Episode 63, January 19, 2018: SHEL SILVERSTEIN, PART II
NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome back to 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 I’ve been up and down the highway, baby.
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I have a trivia question for ye, and I think this time it’s going to be one of those that you either know right away, or you don’t. In the song “Leader of the Pack,” what’s the name of the biker who dies in the song? I’ll have the answer at the end of the show.
A few weeks ago we took a look at some of the popular songs written by Shel Silverstein. There was a lot of material to pick through, so I decided to break that show into a couple of smaller ones, and we’re going to dive back into his material today.
Now, as I mentioned last time around, Silverstein did a bunch of songs which became hits for other artists, such as “The Unicorn”, which turned into The Irish Rovers’ signature tune, and “A Boy Named Sue,” which was Johnny Cash’s only trip to the Billboard’s Top Ten, and a couple of albums’ worth of material for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, which yielded a few hits.
Now, the success of the Dr. Hook tracks led artist Bobby Bare to seek him out, and Silverstein worked with him for awhile as well. This first song was written by Silverstein in 1965, and Bare turned it into a live audience favorite in 1973, although it doesn’t appear to have charted anywhere.
And while the songs had much more of a Country-style bent to them, they still retained Silverstein’s interesting sense of humor…
Silverstein also wrote this song, called “The Winner”, which went to #13 on the Country chart in 1976…
I also noted last time around that Silverstein wrote the first couple of albums for the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
[BALLAD OF LUCY JORDAN]
One of them was this track, called “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Now, while it didn’t do much for Dr. Hook, the song was re-recorded several times, first by Marianne Faithfull in 1979…
…then by Belinda Carlisle in 1996…
[CARLISLE then BARE]
…and in 2005 Bobby Bare took another crack at Silverstein’s material with his version. None of them really tore up the charts at all, but Marianne Faithfull’s version did make it into the soundtracks of the films Montenegro, and Thelma and Louise.
Shel Silverstein wrote a lot of material that was covered by many artists, is the point here, but while most of his own musical output didn’t achieve a lot of commercial success, he managed to build up a following for his comedy songs, especially on the Dr. Demento radio show. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Dr. Demento is the alter ego of Barry Hansen, who created the persona in 1970 when he was working at KPPC-FM in Pasadena. The radio show was meant to be rock oldies, but every now and again Hansen would play a novelty record, and based on listener response, the show eventually became all novelties. He moved over to KMET, also in the Los Angeles area, and in 1974 the show was syndicated around the country. Dr. Demento is probably best known for being the DJ who brought “Weird Al” Yankovic to national attention. Yankovic would submit tapes to Hansen for airing, and in return Hansen bankrolled Yankovic’s first EP, which ultimately turned into a record deal. For the last few years, though, the Dr. Demento Show has been available exclusively through online streaming, on a paywalled site.
At any rate, Shel Silverstein had a pretty big following on Dr. Demento—this is where we started with this, remember?—because Silverstein wrote so many songs that were either just plain silly, or they were just recorded versions of his poetry for children. For instance, two of his more popular tracks on the show include this one, called “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take the Garbage Out)”…
…now, that one’s clearly a recitation, although it’s got some guitar in the background. And I have to admit I have so much fun listening to that one that I was having a hard time deciding where to stop it. The other one would be this one, “Stacy Brown Got Two,” which is framed as a children’s song, until you listen a little more closely…
[STACY BROWN GOT TWO]
But in addition to all this, Silverstein wrote a bunch of material for the stage. In 1959 he was part of an off-Broadway comedy along with Jean Shepherd and Herb Gardner, called Look Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall. From there he went on to write over a hundred short one-act plays, many of which were collected into longer shows. Here’s a clip of a performance of An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein; this specific production comes from the Theatre Guild of Ancon, in Panama. In this excerpt, a young lady comes to the laundromat and discovers that her clothes haven’t been cleaned:
[WATCH AND DRY]
So I hope I have, at the very least, tweaked your interest in the work of Shel Silverstein. If you’re interested in his albums, there are about 18 of them, including “best ofs” and recordings of his poetry, and most of his books are still in print in one form or another. And, of course, you have the two Dr. Hook albums that are composed entirely of his work, and Bobby Bare’s got a couple of albums that are largely Silverstein compositions as well.
But I think it’s important to note that, while Silverstein did record some of his poetry, he also had very strong opinions about his written work being meant to be read on paper. So therefore he was very involved with every aspect of the publishing process of his books, all the way down to the type, size, shape, color, and quality of the paper. And this is why, even twenty years after his death, most of his books aren’t available in paperback format.
Now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the song “Leader of the Pack”, specifically: what was the name of the biker who was killed in the song? Well…it doesn’t come up anywhere in the song itself, but in the spoken introduction, one of the girls brings it up:
So, it appears that our poor unfortunate biker was named Jimmy.
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to bite into One Bad Apple.
Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you then.