra Elizabeth Fraser Whittingham, to give her full name) on 2 December 1943 in the Yorkshire town of Horsforth, now part of Leeds. Her parents lived in Chelsea, in west London, and her father was a screenwriter with Ealing Studios.
After leaving school she moved to Marble Arch in London’s West End and took up secretarial work.
In 1965 she recorded a demo of her singing and playing her guitar, which she sent off to Radio Luxembourg’s Talent Search. She ended making the top six in the contest finals, held in London. Orchestra leader Cyril Stapleton encouraged her to take singing lessons, which she did in London’s Denmark Street, home to many record producers and agents at the time.
During a break in a coffee bar in the street, the blue-eyed blonde caught the eye of record producer Barry Mason (and looking at her publicity shots from the time, it’s not hard to see why). Together the pair penned We don’t belong, a tale of misunderstood lovers who sign a suicide pact. “Hold me in your arms until the bitter end, now the tears are over death shall be our friend,” ran the lyric.
With a new spelling of her name, Sylvan, the singer was offered a recording contract with the Columbia label and whisked into the studio in a matter of weeks. No expense was spared – backing was provided by a 70-piece orchestra, and the result is a huge production.
The BBC banned the record because of its lyrics, but unlike Twinkle’s ‘death disc’ Terry of the previous year, this did nothing to boost sales. If anything, death discs were considered a touch passé by this time by the time of its release in August 1965, and the single disappeared without trace.
Sadly, its failure signalled the end of Sylvan’s solo career, but she went on to write lyrics with Mason, including Delilah for Tom Jones and Kiss me goodbye for Petula Clark. The pair also wrote the English lyrics for Anna Identici’s 1968 San Remo entry Quando m’innamoro, which Engelbert Humperdinck took into the UK top ten as A man without love, and Katja Ebstein’s fabulous Wunder gibt es immer wieder (which became No more love for me).
On her own, she also penned songs for Demis Roussos and the theme tune to Morecombe and Wise’s 1972 television series.
She and Mason also released a duet, When you do what you’re doing, and the pair married, though they divorced in the 1980s.
She now works as a photographer and lives in Fulham, in west London. For a while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer but was given the all clear in 2008.
With thanks to Sylvan for her help with this biography.
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