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VOL. 122 | NO. 116 | Friday, June 22, 2007

A Tribute in Writing

Book reflects on life of Tenn. Supreme Court justice's mother

By Rosalind Guy

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SYLVIA ABRAHAM HOLDER -- Illustration By Philip Thompson

At the age of 87, Sylvia Abraham Holder has done what few people her age have: She's published her first book of personal poetry and musings.

Considering the long and full life she has lived, though, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

Holder, the mother of Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice M. Holder, will be signing copies of the book, "Poetry & Memoirs," Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Little Tea Shop, 69 Monroe Ave.

The book signing is the second for Sylvia. The first actually was held in her hometown of Canonsburg, Pa.

The book was published earlier this year, but actually is the compilation of many years of notes and tributes she has written about her family, friends and even some of her favorite pastimes such as wrestling.

"I was always writing tributes to people. That's what I did and I would just hand it to them, but I'd keep a copy," Sylvia said.

Bits of tributes

The bits and pieces of paper where she had written these personal tributes were sitting on her desk one day when Janice just happened to find them.

She gathered the scraps of paper she'd found on her mother's desk, edited and typed them before having them self-published through Virtual Marketing Inc. The process took nearly two years, Janice said.

Sylvia knew about the process but said she still was surprised when she received 100 copies of the book.

Janice currently is in the process of sorting through her mother's notes and journal writings to compose an autobiography of her mother's life.

Sylvia was born in 1919 to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Syria. Sylvia, who's Syrian name is Smaya Ibrahim Holder, has more than a few amusing tidbits that offer a brief glimpse into the era in which she was born, raised and lived.

Fame and the Rat Pack

Her first job was as a singer in Lee Barrett's Orchestra in Steubenville, Ohio, when she was about 17 years old. That first gig was as a replacement for the male singer, Russ Romero, who'd left the orchestra to replace Perry Como in Cleveland, Ohio.

Wearing a long, yellow, satin gown that she'd sewn in home economics class, Sylvia was standing to the side waiting for the band to set up when she was approached by a young man who himself was trying to make it as a singer: Dino Crocetti.

Crocetti would later change his name to Dean Martin and would go on to sell millions of records.

"Every time I got up to sing, this darling young man and his entourage would applaud," Sylvia said in a recent telephone interview, while reminiscing about those early performances. "I don't know how good I was, but of course Lee Barrett said, 'Oh wow,' and he did keep me for a while."

Sylvia described Martin as "quite the charmer." And debunking the myth that Martin was a hard alcoholic, Sylvia said he was just a talented man who gave his all to every performance.

"He had a routine to pretend, because he was such a performer when he started out," she said. "And he gave it his all. People would stand back and say, 'He's drunk,' but he only allowed that image. He carried a glass of apple juice around and pretended like he was drunk."

The stories of her early years as a young singer are enough to fill more than a couple of chapters of a book, but there's more.

Ella and a husband

"I was always writing tributes to people. That's what I did and I would just hand it to them, but I'd keep a copy."
- Sylvia Abraham Holder
Author, "Poetry & Memoirs"

Another iconoclastic musician who made an impression on Sylvia's life is Ella Fitzgerald.

Lou Holder, a drummer with the Lee Barrett Orchestra, asked Sylvia to accompany him to a concert to see Lady Ella one evening in 1938 when he was dropping her off at her home in Canonsburg after one of the orchestra's performances.

"Our band leader couldn't afford a bus for all of us, so a couple of people had cars," Sylvia said. "So one day the drummer said to me, 'Sylvia, Ella Fitzgerald's going to be in Pittsburgh tomorrow at the Stanley Theatre. I know she's your idol, so why don't I take you. I'll borrow my daddy's car.'"

Sylvia's future husband did borrow his father's car and took her 17 miles away from home to watch Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Band perform.

"And, what did she sing?" Sylvia asked, clearly enjoying reliving one of her first dates with her soon-to-be-husband.

"A-Tisket, A-Tasket," she sings, demonstrating talent that even after all these years has not been dimmed.

Fitzgerald is considered one of the most influential jazz vocalists of the 20th century, but it was her version of the nursery rhyme, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a song Fitzgerald co-wrote, that helped bring her wide acclaim.

As a child, Janice was treated to hearing all these stories and more.

"And because mom was a singer, she sang to me all the time," Janice said. "So I know all of the words to every '40s song, because from the time that I was a baby in a stroller, that's what my mother would sing to me."

Sylvia and Lou eventually married and were together for 56 years. Now a widow, Sylvia spends her time singing and learning karate. Several months ago, she mentioned to her daughter, who's a third-degree black belt, she wished she'd taken up karate as a child.

"And she said, 'Mom, it's not too late,'" Sylvia said. "And I said, 'But Janice, I'm 87.'"

Of course, age did not stop her. Sylvia goes with her daughter to class and does everything they do, except the push ups.

"I can't do push ups, when they do push ups I have to sit up and do something on my own," she said, adding that she has tried to do the push ups, but the instructor will sternly tell her, "Mom, you can't do that."

Copies of "Poetry & Memoirs" will be available at the Little Tea Shop for $15.

The autobiography of Sylvia's life is expected to be published within the next couple of years.

"It took me almost two years on this one, working on it off and on," Janice said. "I think the autobiography will take about the same. It's going to be about a two-year project."

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