Why Sylvia Murphy turns her back on the big-time
Six months ago a recording firm in England offered Sylvia Murphy, a blond Canadian songbird whose career is up around high-C even if her range isn’t, the kind of deal that can turn a national star into an international one. The company wanted to fly her to London to record four songs in the new stereophonic process. The offer included all expenses and musical arrangements, a thirty-piece orchestra for accompaniment, and the right to choose two of the four songs herself. The resultant two records would be distributed, released and promoted in England, the United States and Canada. She said she was flattered, but no thank you.
Four months ago Arthur Godfrey, who is bigger than all outdoors in the U. S. entertainment industry, did his morning show from Toronto for a week, and Sylvia sang a couple of songs as his guest one morning. “Great Godfrey,” said Arthur, or words to that effect, and asked her to go to New York to appear on his show for a week. She thanked him and said no. He told her if she changed her mind to let him know immediately. She hasn’t.
Two years ago the Murphy cropped curls and creamy pelt were instantly recognized by her mother, a few friends and scarcely anyone else when she made her first start on a long-gone TV summer replacement called Club O'Connor. A year ago, if her name was not precisely a household word it at least led all the rest when a national poll of television critics listed the best newcomer to the cathode tube. A few months ago the same eye-strained group called her the best female vocalist in the country.
Few entertainers in this country are now heard and seen by as many people in any given week as Sylvia Murphy, yet no one seems less concerned about her burgeoning career than the lady herself. Each Thursday
When a pretty singer says she’d rather be a good mother, it’s usually chalked up to press agentry. But here’s one who really wants to stay home with her children
evening her rich, round tones embroider the big solid sound of Jack Kane’s band on the TV program Music Makers ’59, and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she sings with Billy O'Connor's little group on a network of twenty-four radio stations across the land.
On a recent Thursday an independent survey group called Teleratings deduced in the mysterious manner of those people that exactly 2,055,386 viewers were glued to Music Makers. Radio pulse-takers, less precise, say that a round 1,200,000 are on her wave-length every week. With an audience of more than three million, the curvaceous Miss Murphy has climbed faster than any entertainer in Canada, and it doesn’t end there.
Last winter the lean and learned Paul Almond, the CBC’s top drama producer, confounded the casting office by picking Sylvia as the lady lead in an hour-long murder mystery he was unraveling. The critical reception on her first dramatic undertaking on the tiny screen was unanimously favorable.
In fact, almost no one has found a knock for Miss Murphy in a business where knocks are not precisely unique. Indeed, no one has complained except Sylvia herself. who is not dissatisfied with her career, as such, but is really just not intrigued by the idea of it. Until May, when she married the scholarly television interviewer Charles Templeton. Sylvia’s greatest interest in the entertainment business was the security it afforded for her mother and two children by a previous marriage. Three years ago when that marriage disintegrated she wasn’t earning a quarter. These days people connected with her various shows guess that she’s making about twenty-five thousand dollars a year. That’s why she rejected the two offers that might have vaulted her
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“This girl is fundamentally not career — she’s the mother-Eve type,” says Charles Templeton
to a place among big-time entertainers.
“I’m busy enough and happy enough here," she remarked one time, long before Templeton had proposed. "Why would I want to go to England or get involved in that New York scramble?’
Personal success, in fact, was never an end in itself, and Sylvia had acquired a practical philosophy through the kind of personal experience that can't help but mold a character, one way or another. When she was a child her father, a sea-
man, developed amnesia following an accident and was missing for three years. Her mother became a charwoman and, still unable to make ends meet, was obliged to put Sylvia and Sylvia’s two little brothers in an orphanage. Ten years later
Sylvia tasted the other side of life; she married a millionaire’s son in Montreal.
After they’d had two children they separated and eventually were divorced.
"I thought for a time,” says her mother now, "that Sylvia would not get over it without serious consequences. But somehow' she did. She can be very determined."
Templeton observed this aspect of her personality, which he calls "a kind of forcefulness,” when he first met Sylvia, and one gathers that he attributed it to ambition. He soon changed his mind. Their first meeting came when he was cast by producer Paul Almond in the lead of the television murder drama last January. He, like Sylvia, had never acted in a TV play before.
Of their first meeting, he recalls that he felt no emotional attraction.
“I’m just not interested in blond singers,” he says. "This will make me very popular with the blond singers I know, no doubt, but I’ve found you get sort of bored; they haven’t enough brains to hold your interest.
“I felt that w'ay about Sylvia. I had no interest until the third rehearsal when we got discussing a fairly serious subject — I don’t recall now what it was — and I was surprised that she carried it. So I asked her, during a break, if she’d like to go out for something to eat. She said, i’ll see.’ and I thought to myself. That’s the end of it.’
Then the two of us were interviewed on the program Scan, talking about the play that was coming up. After that interview'. we did go to dinner. It was enjoyable but we’ve discussed this since and both of us felt when I took Sylvia home that that was that. I wasn’t going to call her again but it was necessary to get together to rehearse our lines and, well, it just grew from there.
"I now know that from the time she was very young she sustained herself and. later, her mother and her family. This has produced a kind of forcefulness of manner, an assertiveness. But this is not her. This girl is fundamentally not career. She’s a mother-Eve type.”
If mother-Eve is not precisely the term that has been leaping to the minds of tw-o million Murphy viewers it’s because she looks the way a blond singer ought to look when she pours out a throaty ode to love or belts out an up-tempo Kane specialty. She has near-classic curves of 37l/2—25—37, a confident measured poise, and that indefinable communication that transcends the invisible barrier between a man’s picture tube and his easy chair and makes him wiggle his toes.
She has the kind of face to induce the Music Makers producer, Norman Sedawie. to bring in his cameras for tight close-ups, warmly mobile and expressive. Sedawie. by the way, went from one coast to the other holding auditions in a search of a singer for this show. He heard well over a hundred girls, he says, and none came close to Sylvia in providing what he was seeking — versatility.
“Technically," he says, “she has peers. She’s not always in tune, even, and she could use better phrasing in jazz. But she’s one of the few anywhere who can sing a bright punchy tune and then do a nice ballad.
"Name me another singer anywhere who can do both and look good while doing them. She can handle anything the
band can do, and this is a band that does a lot of things. It's got to; week after week for a full half-hour we've got nothing but music. No dancers, no fellahs with funny sayings.”
Yet if Sylvia looks as blond singers are supposed to look, she doesn't act as blond singers are supposed to act. She isn't cute and coy around the rehearsal halls although she's often the only girl in the place as Kane and his thirty-one musicians w!ork up a show with producer Sedawie and writer Frank Peppiatt ( Peppiatt. a former TV comedian, who has become one of Canada’s top variety writers, says: "Without Sylvia this show is the YMCA”).
When she's not rehearsing her songs with the band she sits quietly by. listening and watching as the other numbers take shape, her foot tapping out the beat. Or she glances impassively through the TV columns in the afternoon papers that lie strewn like rumpled bed-sheets across chairs and work tables. Or, oblivious to the band’s din in the small room, she silently works through her songs from a piece of sheet music, her head nodding out the notes. Or sometimes she sits and knits. During breaks she confers with the stocky, serious-visaged Kane, softy humming her parts in his sometimesinvolved arrangements, or she plays cribbage with a musician until the break is over.
Her spare-time activities, prior to her marriage to Templeton, were confined almost entirely to the inside of her home and to her two children. Deborah Anne, who is six, and Michael David, three. She made all the drapes in her spacious sixroom apartment in North Toronto, made the bedspreads, knit matching red skisweaters for herself and the tw'o children, with white fawms worked into the design on theirs and reindeers on hers, and she hooked an inch-and-a-half-deep rug of pure wool for the bathroom. Her mother, a tiny, talkative, friendly woman, looked after the children w'hen Sylvia was working or rehearsing, but at least three days a week Sylvia was home to cook dinner and. according to Templeton, "is really a wonderful cook.”
He recalls that when he first started going with her she insisted, if they were out for dinner, on being home by 7:30. so she could put the kids to bed. She sang a prayer and the bedtime song Christopher Robin with them, and Templeton says, grinning. "I knew she wasn’t trying to con me because the kids knew the words.”
Once, Sylvia herself cried when little Michael hurt himself and ran into the house crying and calling, "Mamma, mamma” — the children's name for Mrs. Murphy; Sylvia's is Mommie. She thought Michael should have called her when he was hurt.
“Those things are far more important than singing." she said recently. "Don't misunderstand; I love singing and the work I'm doing, and I've been awfully lucky. But I don't like them that much. " Although her childhood was hard, Sylvia wants nothing more for her children than that they have the love and affection and kind of family life she had.
"I didn't even know we were poor," she told interviewer Joyce Davidson on the program Close-Up one time. “I remember some kids were ragging me and they told me we were poor and I couldn't understand it. I ran home and asked my mother if we were poor people.”
Sylvia and her younger brother Joe, who is working on a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at McGill University now. and Harry, who is in his third year of geology at the same school, were very close in spite of their father's limited income in
the pre-war depression years in Montreal. Sylvia was born there Sept. 24. 1931. They had singsongs at home at w'hich little Sylvia would stand up and announce. "Miss Sylvia Murphy presents the outstanding duet, the Murphy brothers!" Her father, John Murphy, whom Sylvia’s mother says "could get music out of a pair of spoons," accompanied the boys on an accordion.
John injured his head w'hen Sylvia was seven. He stooped to pick up four-yearold Harry and as he straightened up he struck his head sharply on the corner of
a cupboard. He suffered a concussion and some time later began to lose his memory and have hallucinations. He kept taking work as a seaman whenever he could find a ship, however, and in 1938 he got one to Australia. He missed the return voyage and then got a ship bound for England. He was there when war broke and was working in a shipyard when amnesia overtook him completely. "He just forgot all about us,” says Mrs. Murphy.
She took jobs as a housekeeper and then scrubbed walls in office buildings.
One evening she came home late to find nine-year-old Sylvia cooking dinner for her two brothers. “I’m looking after them. Mom," she said. She was frying
But by April of 1940 Mrs. Murphy was unable to make ends meet and still look after her family. She made a hard decision. She put the three of them in St. Patrick's orphanage. The city of Montreal paid for the two boys and Mrs. Murphy paid ten dollars a month for Sylvia. They were in the orphanage a year, and Sylvia scoffs at the suggestion
the experience seared her with psychological scars.
"It wasn't had at all,” she says. "Mother visited us nearly every day and we had movies on Sunday night. The only unhappiness I remember came from the fact all the toys were kept in drawers in the assembly hall, and the drawers had no locks. To teach us neatness, the nuns would give away any toys that were not put neatly away in the drawers every evening. I used to be very neat and I’d always put my favorite toys away. But then other kids would take them out of
the unlocked drawers and leave them out and the nuns would give them away."
They left the orphanage in the summer of 1941 when John Murphy came home. Within six months he developed meningitis of the brain and died before the end of the year. Mrs. Murphy took a small apartment in a converted barracks in downtown Montreal on Dowd Street near Bleury, got a twenty-fivedollar-a-month Needy Mothers' allowance and worked as a charwoman in St. Patrick’s Church.
“The welfare people sent us a quart
of milk and a loaf of bread a day," she recalls, "and I scrubbed floors at the homes of friends who’d let me get home in time to look after the children. My brother Charlie in Brooklyn used to send clothes and I’d cut them down for Sylvia and Joe and Harry. But Charlie couldn't keep doing that. It’s like a leaking bucket—how long can you keep on filling it?”
Sylvia went to St. Patrick’s Academy and her brothers to St. Patrick’s boys’ school and then they all went to D’Arcy McGee high school. Sylvia left in her
third year to take a business course when she was sixteen, her mother somehow providing the fee of sixteen dollars a month. Then a man who knew the family gave her a job as a stenographer in a wholesale woolens firm.
The boys w'ere still in school—or so Mrs. Murphy thought. One Friday night Joe asked his mother to wake him early in the morning. He was sleeping soundly when she went in to waken him and, knowing there was no school on Saturday, she let him sleep. When he awoke he leaped to his feet and cried, “I’ll be fired!”
“From what?” she asked.
And then Joe told her he’d been working in the CNR freight office and proudly produced sixty dollars he’d saved to give her.
Joe had learned to play a secondhand cornet his mother had picked up for a dollar, and he and Sylvia had played and sung at the school. She’d done a few club dates and one night went to the Algiers night club in Montreal with some of the musicians. They persuaded the manager to let her sing. She did How High the Moon, and the manager was so impressed that he hired Sylvia for seventy-five dollars a week for the next nine weeks.
For two years she sang in various Montreal clubs and then one night when she was working at the Chez Paree a girl friend introduced her to a young man whose father was a millionaire industrialist. She was eighteen when they were married in July 1950. She had had an offer from Sammy Kaye, the American orchestra leader, just prior to this. Kaye had asked her to cut a recording and have pictures taken and send them to him. She made the recording and had the pictures and then, typically, did not send them. Instead, she gave up her career to be a housewife, but had to resume it after her separation.
She began doing club dates again and got a radio show with Peter Barry in Montreal. One night on television from Toronto she saw an old friend, Don Cameron, who had played in a band with which she’d sung. He was now a leading commercial announcer. Sylvia phoned his mother on Christmas Eve to get his address and Mrs. Cameron told her Don was coming home for Christmas and that she was holding a surprise party for him. Would Sylvia come over and be Don’s surprise date?
She went to the Camerons and Don was delighted to see her. He said he’d speak to Billy O'Connor, on whose radio program he was doing commercials and whose girl singer, Juliette, was leaving the show' for one of her own. O’Connor auditioned Sylvia, liked her, and for the next nine months she commuted to Toronto to work with Billy.
She made her first television appearance on a sustaining program called 11:30 Friday Nite on March 2, 1956, and made no splash. She got a couple of guest appearances on Cross-Canada Hit Parade and then got the summer replacement job with Billy O’Connor on the show Club O’Connor. In May 1958. producer Norman Sedawie settled on Sylvia as the permanent vocalist on Music Makers after trying her, and several other singers, in occasional appearances.
But this climb to the top has really only been incidental to her real goal in life, which, as she indicated nine years ago when she didn’t pursue Sammy Kaye's offer, is not a career. Now that she’s married to Chuck Templeton it’s unlikely that the biggest singing star in Canadian television will long be Sylvia Murphy, the critics’ choice for 1959. It’s more likely she’ll be found over a hot stove.