She was born Sylvia Blagman in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, she had polio. As a teenager, she went to jazz-oriented nightclubs on New York's 52nd Street, and received informal training from Billie Holiday. In 1941 she made her debut at a club called Billy's Stable.
In 1948, performing at the Cinderella Club in Greenwich Village, she was seen by Mae West, who gave her a part in a show she was doing. It was no particular secret that West surrounded herself with portly women to make herself appear slimmer, and Sylvia's casting was no exception. Among others who observed her in night clubs was Frank Sinatra who considered her the "world's greatest saloon singer." Sinatra subsequently conducted her 1982 album Syms by Sinatra. Syms was keenly aware that her voice was not a great instrument, and that her forte was the interpretation of lyrics.
She was signed to a record company by Decca Records, having her major success with a recording of "I Could Have Danced All Night" in 1956.
Ms. Syms made a regular appearances at the Carlyle in Manahattan. At times, impromptu, while enjoyng a cocktail in the bar of the Carlyle, she would walk on stage and perform with the cabaret's other regular, Bobby Short. On one occasion, an altercation broke out in the crowd, when Terry O'Neill, the famous celebrity photographer and live-in companion of Faye Dunaway, accused another spectactor, the author, Daniel Simone, of staring at Ms. Dunaway's legs, who was also present in the audience.
Ms. Syms was a nightly patron of the famous restaurant, Ted Hook's Backstage, on Forty-fifth Street and Eight Avenue. Her graciosness never allowed her to turn down a request when asked by the owner, Ted Hook, to interrupt her dining and sing at the piano.
She died on stage at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City from a heart attack, aged 74.
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