Alyn Syms - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2016
The late Hunter S. Thompson famously observed: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
More than most local musicians, Lackawanna native Alyn Syms knows every step down that long hallway, and the accompanying disappointment that so often follows hard work and increasing levels of success.
For over a decade between 1967 and 1978, he played guitar in backup bands including stints with soul and R&B stars Arthur Conley and Clarence Carter. He was also a member of punk funk pioneer and Buffalo native Rick James’s Stone City Band, playing guitar on their second album Bustin’ Out of L Seven—where he’s credited under his birth name, Al Szymanski. He joined them on several high-profile national TV shows like Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, Dick Clark Live, and The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack.
Then, disappointed at being marginalized on stage and in the final mix of the record, Syms left the lucrative gig with James in order to focus on a new, original act. The Alyn Syms Group (ASG) received widespread praise for their hard rocking but complex sound, inviting comparisons to Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck.
In 1979, ASG released an EP that included an anthem that became a regional hit. “You Can’t Keep a Good Band Down” would go on to garner airplay from major FM stations in Buffalo and throughout the northeast. Rather than play a grueling series of one night stands in bars where the clientele demanded a set list featuring cover songs of the day — Fleetwood Mac and Boston at that time —ASG opted to focus on landing high-profile shows and performing their own originals.
Less than a year later, ASG became the first unsigned local act to headline Shea’s Theater. They improbably packed the place, with over 2,000 fans in attendance. Six months later, they headlined the legendary Melody Fair and received a similar response.
With the support of Bruce Moser of Could Be Wild promotions, ASG released their only full LP The Offering in 1981. They continued to get air time on FM radio, played showcase events for industry people in New York City and opened shows for Ian Hunter, Pat Travers, Edgar Winter, the Romantics, Spirit, Trooper, Kim Mitchell and Gary Moore, among others. The buzz surrounding ASG was loud, and in retrospect it’s hard to see why a record company A&R person needed any more proof than the testimony of radio DJs who claimed the phones lit up whenever “You Can’t Keep a Good Band Down” got a spin—or the mere fact that ASG had sold out a 2,000-seat theater.
Whatever the reason—whether it was due to the changing musical tastes ushered in by new wave artists, or the advent of MTV, or a combination of many factors—the bigger break that ASG had been working toward never materialized. There were lineup changes. They began accepting more gigs at small clubs. One track from The Offering, “My Michelle,” wound up in the soundtrack to the 1984 Warren Miller film Ski Country. Finally, after over a decade of trying, ASG called it quits in 1990.
In the aftermath, the iconoclastic Syms did some soul searching. He took up accounting, which was a bitter alternative to standing in the spotlight making his guitar sing for adoring fans. He worked as a record store clerk and other odd jobs, but he had no gigs—not even the odd jam session. His trip down the long plastic hallway included another indignity when someone stole his favorite Les Paul guitar.
In the midst of these disappointments, he embarked on a path that would lead to a musical rebirth and redemption. He earned a degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Music from Empire State College, and continued on toward a Master’s Degree in Music Composition from SUNY Fredonia.
During this time of self-discovery, he also began pouring himself into an album project that took nine years to complete. Finally, in 2004, he released The Lost Art—an 80-minute instrumental tour de force that showcases his guitar prowess and compositional skills. Broken into three parts, the album shifts from hard rock, to atmospheric and dreamy soundscapes, to pieces intended to evoke the mythic quest of a knight. It’s an apt theme for a musician whose entire career has focused on remaining true to himself and his artistic vision.
In 2005, he began work on an even more ambitious project. The anthology entitled Black Forest was released in 2013, showcasing even more of his acoustic guitar work, featuring a medieval flair. Buffalo Philharmonic Conductor JoAnn Falletta is among those who have praised it. The second part of the anthology, entitled Cyrano, was released this year.
He is currently working on Variations on a Dream—the third part of the Black Forest Anthology, as well as Symphony No. 1 for Electric Guitar and Orchestra.
Additional projects include Rock & Cool and Blue Eyed Soul Brother—which suggest a return to his earlier roots when he was backing up music legends and making a grab for the brass ring with ASG.
Syms is an artist who was immediately hailed early in his career, and who has soldiered on through highs and lows in uncompromising pursuit of his creative goals. While he ambitiously sought to transcend the confines of being in a mere local cover band by daring to play original music and shooting for the stars, it is that same audacity that secured his role as a local legend. His acceptance into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame is a fitting honor.
By Buck Quigley
Back - 2016