By Janice Elizabeth Berte, Contributing Writer
As a drummer, Natick resident Bert Syms has worked alongside Michael Jackson, Chaka Kahn, Smokey Robinson and other celebrity musicians and singers. He also played for many years in the band for the R&B group The Tavares Brothers, one of the most popular singing groups from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Syms started off playing a snare drum in junior high school. He then practiced in his basement on a drum set that his brother won in a card game. He continued to play drums with other kids from his neighborhood, and soon realized that he wanted to be in a band. His friend Matt Allen, a former drummer for Tavares, was leaving and offered the position to Syms in 1973.
Tavares played in lounges and discos from Boston to Miami.
“Back then there were no large tour buses to haul your gear around and I had to carry my own drum equipment,” Syms recalled. “I usually got a ride in some random car from another band member.”
As the group became more popular, they had opportunities to play with other legendary acts such as The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, and the Bee Gees. One day when Tavares was opening for The Jackson Five, Syms accidentally opened one of the dressing room doors, and there sat Michael Jackson, drawing. Syms immediately apologized to Jackson, who responded, “No problem.”
“He was very kind,” Syms recalled.
In 1976, when Tavares scored a number 1 hit on the R&B chart for “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” their fan base exploded from the states over to England, Amsterdam, Italy and Germany.
In the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the music scene included a lot of partying, and with that came groupies, drugs and alcohol. There was the infamous California “party” hotel, the Continental Hyatt House, also known as the “Riot House.”
“In that hotel, nothing good came out of it. One day when I was one floor down from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, I saw [Led Zeppelin drummer] John Bonham ride his motorcycle up and down the halls,” Syms said. “There were many other out of control situations going on as well.”
While staying at that hotel, Syms walked into an elevator and met Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin. After that experience, Syms said he proceeded to the bar, and had the chance to meet Bonham.
“We chatted for a bit, and then John left me with a few encouraging words which were, ‘I know it’s tough, but hang in there,’” Syms said.
Years of mayhem and debauchery ensued, traveling around with musicians, and Syms knew that this lifestyle would have to end. But ultimately it was an accident in 1980 that forced him to retire from music. As he was getting prepared to move to his next gig, he picked up a heavy box of drum equipment and slipped on ice. He threw his back out severely which forced him to leave the group.
After leaving the band, he met his wife Lynn and had two children with her. A friend helped him get a job at Comp USA as a salesman. He moved into the computer industry as an information technology expert and eventually became an IT specialist at Harvard University.
“I will always love my time with Tavares, and I still play drums doing freelance work,” he said.