Home » Comments about Shep » JEAN SHEPHERD & SHEL SILVERSTEIN Part 1



Shel Silverstein said in 1963 that Jean was his closest friend.  We know of many instances in which they added to each other’s creative efforts, especially those we encounter from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Regarding Shel Silverstein’s first album, Hairy Jazz, we have information.  Shel’s bizarre voice and wacky rendition in it perfectly complement the unrelievedly raunchy lyrics of every song.  The “hairy” Dixieland music is by The Red Onion Jazz Band.  In 1959, besides playing a part in Shepherd’s theater piece Look, Charlie, Shel drew the comic playbill for it, and just as Shel frequently wrote fanciful liner notes for friends, he wrote the absurd liner notes for Jean’s first comedy album.  Now Jean’s silly liner notes for Shel’s album have come to light, probably written soon after Shel’s for Jean.  Here is part of Jean for Hairy:

Once in a generation an artist of first magnitude appears full blown and instantly communicates with his public.  Silverstein’s delicate phrasing and breathtaking technical brilliance coupled with his superb acting talents led the usually conservative Italian critics to a veritable competition among themselves in a search for adjectives.  Overnight he took his place among the all time greats of the operatic world.

Besides writing each other’s liner notes, a book introduction, a book dedication, Shel (without any doubt in my mind) surreptitiously immortalized Jean in his lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue.”  An internet source suggests, with possible justification, that although the “core story of the song” was Shep, the particular song title might have been related to the name of one of the prosecutors at the 1927 Scopes Trial, a Mr. Sue K. Hicks.  Yes, but the Sue in the song is best buddy Jean.

In Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel, Lois Nettleton is quoted as saying that she and Shel spent some days wandering through Manhattan together while Jean was at the station preparing for his broadcasts.  Rogak emphasizes the wide variety of Shel’s interests, talents, and creative enterprises.

I suggest that Shep and Shel’s similar attitudes toward life and art, and the diverse, though sometimes divergent, activities they enjoyed, are likely reasons for their close friendship.  They must have enjoyed each other’s responses to the world around them.  Their mutual love of books, their writing, drawing (sharing the impulse to draw on napkins or whatever came to hand), music, travel, friends, their delightfully skewed—though different—humor and outlooks on life. Their shared distaste for some of what they considered the idealistic and uninformed attitudes of some folk singers and assorted protesters.  Their need for change, to explore, to move on and not just be, as Shep once put it, barnacles.  Their nonconformity.  And despite all these interests and many friends, their common need to be loners.  Their both having little patience for kids.  Their I, Libertine-like attitude toward women.  (Until Leigh Brown—strong enough, persistent enough, clever enough to rein in Jean for their decades together.) Shep and Shel were a perfect pair of buddies.  Yet they were far from identical.

One’s impression is that in the late 1950s they were both wild and crazy guys and that Shel had always been the wilder and crazier.  While Shepherd at least outwardly toned down with the years, Shel remained consistently the more free and unconventional—exasperatingly difficult and quirky, yet lovable.  What might be symptomatic, at least in their public images, is the difference between the cover of Shel’s first album, Hairy Jazz, and that of Shepherd’s first comedy album, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles, both from 1959.

foibles album

hairy jazz good color






  1. Here’s Shel’s story Lafcadio The Lion Who Shot Back :

    Shel paraphrases Jean Shepherd in this 1963 story…I’d like you to be in my circus…”circus shmirkus dominatetuss ” said the lion at 16:00 “shooter smooter..”ears shears a glass of beers”

  2. Which sounds suspiciously like “Needicks Shmeicks Double Beeticks- Pitkins All agree-Orens frankens Goodens eatins Wholesome as can be”
    Or “meatloaf beat Loaf”

  3. artl7 says:

    I interviewed Shel about Jean for my 1973 Columbia U. Journalism School thesis — basically, a long magazine piece about Jean that was never published — and he told me a few things that still resonate. [I’ll see if the school can dig it up and I can send along a descriptive article about Jean when he was still going strong.] He said as best I can recall, “Jean produces enough material for 500 short stories, 10 screenplays and five novels each year, but he still wants the rush of immediate public performance” — as a way of explaining why his humor couldn’t be boiled down to either short late-night TV appearances or major projects that could win him a national audience.

    • ebbergmann says:

      I’d very much like to see this article, and learn from you any more about the Jean/Shel connection!

      • artl7 says:

        Hi, I sent via one of your emails my blog posts that include the audio of this beatles story. I asked do you pay out of pocket to transcribe, or how long does it take you to do it? When you did your Army book of his stories, or your bio? How do you arrange to do the transcribing– how long does transcribing an hour of his take? OR do you pay someone to do it for you? I’m asking because I waited months to get help transcribing an interview with comedian Maria Bamford because I didn’t have the time or patience to do it:

      • ebbergmann says:

        I haven’t received your email from either of my addresses–I hardly ever check the gmail box, but it’s not there either.
        I do all my transcribing myself. For me it’s a very slow process–I listen to maybe 4-8 words then pause and write it in longhand. A 45 minute program usually takes a couple of hours. Then I sometimes have to do considerable minor editing. I know nothing about finding and paying someone to do that for me–and I wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway–You’d be shocked at how little money I make from my books–good thing I do it for love-not-money.


        Gene B.

    • Nick Mantis says:

      arti7…did they ever dig up your interview with Shel? Thank you.

  4. artl7 says:

    I didn’t think my earlier comment was public. I don’t have tape of my conversations with Shel, but I can find ouit if Colulmbia U has my “thesis” — a portrait of Jean Shepherd including observation of shows in person and in studio — available.

  5. I remember like it was yesterday the day Jean Shepherd told the story of how the song originated. I had been a massive fan of his from my earliest childhood, listening to the show on my transistor radio under the covers. By 1969 I was 17 and didn’t have to do that any more, but I appreciated his humor and satire about human nature more than ever. Well, one day he comes on in a very emotional state, not his usual self. He said he just heard this new hit record “A Boy Named Sue” and said to himself that it sounds just like his story — what a strange coincidence!. So he looks into the song’s composer out of curiosity and discovers to his shock that it was his buddy Shel Silverstein. Shep then launched into his story about how his “old man” insisted upon spelling his name “Jean” instead of the normal “Gene” for precisely that reason — to provoke fights that would toughen him up. (His “old man” always came across as rather an ape in his tales.) Shep’s shock at hearing about the song indicates that Shel had never told him about the song upon writing it, nor even after it had become a hit — maybe he wanted it to seem to the public like an idea that came straight from his own fertile imagination, maybe he was just busy and forgot to extend the courtesy to Shep of thanking him for inspiring a song that made him lots of money. I remember thinking it wasn’t very nice of Shel not to drop a dime to thank Shep for the idea. But anyway, yes I do buy the story as Jean Shepherd tells it. As far as Shep’s anecdote being turned into a song, I learned as an adult that this is how the creative mind operates: an observation is made or an anecdote is told, we mortals file and forget, but the creative mind says “there’s a song here” or “there’s a book here”. My favorite example is Paul McCartney being struck with intense amusement at New York City meter maids with their uniforms, since in England they aren’t called that colorful term and don’t wear uniforms. An uncreative Englishman notes this quaint American custom and moves on; Paul McCartney goes straight out and writes about “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” and her military-like uniform filling out a ticket. Geniuses like Shel and Paul grab inspiration for creativity wherever they can find it; we mortals blow the opportunity.

    • ebbergmann says:

      Great, Gerald. I’d love to hear that broadcast–any idea when it was? I wonder about the whole truth of what Shep had to say, as his dad was also named Jean!

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