1: Sylvia’s Mother: Dr Hook and the Medicine Show

The first couple of years of the 70’s are a dark hinterland to me. It was dark literally all the time it seemed but also I didn’t really have a clue about what was happening in the world. Like most pre teens, school was the most important thing in my life and thanks to school I became aware of music as a ‘thing’. There was no realisation at this point that I could seek out sounds and make my choices, I listened to whatever my parents had on the radio, whatever musical acts appeared on variety shows on the television and from occasionally playing one of my parents’ collection of 9 LP’s.

Top of the Pops was an incredibly important show. Placed firmly in the middle of a Thursday evening it was watched by generations some of whom came to sneer and others came to watch in awe. To be fair it was always the deal that you had to sit through a lot of crap, in fact in the mid 70’s you could go for weeks without seeing anything exciting but there would be the nuggets, Bolan, Bowie, the Faces, that made the wait worthwhile.

And somewhere, it seemed out of nowhere, there emerged a record called Sylvia’s Mother by Dr Hook and the Medicine show that made its way, almost to the top of the charts. 


I must admit, at the time, that I was underwhelmed, largely because this sort of music was outside my comprehension. There’s a bit of Norfolk that is forever Tennessee, country music was incredibly popular even in the village halls out in the sticks. It was the music of mums and dads and I didn’t really like it and Dr Hook sounded a bit like that. But I was also a little impressed, they were clearly American and so weren’t going to schlep over to the BBC studios so all we had was a blurry piece of film which only really conveyed the fact that one of them had a hat and an eyepatch. He clearly must be Dr Hook although it was the hairy guy who sounded like he was about to burst into tears who was doing the singing. There was also the fact that this was a story song. Clearly, I hadn’t realised that this was written by Shel Silverstein writer, cartoonist and general renaissance man. The song was about an actual experience he had had and there’s a certain pathos about the author trying to contact the titular Sylvia while her mother fields the call and the operator asks for more money.

In the 70’s you had to sell records to get into the charts and it amazes me how the British public decided to simultaneously purchase a record by a bunch of freaks who had only just recorded their first album. Dr Hook and the Medicine Show had been plugging away for years in the states but this single broke them in Europe, Australia and the USA without warning.

48 years later, YouTube decided I needed to watch an old clip of the band live in concert and so I did (thank you YouTube), and then it decided I wanted to watch more live performances and interviews from all around the world, so I did.

And what a great band! Basically if the Bonzos had been born in Alabama  and raised on soul and country instead of Jazz, given a big bag of weed and told to go out and entertain the roadhouses they would have been Dr Hook. Its was almost impossible to conceive how talented American bar bands could be. Eggs over Easy started the whole pub rock scene when they decamped to Kentish Town in the mid 70’s and impressed the pub crowns by being able to play almost anything the audience wanted. Dr Hook (soon to loose the Medicine Show)  were a 7 piece where just about everyone could sing lead (and did), instruments were swapped, musicians came to the front of the stage to dance and sing and despite seeming hugely stoned they all weighed in with vocal harmonies at a moment’s notice. There was no Dr Hook of course, Ray Sawyer was a soul singer who had lost his eye in a near fatal car crash. We all got a bit confused, Ray didn’t have a hook, Captain Hook, on the other hand didn’t have an eyepatch and wasn’t a Doctor, we didn’t really think this through at the time.

The real voice of Dr Hook, as he would later bill himself, was Dennis Locorriere, initially drafted in as the bass player,Locorriere was a sweaty hairy ball of pathos who, along with Sawyer, was incredibly popular with the ladies. Between them they had an incredibly intuitive onstage relationship and just seemed to be having the best time ever when they performed.

Its taken me some 48 years to appreciate just how good they were, they diversified into disco and soft rock but even at their blandest they had Locorriere’s voice and Sawyer’s maracas. If I could have a time machine gig Dr Hook would be pretty near the top of the list. Only the Faces approached their level of onstage camaraderie.

I wonder if, in retrospect they set the seeds for my love of American roots music. Things were so grim in the late 80’s that many of us were checking out country music again and Dr Hook began to make sense.

Inevitably the band came to an end, Locorriere estimates they spent 17 years playing 300 gigs a year which if true is pretty incredible. There were the inevitable fallings out but we won’tsee the band ever again, some are no longer with us including the estimable Sawyer (only 8 years younger than my dad!) who left us just over a year ago. 

But despite life’s setbacks there’s always YouTube.


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