Sylvain Sylvain, the American rock musician who has died of cancer aged 69, never enjoyed much commercial success in his near half-century in the music industry, yet in terms of influence his group, the New York Dolls, were huge.
Their roughshod sound, trashy stage apparel and witty, ironic lyrics would provide a fertile base for many punk and hard rock bands. In Britain both the Sex Pistols and the Clash were powered by guitarists indebted to the Dolls while, in the US, the Ramones, Kiss, Aerosmith and Motley Crüe would all build on their legacy.
Formed in late 1971, the New York Dolls and their elemental sound quickly won over influential critics, and Rod Stewart’s group the Faces invited the Dolls to support them at Wembley Pool in November 1972.
While this should have been a coronation of rock’s new princes it ended in tragedy after the band’s 21-year-old drummer Billy Murcia passed out after swallowing too many pills at a party, leading his hosts to try to revive him by pouring coffee down his throat – causing his asphyxiation.
When the Dolls wandered into Let It Rock, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Kings Road emporium, McLaren was so impressed that in 1975 he attempted to manage the by then disintegrating band. Returning to London, McLaren decided to replicate the Dolls with British youths – at one point suggesting Sylvain should front an outfit he was shaping in his shop. Sylvain remained in New York and McLaren’s charges became the Sex Pistols.
Sylvain Sylvain was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Cairo, Egypt, on February 14 1951 to a family of Syrian Jews who fled to France before migrating to New York when he was a child. A bright, tiny (just over five foot tall) youth, he embraced rock’n’roll enthusiastically while keeping his foot in the family tradition of tailoring.
After leaving school, he began designing and selling clothes and forming bands with his childhood friend, Billy Murcia. By late 1971 they were known as Actress, with bassist Arthur Kane, guitarist Johnny Thunders (née Gonzales) and vocalist David Johansen.
Mizrahi, noting the New York Doll Hospital (toy repairs), suggested the band’s name and adopted Sylvain Sylvain as his stage name. He dressed the band in outrageously tacky clothes, played piano and guitar and co-wrote several of their songs.
The Dolls’ two albums on Mercury won high praise from the music press but failed to win a wide audience. Their sound was too abrasive for the early 1970s while Thunders’s and new drummer Jerry Nolan’s heroin addiction stymied their performances. Sylvain was the most stable band member and, once it had broken up, he would play with both Johansen and Thunders as they set out on solo careers that never caught fire.
Sylvain’s solo career also failed to win a wide audience: his eponymous 1979 debut album won good reviews but poor sales and his occasional releases over the next three decades would follow suit. He based himself in London in the early 1980s but returned to New York and set up as a milliner.
In 2004 the British singer Morrissey, a huge fan of the Dolls, was curating Meltdown, the South Bank Centre’s annual artist-lead music festival, and he convinced Sylvain, Johansen and Kane to reform the band (both Thunders and Nolan had since died). Their concert at the Royal Festival Hall was a stunning success and the band found themselves embraced as elder statesmen.
Kane would die a month after the concert but Johansen and Mizrahi, now sober, middle aged men, would go on to record three more albums as the Dolls and tour widely, amicably retiring the band in 2012.
A witty, charming man, Sylvain published his autobiography There’s No Bones in Ice Cream in 2018. He is survived by his wife Wanda.
Sylvain Sylvain, born February 14 1951, died January 13 2021