By Editor, Cynthia Kinkel
It’s that time again, and Doc’s Bar is the scene, celebrating 62 years on Tybee, and the arrival of another birthday for Tybee’s own valentine, Miss Sylvia Gott!
Percussionist Sylvia Gott turns 101 this month playing the same tambourine at Doc’s Bar that Charlie Sherrill handed her in 1998. Affectionately known as “Miss Sylvia,” night after night on the weekends, she holds her own at her table by the front door, and has become as much of an institution at Doc’s as the bar itself! Her birthday party is scheduled at Doc’s the evening of Saturday, February 6th.
Born on her father’s birthday, February 5th, 1909, Sylvia is the daughter of trumpet player and concert bandleader Herchel D. Worth, and has followed in his footsteps. “He was a wonderful man,” says Sylvia, “and always the musician! As a matter of fact, he made sure that everyone in my family played something.”
Sylvia grew up on Long Island, NY. She says they didn’t have television or radio – only a grand piano in the living room. Her family used to invite other local musicians over for “jam sessions.” By age 6, she was learning to play the piano. By age 12 she was playing trumpet with her father’s orchestra in Stuart, Florida. “But I always wanted to play the drums,” she admits. Eventually that longing would become a reality.
Hershel Worth’s fame and talents led him to move the family to Florida in 1918. However, the three-month trip was a harrowing one.
“I was eight years old when we left in a forty foot boat that October,” Sylvia recalls. “There was my father, “Captain” Worth, grandmother and grandfather Worth, my brother Vincent and our cocker spaniel, Prince, plus a friend of the family. Of course, my mother Maude, and her father “Captain John Smith” came, too! All the folks we met along the way used to laugh and call my mother “Pocahontas!”
“On the way to Florida,” Sylvia fondly remembers, “we used to tie off on shore for the night, and my father would take his trumpet out on deck and play out over the water. People used to hear the sound, and come looking to hear him play. It was wonderful. Those people used to bring food out to us and tell us how much they enjoyed the music!”
The family had several mishaps along the way as well. “My father got malaria in Savannah and almost died,“ Sylvia continues, “and later our boat sank to the bottom of the Snake River! We spent 10 days with a German couple – lighthouse keepers in Georgetown – while it was being repaired.” Sylvia says they were really nice folks, but she remembers how they served everything, including soup, on the same plate, and how disconcerting it was to her mother, Maude. Sylvia says that Maude Worth actually wrote to her own mother-in-law every day telling her all that happened. “I always thought those letters would have made a great book!” Sylvia says; then she shakes her head with regret. “Would you believe, somehow, they were lost, and never recovered!”
Maude Worth also played in Sylvia’s father’s band. “Women just didn’t play saxophones back in the early days of the concert brass bands,” Sylvia smiles, “But my father said that was nonsense, and he got my mother to learn how to play a baritone sax – and she was quite good!” Hershel Worth was one of the first concert bandleaders to allow women. A photograph of the Stuart (Florida) Band dated May 29th, 1926 now hangs in the living room on Tybee. It shows her father and mother, Sylvia at age 17, and other members of her musical family standing with nearly twenty fellow band members in uniform holding their instruments.
Her father’s band proved to be the catalyst for many things. At age 14 Sylvia met her second husband, Rodney Gott while he was playing trumpet in her father’s band, and secretly had a crush on him. “But when he left the band,” Sylvia shrugs, “I didn’t see him anymore, so a few years later I married someone else.” Sylvia met her first husband, George Whitney while she was living in Stuart, Florida. They married in 1928, and had two children, daughters Pat and Dale, but divorced sixteen and a half years later.
Not long afterward, in a twist of fate, Sylvia met the trumpet player, Rodney Gott, again. “My father and I had gone to the dog races in Miami. I thought I recognized Rodney at a distance. Then I heard him play the bugle call to start the race. My father recognized him, too, and walked right up to him and asked “didn’t you play in my band?” Sylvia and her teenage crush were married in 1945, and soon had two sons, Rodney Hershel and Gary Worth.
Rodney and Sylvia Gott were devoted to each other, and to their music. They formed their own band and performed together throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, and had a small bar in Miami out of Coral Gables, where area musicians used to come to jam sessions.
But shortly before Christmas 1966, Rodney Gott died of a heart attack in bed, and Sylvia awoke to find him. “I was grief stricken,” says Sylvia. “He and I were so very close, and I could hardly go on.”
But Rodney had signed a contract for the band to play that very night, and also on New Year’s Eve. Knowing he’d have wanted the music to go on, Sylvia called her brother to sit in for her, then mustered enough strength to play the New Year’s Eve job the following week as well, although she says it almost killed her. “There was nothing else to do,” Sylvia sighs, “It was one of the hardest things I ever did, but the music got me through it!”
Music continued to be a source of strength for Sylvia. She hired another band member and kept performing at the same Club until it closed. Then after a short sabbatical, she was hired by a senior citizen’s Dance Club in Miami, and also briefly worked with a group known as Dixie’s All Girls Band. “That was how I got started playing the drums,” says Sylvia. “Our regular drummer got sick, and Dixie asked me if I’d try it out.”
It wasn’t the first time she played with an all female group, however. Sylvia says, back in the days of her father’s concert band, she played briefly with several girls in Stuart, Florida who unfortunately couldn’t get along. “I still don’t know what was wrong with that bunch,” she laughs, ”They didn’t last too long.”
Eventually Sylvia formed her own group! Simply called “Sylvia’s Trio” the first rendition included Sylvia on drums, a woman who doubled on saxophone and clarinet, and a male piano player. Eventually another woman took the man’s place on the piano, making it an all girl group. “That was the most fun for me!” Sylvia smiles. “We were together for 17 years!”
But on the coat tails of her husband’s untimely death in 1966, another heartbreak was to follow. Sylvia had five children in all – daughters Pat and Dale from her previous marriage to George Whitney, and sons, Rodney and Gary with husband Rodney Gott. There was also a child who died at birth.
The boys were born eighteen months apart, and were very close. Both joined the military after high school – Rodney, the air force and Gary, the army – and ended up in Viet Nam. Sylvia recalls how she hated to see either of them go. “I still think about it. But they were young and wanted to serve their country. What’s a mother to do?” She says she kept thinking, that maybe it was because she’d been a Cub Scout leader, or because they had “those little toy soldiers, or something,” but whatever it was, they both felt they had to go to war.
Sylvia says it on her birthday, February 5th, 1969, while she was alone in her home that all of a sudden she heard her son Rodney’s audible voice crying, “Mamma, mamma!” just as he were right there next to her. “I was beside myself wondering what might be happening,” she says. “It was so real and it upset me to the point of distraction.”
That afternoon, a bouquet of red roses arrived, sent by Rodney for her birthday all the way from Viet Nam, but a week later Sylvia learned that he was missing in action. Authorities had lost contact with a plane carrying her son and nine other enlisted men somewhere over the jungle.
Younger son, Gary was immediately sent home from the army at the time, but it was ten long months before Sylvia got word that the plane had been found. Apparently an engine had caught fire and one of the wings had torn off. There were no survivors. Rodney was barely twenty-one years old. “You never get over something like that!” Sylvia remarks as her sweet smile fades. “I told him not to go, and it was definitely his voice I heard calling that day he died.”
Around the time of her stepbrother’s death in 1969, Sylvia’s oldest daughter Pat Whitney moved to Tybee. Pat had been living in Savannah since 1955, working at sea on cruise ships for eight years as a staff captain’s waitress. Initially she operated a restaurant where McElwee’s now stands, then opened the Tybee Chicken at the present site of Sting Rays. Her present ventures Poor Pat’s Seafood and Pat Rat’s Bicycle Shop on Butler Avenue have been in operation for many years.
Throughout the early 1990’s Sylvia’s threesome had continued to play in the Miami area, and it was only Pat’s concern for her mother’s welfare that finally convinced Sylvia to leave. In September of 1996, Sylvia decided to close down her home in Florida and come to live with Pat. Sylvia’s younger daughter, Dale Davis is a retired school bus driver who has raised five children. She still owns her home in Sebring, Florida, but when she learned that Pat health was going down in 2006, she decided to move to Tybee to be of assistance.
When Sylvia first arrived in 1996, Pat knew her independent minded mother wasn’t going to be happy unless there was music around, so she decided to take Sylvia to the old Desoto to hear Ron Denning first. Eventually, they visited a number of places so that she could meet the local musicians. “We also went to Fannie’s on the Beach,” Sylvia recalls. She says it took a little while, but eventually they made it over to Doc’s Bar to hear Charlie Sherrill.
“When we walked in,” Sylvia recalls, “there was nobody in the place. Just a couple of people at the bar, but Charlie was playing the saxophone, and you know how much I love my horn players. Once I set foot in there, I was hooked! And Charlie was quite good! He came over and talked with me, and we became friends, good friends. When he found out I was a professional he handed me a tambourine, and said, ‘Play, Miss Sylvia!’ You know, he was the first one to call me that, and he was always so gracious to me – such a gentleman. I’ve been playing that tambourine ever since.”
In fact, Sylvia has played on a regular basis at Doc’s Bar since 1996, and won the hearts of all who meet her. She also receives nothing but praise and admiration from other performers who regularly show up to play with Doc’s present maestro, Roy Swindelle, and his jammin’ “Circuit Breakers” house band (“Blues Hog,” Jim Simmons, “Conga Dave” Reese, and Martha Swindelle).
At Doc’s, Sylvia always carries a bag full of percussion instruments. She’s a professional and has always been very particular about her instruments, and who plays them. “Some of them are very special,” she proudly beams, as she holds up her set of beaded maracas, “Conga Dave (Reese) made these for me. I dearly love them!” Sylvia still plays the drums, too. Just last year a video was made of her jamming away at Doc’s to some of her favorite old tunes.
When I first came to Tybee in January of 2002, Sylvia was one of the first people I met. One night while sitting with her by her window, I told her about my grandmother born in 1900, who died on her 97th birthday. Sylvia smiled when I mentioned how she grew up in a log house down in Fleming, Georgia built without iron nails, and rode in a horse-drawn buggy.
In many ways Sylvia reminds me of her, as well as the “lady of six thousand songs,” the late “Miss Emma” Kelly who died in January of 2001 at age 82. Sylvia said she never met Miss Emma personally although she admired her very much, and shakes her head. “Many times I wished I could have gone upstairs to see her at Hannah’s, but I just couldn’t make it up those steps!”
Miss Sylvia is very stoic about her age and doesn’t flinch when she adds, “Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t be here at all. You know, I narrowly escaped death several times long ago.” She briefly mentions how she was saved from a fire as an infant, then cringes as she describes the time when as a young woman she was riding in the back seat of a car that ran through a barrier straight into the water.
“Of course,” says Sylvia, “I don’t remember the fire, but the car accident stayed with me for a long time. I don’t like to talk about it.” It’s not that she’s afraid, it’s that she’d much rather dwell on the good things. “Think cheerful thoughts,” she smiles, “and be thankful for the people who’ve been so good to you throughout the years.”
One of Sylvia’s most avid admirers, Victoria Graves wrote a cover story about her in 2002 which contained these words, “After 93 years of good times and bad, (Miss Sylvia) still possesses a child-like enthusiasm for life and optimism for the human condition.” (The Tybee Breeze, October 2003)
But while Sylvia doesn’t like to complain much, she was pretty mad when the Music Union’s life insurance company suddenly canceled her policy in 2007. “All this time paying into it – for 40 years, and now they cancel me!” She shakes her head, “How do they expect me to be able to get life insurance at my age? It costs a lot of to die, you know, with funeral expenses and all.”
Then with a twinkle in her eye she adds, “All my life I’ve loved cruise ships. I’ve been on lots of cruises and had such fun. Just send my ashes out on a cruise ship, and have a trumpet play as they toss me into the ocean! That will be just fine with me!”
These days Sylvia walks with a cane, and due to failing eyesight and sensitivity to the cold night air, no longer rides her little red scooter to her “gig” at Doc’s. “Folks used to tell me that they knew I was at Doc’s when they saw my scooter parked outside,” she laughs. “I dearly loved riding to work, too, especially those evenings when I could see the moon coming up in front of me.” Her daughter Pat says her mother’s a “true Aquarian.” Pat also says, “Doc’s has kept Sylvia going. As long as she’s playing, she’s living!” Sylvia’s own words express it best. “I plan to go out with a tambourine in my hand, on the dance floor!”
As Tybee’s timeless tavern turns 62 this month the hands on the clock over the bar still move counter clockwise, the classic memorabilia, signage, and wooden Indian are all still there – so is Miss Sylvia’s spot by the door! Under the ownership of Rob and Peggy Parker the torch of “local family tradition” burns brightly, and an anniversary party is planned on the 27th.
Concerning her annual birthday celebration on Saturday, February 6th, Sylvia says she hopes no one goes to a lot of trouble, “I’ve made such good friends on Tybee in such a short time and I appreciate every one of them. I want them to all come see me!” But she adds emphatically, “I don’t want any more presents – please, tell them. I just want to see them!”
In these uncertain times, as winds of adversity blow around our little island, tonight, indeed around the world, I sleep better knowing one of our very dearest is still with us, and still smiling.
Happy Birthday, Miss Sylvia! You’re an inspiration to us all!
(Portions of this article appeared in the January/February 2008 edition’s “Meet the Muse” column of The Tybee News and have been updated and edited by the author.)