Origin Stories: Sylvia Tyson on “You Were On My Mind”
When Canadian folk icons Ian & Sylvia first began performing together in Toronto in early 1960, the city’s famed Yorkville neighbourhood wasn’t yet the musical mecca for which it later became known. Along with fellow Canadian musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Buffy Sainte-Marie, the budding duo came of age alongside the notorious bohemian artist community at the height of the folk boom.
“There really weren’t that many clubs in Toronto at that point,” recalls Sylvia Tyson over the phone from her Toronto home. “We mainly played at the Village Corner club, which is one of the very early clubs in Toronto. My repertoire was very different from Ian’s in those early days because mine came from books of folk music that I had taught myself, and his was much more in line with the blues. But, we put a few things together and it started sounding pretty good.”
With the music industry in Canada still in its infancy in those days, most Canadian musicians had no choice but to head south to the U.S. if they wanted to grow their careers and be widely heard.
Though Ian & Sylvia (whose last name was Fricker back then) became quite popular locally, they quickly realized they had already become as big as they could be in Toronto. It was at that point that the pair decided to try their hand in the States and, along with a mutual friend, made the pilgrimage to New York City to begin their search for a real manager.
Upon their arrival, the first stop they made was to the Central Park West office of Albert Grossman and George Wein. Grossman would soon become widely known as the manager of both Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin among other artists while Wein had recently founded the influential Newport Folk Festival.
“When we arrived in New York, we sort of just showed up at Grossman’s enormous office. He had no idea who we were, but we auditioned for him on the spot. His response, as much as I remember it was, ‘Well, I really like you guys but I’ve just signed this trio and I don’t know how much time I’m gonna have.’ That was Peter, Paul and Mary,” says Sylvia with a laugh. “But, he liked the music and I think he realized that we were pretty self-sufficient so he took us on.”
From there, Grossman negotiated a deal for the pair with Vanguard Records, which, largely due to the strength of Joan Baez’s recordings, had turned itself from a classical label into the hottest folk record company in town.
“Albert wasn’t actually all that keen to have us with Vanguard,” explains Sylvia. “He wanted us to be with a more commercial label, but Vanguard was thought to be the folkie label back then, so we wanted to be there. He felt that a commercial label would make us more readily available to the public as far as being able to promote us and so forth. He was actually quite right though we certainly did nicely on Vanguard and made some very good records with them so I have no complaints there.”
Ian & Sylvia released a total of seven albums on Vanguard before the decade’s end (they also later released, Live at Newport, on the label in 1996), but it was the duo’s third album 1964’s Northern Journey that saw Sylvia stepping into the role of songwriter for the very first time.
The album, which was a follow-up to the duo’s 1963 breakthrough release, Four Strong Wings––the title track of which was an instant hit at home in Canada––featured the song “You Were On My Mind.”
As the story goes, Sylvia wrote the song in a bathtub at the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village, not because she was bathing but rather because it was the only place in the room that the cockroaches wouldn’t climb.
“By then we were on the road a lot, so we didn’t really live anywhere specific,” she says. “But, we would stay at the Earle or the Albert, one of those hotels in New York, whenever we were in town. It was the first song I ever wrote, and it’s absolutely true that I wrote it in a bathtub. It was a wonderful bathtub––very long and very deep,” she says with a laugh.
Though the song wouldn’t become a hit for Ian & Sylvia, it did become a hit a year later in 1965 for San Francisco-based folk-pop group We Five.
Unbeknownst to the Tysons (Ian and Sylvia were married by that time) the group had recorded their own version of the song, which starting with a solitary drumbeat, ascended toward a cascade of glorious harmonies and featured a more upbeat pop-leaning sound. Peaking at No. 1 on Cashbox and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song immediately made its way to the top of the charts.
“We didn’t know that anyone else had recorded it because the publishing company didn’t bother to tell us,” says Sylvia. “We were driving along on the Pacific Coast Highway from California up towards Vancouver when we heard it on the car radio for the first time. We nearly drove off the road it was such a surprise.
“Mind you, they did change the lyrics. Although I wasn’t pleased with that because as a songwriter you really try and put time and effort into choosing the right words so that they express exactly what you mean, I did understand why they did it. If you wanted to get played on the radio in those days, you just didn’t talk about being drunk and sick,” she says with a laugh.
When surveyed about what prompted her to write the song in the first place, Tyson says she’s uncertain as to what exactly sparked her imagination back then. Noting that most songwriters have a tendency to fall back on chronicling relationships when nothing else surfaces, she does recall the song being somewhat gospel-inspired, despite that fact that most of her influences were traditional ones.
In the fifty-five years that have passed since the song’s release, “You Were On My Mind” has been reinterpreted by artists from a wide variety of genres the world over. Notably, in the UK, Crispian St. Peters also recorded the song in late 1965 and scored his own No. 2 hit a year later. In 1966 Equipe 84 had a No. 2 hit in Italy with their version “Io ho in mente te” besting a rival version by Paul Anka, while Bobby Penn covered it in 1971 and saw his rendition peak at No. 51 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. More recently artists such as Serena Ryder, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle as well as Lucius have all added their own touch to the song, which today remains a classic of both the 1960s folk and pop genres.
Asked if it ever bothered her that it hadn’t been the original Ian & Sylvia version of “You Were On My Mind” that topped the charts, Tyson was playfully candid.
“Oh no no, the song was out and it was popular, so that didn’t bother me much at all––particularly once the cheques started rolling in.”
Sylvia Tyson is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, The Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and has received Canada’s highest civilian honour, The Order of Canada. She will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September 2019.
[This article was originally published via the National Music Centre.]