LISTENING TO SHEP
From his earliest days, right through to the end. Listening for the sound, listening for the word. The sounds of Shep—always exciting, even when he was just gently tickling your mind. Listeners to Jean Shepherd are a varied sort. The pre-New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia crowd and the one to five-thirty a.m. WOR night people—very few of these listeners have come forward and the ones who have remember very little. Few remember his Sunday night shows from summer 1956 to 1960. I’m one of those lucky ones.
Those who began listening in the mid-1950s were without a doubt almost all adults, including some college students. These were indeed, by inclination or profession, creatures of the night—jazz musicians, artists, writers, Beats, hippies, late-shift workers, insomniacs. Those programs were more slowly paced, more contemplative, I believe (Often referred to as among his more “philosophical” programs.)
Listeners in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t hear the overnights or Sunday from nine p.m. to one a.m. programs, but heard the mostly forty-five-minute programs that ended before midnight, the earlier times more acceptable to parents of school-age kids. These fans were more likely to be college students and younger, including many high school and some grammar school students, most with small, inexpensive transistor radios. (The newly developed transistor sets, available by 1954, only became cheap enough to become common by the end of the 1950s and early 1960s.) These radios were widely remembered by listeners as having been hidden undercover to avoid detection by parents trying to wrangle kids to sleep early on school nights. So common, amusing, and nostalgic to contemplate was the transistor-under-the-pillow image that it became the cliché for describing Shepherd’s listeners. I feel left out, as I listened first on Sunday nights in the kitchen after homework was done while my parents watched TV in the living room.
All those listeners had the special experience of hearing Jean Shepherd in real time—when Shepherd would be there live (or seemingly live but occasionally taped because of a short trip out of town) talking to them. Listeners who only hear him on recordings are also entertained, but they can never know the feeling that a man was creating and giving them new and unpredictable moments of radio right before their very ears.
MUSICAL TRIVIA MYSTERY STORY
From time to time, Shepherd ridiculed the trashy nature of his theme song, yet listeners were delighted when they heard “Bahn Frei” at the beginning of each show, and Shep knew it. Here he delivers an ironic riff as the opening music plays:
Oh boy! You’ve got to admit that when you hear those first thunderous tones of this deathless theme, little tinkles of excitement, anticipation, run up and down your backbone, your spine, right, gang? [Laughs.] Right? Oh boy.
It’s certainly an exciting world. All you have to do is hang onto the old hanging straps, keep your knees loose, and keep those old onions skinned. Watching that arcing, curving sky overhead there, just ahead. Just at the other end of the turnpike. Yes, press down on that vast accelerator of existence. Pick up steam! Oh! Listen to that theme. Ohhhhh! For the next forty-five minutes really live, friends! Bring it up there! All the way up, Skip. Listen to that. Isn’t that fantastic music?!!! [Scats along.] The thunderous, feckless, racehorse of life!
(Bahn Frei images from http://www.flicklives.com )
The momentous question of when and why his voice, with the enigmatic “Ahhhh,” was added to the ending of his theme song has bedeviled Shepherd freaks for decades. (Yes, I know—don’t we have better things to do with our time than worry over such minutia?) We knew it wasn’t there in the 1950s and into 1960, but there it was starting sometime in the mid-1960s. Engineer Herb Squire had been told that the original record had broken and they had to make a copy from an old show, from which they didn’t quite manage to remove Shep’s voice, and they decided to leave it in. Shepherd on the Alan Colmes interview show of 1998 kiddingly said the “Ahhhh” had been added on purpose because “I thought it was interesting.”
Here’s more info—direct from the horse’s mouth as heard on a recently discovered Shepherd program when it was sold on ebay. On December 10, 1962, as he goes on the air he has a problem:
The way to do this is to sneak in quietly and pretend that everything is okay. Now as a matter of fact, that is the American way. [Shepherd and his engineer laugh.] You can be no more American than to try to phony-it-up. You know that, Bob, don’t you? Try to pretend? [Laughs.]
This is one of the wildest things that’s happened to me in a long time. I’ll tell you what happened. I might as well let you know. We have my theme song—the little thing that comes on—ricka-ricka-ticka… You know that thing that comes on. It’s the theme. Well, we have that on tape. And so tonight, or sometime, we don’t know when, somebody expeditiously erased the tape. [Laughs uproariously.]
We have been bedeviled by this for decades. You see the sort of thing that has us kooks pacing the floor in the middle of the night—why, why, why? Are we about to find all the answers to the mystery? That night they find the tape of an old show that has the music on it—note that Shepherd doesn’t give its title. They play it and he scats along. The following night, and from then until the show leaves the air in April 1977, the Bahn Frei theme song, used at beginning and end of nearly every program, has the added “Ahhhh.” So now we know the when and what the problem was, yet not exactly why they didn’t simply find an old copy from a show that didn’t have the added voice. Maybe, as he said, he just liked it. Maybe it just became one more little piece of enigma. As for me, though, having that part of the puzzle solved, I sleep a lot better.
MORE ON THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE
From Frank Reck: Much of the charm of listening to Shep, or for that matter most any broadcast media back in that time, was that you had to make a choice to either listen to (or watch) it right then or miss it entirely. While taping was theoretically possible, it was not practical; at least not with the transistor and cassette that I had at my disposal. So if you had to work late, you missed Shep. Or had to study for a test the next day, had a game at school, a family or social commitment, etc., you missed Shep. Even worse was a phone call, when there was no caller ID, that made you miss the end of a show that you had been listening to since Shep usually saved the best for last. You spent the next day asking all of your fellow Fatheads if they had listened to the show so you could hear how it ended. When I was old enough to drive I really enjoyed the chance to get in the car by myself, turn on Shep and just cruise around uninterrupted for 45 minutes while he wove his magic. I still enjoy listening to his old shows in the car. Today the ability to listen to or watch virtually anything online has removed that element from modern media and with it I think that something has been lost.