They only recorded together for a decade, but the music of Ian & Sylvia made an immense impact on the Canadian folk, rock and country scenes.
Born in Chatham, Ontario, in 1940, Sylvia Fricker left her hometown in 1959 to pursue a music career in Toronto after graduating high school. It was there that she met her future musical partner (and husband) Ian Tyson, a BC native who originally wanted to be a rodeo cowboy. The duo started performing together full-time in 1961, moved to New York in 1962, and married in 1964.
The couple’s music caught the attention of Peter, Paul & Mary’s manager, Albert Grossman, who would later work with Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. He brought them to the attention of Vanguard Records who released their self-titled debut in 1962.
Their sophomore release, Four Strong Winds, came in 1964, with the title track, written by Ian, becoming a major hit in Canada. Arguably their greatest song, “Four Strong Winds” would go on to be declared the greatest Canadian song of all time by the CBC-Radio program 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version, with artists as diverse as Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Sarah McLachlan, Harry Belafonte, and Bob Dylan recording it.
Other respected Ian & Sylvia originals included Ian’s Western-influenced track “Someday Soon” and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind.” The duo were also strong supporters of up-and-coming talent, most notably a young Torontonian named Gordon Lightfoot whose song “Early Morning Rain” became the title song of Ian & Sylvia’s 1965 album. (Tyson was also responsible for getting Albert Grossman to sign Lightfoot.)
As the decade progressed, the duo started incorporating electric guitars into their repertoire and adding country and rock sounds. They even formed a country rock band, Great Speckled Bird, in 1969 whose debut album was the first production by future legend Todd Rundgren.
But as the new decade approached, the Tyson’s professional and personal relationship started decaying. After the Great Speckled Bird experiment petered out, they wrapped up their recording career together with 1972’s You Were on My Mind. The pair divorced and stopped performing in 1975.
Since their split, each has pursued a diverse career. Sylvia recorded solo albums, founded a record company (Salt Records), hosted shows on both CBC radio and television, become an author (“Joyner’s Dream,” published in 2011), and released albums as a member of the group Quartette. Ian took up cattle ranching in Longview, Alberta, after the split but has also recorded several acclaimed solo albums. His autobiography, The Long Trail: My Life in the West, was published by Random House Canada in 2010.
Many honours have accrued to the duo in the intervening years. Ian & Sylvia were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2002 and made members of the Order of Canada in 2004. Forty-five years after headlining the first Mariposa Folk Festival, in 2006, they were inducted into its Hall of Fame, which included a rare performance by the duo.
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Sylvia won Best Country Group JUNO in 1995 as a member of Quartette
Made members of the Order of Canada
Inducted into the Mariposa Folk Festival Hall of Fame