I’ve always been aware that Shepherd was fascinated by sound in all its forms, but I had no sense of how I might discuss this as an entity beyond the chapters on sound and words in Excelsior, You Fathead! until I happened upon a brochure he wrote in 1958, which was offered for sale on www.ebay.com. I bought it. A folded, two-sheet stapled pamphlet advertising a speaker with his professing enthusiasm for it in the early days of hi-fi elicited the following essay, posted in two sections.
Front cover on right, back cover with description of Jean Shepherd on left.
(Click on image to enlarge for reading.)
Jean Shepherd, creative master of “talk radio,” extemporaneous, unstoppable monologist in public and private, described by the New York Times as a “raconteur and wit” when he died in 1999, was a connoisseur of sound. From the 1950s through the winter of ’77, Shepherd talked incessantly from Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and then, for over twenty-one years, from New York City’s clear channel, 50,000 watt WOR Radio, his programs broadcast, syndicated, and pirated country-wide, listened to by a wide range of “night people” such as insomniacs, major jazz musicians, artists, writers, and incipient intellectuals of all ages. With overarching wit and humor, he told stories, commented on the passing scene, decried human foibles, and expressed whatever happened to catch his attention or bubbled to the surface of his wide-ranging consciousness. And that was just the words, which he melded with every other form of sound he could concoct. If it was sound, he studied it, reveled in it, discussed it, and produced it with skill, usually to beguiling effect.
His fascination with audio in all its ramifications extended to his radio programs occasionally devoted to distinctive sounds from the past and the present—the cacophony of a steel mill, locomotive engines and their whistles, trains moving down the tracks, and a program sampling the variety of World War I airplane engines. He commented that just as historical photographs provide visual records of our culture, so sounds should be recorded and preserved. He discussed sound with one of the few guests he had on his New York programs, Arch Oboler, radio scriptwriter of Lights Out and other horror and science fiction series. A high point of the dialog was Oboler’s description of how he managed a special effect in one episode. At the very end of the story, a fugitive, trapped in an upper floor of a building and determined not to be caught, opens a window and we know what he is about to do. A few moments of silence is followed by a sound—the sound effects man, from a considerable height, let loose onto a concrete slab a watermelon. Yes, sound can have a considerable effect.
Beyond words and basic sounds, Shepherd loved those aural effects that go by the name of “music.” In addition to words, music had been a Shepherd passion from his early youth—he played double bass in his high school orchestra and once commented that in studying the tuba for the school’s marching band, he had experienced his first pleasure in creating art. In one program he gave us a tiny history of musical development in a riff contrasting aimless humming to the performance of complex modern music. In his early period on the radio, he emceed a Sunday afternoon program for the Cleveland City Opera, and those who knew him considered him an expert in all forms of classical music.
He gloried in all forms of music except rock and roll (although one might check out his interview of the Beatles in Playboy’s issue of February 1965). He was known to possess thousands of jazz albums—in his earliest New York radio days in the late 1950s, he would play extended pieces of avant guard jazz on his show. He emceed major jazz concerts starring the likes of Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, and Stan Getz.
usually encountered in the full album
version with the clown’s face on the cover
He could scat and do a comic rendition of “After You’ve Gone,” with the best of them. (And one can only imagine the hours of practice he devoted to producing his expert renditions on kazoo, nose flute, jew’s harp, and by rapping his knuckles on his head to knock out a tune.) He wrote a short series of columns, “Jean on Jazz,” for the technically oriented Audio magazine in 1956, and in 1960, articles for Metronome, a jazz-oriented magazine, and garnered that publication’s 1959 award as “jazz personality of the year.” After those early years, he used music on the radio, not in the main as a stand-alone feature, but, like a jazz musician, by combining sound as a seamless component with his improvised words. Sound effects, words, and music were as one in his art.
As a connoisseur of music, he must have been overjoyed by the advances in sound fidelity in recording and playback equipment in the 1950s. Newly engineered “hi-fi” was the watchword of the day. One of the earliest sponsors for whom he gave extended endorsements was an establishment on Greenwich Village’s 8th Street, The Electronics Workshop. He promised that the experts there would choose just the right components for you and even install them and guarantee their performance. A WOR Radio time-salesman, remembering one such radio testimonial, described how, on the day following an endorsement by Shepherd, he saw at the store, “a steady parade of people coming in to buy what he was talking about.”
More to come