Although Shepherd occasionally commented on his theme music, after the late 1950s he seldom played any music for itself. Yet, at least until some early broadcasts on Sunday nights in the Fall of 1956 (When he came back on the air after his 1 AM to 5:30 programs) he might begin a program with “We have records.” He almost always used music only as background, played with it using his own kooky instruments, or scatted along with it. In a syndicated recording, he describes the beginnings of his serious involvement with music and I wrote about it in the liner notes:
In “Playing the Tuba,” Shepherd expresses his lifelong devotion to music. He organizes this show in a progressive sequence, commenting on the common habit of meaningless humming—then moves us from this mindless noise to the beginnings of artful sound. Only humming that constitutes a tune, he points out, is music. He tells how in eighth grade he began practicing the tuba for his school orchestra and that from the beginning he was obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.”
In the telling, he has fun making a beginner’s awkward tuba notes with his mouth. Shepherd has always been a master at entertaining his audience with sound effects, especially using his mouth as an instrument to produce all the sounds one might expect from some zany orchestra, and here he renders the tuba, assisted by cuckoo kazoo, with utmost fun and skill.
He goes on to describe playing in the orchestra, commenting that it was the first time he’d ever created beauty. We are learning about his joy in making art. He concludes with a paean to great composers—especially of difficult, modern music—and to the musicians who play the music, explaining that no one appreciates great compositions as do those who have to perform them. Shepherd has done more than entertain us—he has given us his personal take on the evolution of sound from meaninglessness to art in a forty-five minute artistic riff on his own love of music. All music lessons should be this much fun.
Classical music, jazz, and opera were Shepherd enthusiasms, but he said little about this music. That he might have heard and been inspired by it in his childhood growing up in the Chicago area would fit with this from pages 89-90 of Susan J. Douglas’s book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination: “So the airwaves in Chicago were, in these early years [as early as the 1920s], marked by musical extremes: opera, the sine qua non of cultural elitism, and jazz, the exemplar of bottom-up cultural insurgency.“