NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! You’ve done it again! You’ve found the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and that’s the name of that tune.
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Shel Silverstein was a multi-faceted entertainer who had a wicked sense of humor. He often stylized himself as “Uncle Shelby”, and he’s probably best known for writing poetry and books that are primarily aimed at children. That said, he also wrote Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, which looks like a kid’s alphabet book on its surface but contains a bunch of really dark humor aimed at adults.
A lot of his work, though, has a silly tone to it but it’s also earnest and, at times, pretty heartwarming. In fact, I dare you to read his book The Giving Tree without tearing up a little bit. Or a lot.
But Silverstein was also a gifted songwriter who’s responsible for several pop hits, and we’re going to explore a few of them today.
[A BOY NAMED SUE]
“A Boy Named Sue” was a huge hit for Johnny Cash when it was released as a single from his 1969 album Live at San Quentin. Silverstein said that he got the idea for the song from a friend of his radio host and raconteur Jean Shepherd.
Now, if that voice sounds familiar and you didn’t grow up in the New York Metropolitan Area listening to late-night radio, then you probably recognize Shepherd as the narrator of the film A Christmas Story, for which he also wrote the original essays that later became that movie. And like the boy named Sue, Shepherd was a guy who had to deal with having kind of a girly name.
Silverstein’s nephew, Mitch Myers, said in an interview with Songfacts.com that in those days in Nashville, when musicians got together they’d often do something called a “Guitar Pull”, where you grabbed a guitar and played one of your new songs, and then someone nearby would grab the guitar and play one of theirs, and so on around the room. And Shel Silverstein was at a party and they were doing a guitar pull, and Silverstein sang “A Boy Named Sue”. Now, June Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife, thought it would be a pretty good song for Johnny to perform. It wasn’t long after that, that they were scheduled to go record the show at San Quentin, so she suggested that he bring the song along with him. So when Johnny Cash performed “A Boy Named Sue” in front of that audience in San Quentin Prison, he was playing it for the first time, reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper sitting at the foot of the stage. And the band was pretty much making it up on the spot. That single went to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent three weeks in that slot. It was, believe it or not, Johnny Cash’s only appearance in the Top Ten for that chart. It was also a Top Ten hit in the UK and in Canada, and Top 20 elsewhere in Europe and in South Africa. Not bad for a first take!
Silverstein did his own recording of the song, and another song in 1978 called “The Father of a Boy Named Sue”, which tells the same story from the dad’s point of view. It’s even more of a spoken style than the original was, and has minimal instrumentation, but it’s also pretty funny in its own way.
Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show was a band that got its name from the fact that they needed a name in a hurry for a promoter, and as it happened one of the band members, Ray Sawyer, wore an eyepatch after losing an eye in a car crash not long before the band got together. It’s also a hipcheck to the Captain Hook character from Peter Pan, even though that particular Disney villain is neither a doctor, nor does he wear an eyepatch. But band member George Cummings put together a sign for the promoter reading “Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show: Tonic for the Soul” and the name stuck. This also led people to believe that Ray Sawyer, was, in fact, Dr. Hook himself, but when band members were asked who Dr. Hook is, they’d usually point to the band’s bus driver.
The band had paired with Silverstein before they got their record contract when they performed on a movie soundtrack he’d written, and in fact he wrote all of the songs on their first album, titled simply Dr. Hook.
The first single off that 1972 album was this one, “Sylvia’s Mother”, a parody of weepy teen heartbreak tunes, which is why lead singer Dennis Locorriere is really pouring on the pathos as he sings. The record was a flop at first, but Columbia Records put a little promotion behind it and it managed to make it into the Top Five that summer. There are several sources that say the song is actually autobiographical, relating the story of Silverstein’s attempts to revive a failed relationship. The Sylvia in his case spelled her name a little differently, and she did wind up getting married and becoming a curator at a museum in Mexico City. Silverstein added a little extra tragedy to the song by having Sylvia being pretty much in the same room with her mother near the end, and the mom pretending to be talking to someone else. Plus you’ve got the bit with the operator breaking in repeatedly to get the singer to put more money in the pay phone.
Incidentally, country artist Bobby Bare recorded a cover that same year that went to Number 12 on the Country charts, and that led to his recording an entire album of Silverstein songs a few years later.
[COVER OF ROLLING STONE]
Later that year, Dr. Hook did another album of songs written by Silverstein, called Sloppy Seconds. That album yielded the band’s third single and their second big hit, “On the Cover of Rolling Stone,” which again had a satirical angle to it. This time around, the gag was that a band wasn’t truly successful until they’d made the cover of that magazine, and never mind all the other legends attached to being a rock star, such as drugs, groupies, and the insertion of a weird little guitar solo accompanied by someone shouting ROCK AND ROLL!
By the way, while the band sings it as “Cover of THE Rolling Stone”, the title in fact is just “Cover of Rolling Stone.”—no “the”. But you’ll see it written both ways, so no harm/no foul, I guess. Oh—and while we’re at it, when the song was near its peak on the charts in March of 1973, Rolling Stone Magazine decided to give Dr. Hook their wish, sort of. The band did, in fact, appear on the magazine’s cover, in a cartoony caricature image and with the headline “What’s-Their-Names Make the Cover.”
The song has been covered several times, and it got a little new life breathed into it when it was used in the 2000 film Almost Famous. Now, if you’re in the UK you may have heard a slightly different version of the song. The BBC refused to play the song because of their prohibition against commercial products appearing on the air. So the story goes that the band went into the studio and re-recorded it as “Cover of the Radio Times”, which is the BBC’s programming guide, but the truth is, a bunch of DJs went into a studio with the original recording and just shouted “RADIO TIMES” over every point where the band sings “Rolling Stone.” So you can still hear the band singing “Rolling Stone” faintly in the background.
This version did not, however, make the charts there, though it did get some airplay.
OK, I’m going to do one more for today, and I have to admit that when I was researching this week’s episode, this one came as a little bit of a surprise for me.
Although, in retrospect, it’s not really that big of a surprise. Silverstein wrote “The Unicorn” in 1962 for his album Inside Folk Songs, and it became a huge hit, and the signature song, for the Irish Rovers in 1968. The idea behind the song is that unicorns aren’t a myth, but a real animal that somehow managed not to make it onto Noah’s Ark in time to be saved from the Biblical Great Flood. So the unicorn literally missed the boat on their own existence. The record made it into the Top Ten in both the US and in Ireland—go figure—and I hear that it can still be heard with great regularity in Irish pubs to this day. You can also see the lyrics written as a poem in Silverstein’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends.
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is, but we’re not done with Shel Silverstein. We’re going to return to him a few episodes down the road.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to dine at Alice’s Restaurant.
Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you then.