Born Sheldon Alan Silverstein on June 29, 1948, in Chicago, IL; died on May 10, 1999, in Key West, FL; children: Matthew. Addresses: Record company--Flying Fish/Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge MA, 02140, website: http://www.rounderrecords.com. Website--Shel Silverstein Official Website: http://www.shelsilverstein.com.

Best known as the author of several popular children's books, Shel Silverstein was a comedic renaissance man: a poet who crossed Ogden Nash's playfulness with Mad Magazine irreverence; a cartoonist who jacked up Dr. Seuss style fantasies with Jules Feiffer's neurotic social relevance; and a folk singer who wrote with the taboo-inducing bite of comic Lenny Bruce. Contradictory and difficult, he was a renowned children's author who was reportedly impatient with children, as well as a shy, private man whose work and image portrayed him as a bearded, shaved head attention-seeking extrovert. As a performer, the raspy, grating voice that so brilliantly underscored the nature of his spoken word pieces made him sound like an undisciplined madman when he sang. However, it was as a songwriter where he arguably made his biggest mark on pop culture. The songs he wrote for Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show made the band famous, the tunes he crafted for Bobby Bare provided the country singer a fresh commercial run, and Johnny Cash's late 1960s comeback was fueled by the mass popularity of Silverstein's tune "A Boy Named Sue."

Drew Cartoons for Playboy

Born in the lower middle class neighborhood of Palmer Square in Chicago, Illinois, Silverstein grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts with his mother and expressed a special affection for the work of Ernest Tubb. According to a 1975 interview he gave Publisher's Weekly, his artistic leanings cropped up at an early age. "When I was a kid--twelve, fourteen--I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But, I couldn't play ball, I couldn't dance," he recalled. "So I started to draw and write." After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Silverstein studied art briefly at the University of Illinois before being "thrown out," and landing at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he "really learnt how to draw."

The drawing and writing habit followed him into his 1954-56 army stint, where he contributed cartoons to the Pacific edition of the soldier's newspaper Star & Stripes. A nonconformist to the end, many of his Take Ten cartoons were censored by offended and oversensitive military brass, but popular enough to be collected for the paperback Grab Your Socks and sold to appreciative foot soldiers. Despite various hassles over content, Star & Stripes helped Silverstein develop his craft. It would take a far more worldy publication to make him famous.

Initially, post-army life was a comedown for Silverstein, who had trouble selling his cartoons to regular stateside magazines. In 1956, the artist was introduced to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who enjoyed a reputation as a rather perceptive and savvy cartoon editor. Silverstein, who flourished under Hefner's direction, was allowed to get as ribald and racy as he wanted. In the process, he created a unique style laced with zany non sequiturs, satirical allusions, irony, and subtle pathos. A roving reporter, Silverstein also supplied the magazine with quirky illustrations and poems about the places he visited along with comically captioned photos. Greater fame as a family oriented author would transpire in decades to come, but Silverstein continued contributing to Playboy on and off until his death.

Began Recording in 1959

Silverstein's premier collection of non-army cartoons, Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities, was published in 1960. Prior to that, he had made his first jaunt into the recording studio to cut the LP Hairy Jazz. Now an ultra-rare collectable, the album was notable because it featured only two of Silverstein's compositions, instead relying on zany Dixieland style renditions of such oldies as "If I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and a "Good Man Is Hard to Find." A poor seller, the disc led the way for the writer's further experiments in beatnik flavored folk and country music such as his hilarious 1961 release Inside Folk Songs. Never reaching mass audiences, it nonetheless provided excellent cover material for the Serendipity Singers, the Smothers Brothers, Johnny Cash--who loved the macabre hangman humor of "25 Minutes to Go"--and the Irish Rovers, who made "The Unicorn Song" a major pop hit later in the decade.

With the 1963 publication of Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, Silverstein entered the realm of children's literature. Moderately successful at first, his children's books, poems, and cartoons would prove enduringly successful in the years to come. Part of Silverstein's appeal is that both his approach to humor and storytelling has an honest, forthright spirit seething behind every word and picture. Years later he explained part of his philosophy to the New York Times. "Happy endings, magic solutions in children's books create an alienation in the child who reads them. The child asks why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back."

Never completely committed to being a children's author, Silverstein spent most of his writing and recording career veering between tickling kids' funny bones and creating material designed to explode the myths behind social and sexual taboos. Indeed, in the course of one year he wrote both Uncle Shelby's A Giraffe and a Half and composed the decidedly adult tunes that comprised the LP I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag. From the latter sprang "The Mermaid," a top ten country hit for Bobby Bare, but for the most part Silverstein's recorded satire and ribaldry found a very small audience. His lack of popularity as a singer stemmed in part from his unusual raspy vocal style. That said, he claimed no one actually advised him not to sing. "Well, nobody gives me static about my voice," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1973. "They just aren't charmed by it. I don't see anybody running out and buying my records. But I like the way I sing." Regardless, Silverstein wouldn't enjoy lucrative mainstream success in music until someone else did the singing.

Wrote for Doctor Hook and Bobby Bare

As a songwriter, Silverstein enjoyed a certain cache with modern folk-conscious artists such as Marianne Faithfull, who cut an emotionally resonant version of his "Ballad of Lucy Jordan." However, the songsmith really struck gold when country superstar Johnny Cash recorded his composition "A Boy Named Sue." The million-selling, Grammy-winning song not only gave The Man in Black a desperately needed career boost, but it opened the door for other country acts to record Silverstein's songs. In the years to come, Faron Young hit number four with "Your Time's Comin'," Jerry Lee Lewis scored a number two record with "Once More With Feeling," Loretta Lynn hit number one with "One's On The Way" and number four with "Hey Loretta," and Brenda Lee reached number four with "Wrong Ideas." But Silverstein's biggest breakthrough came when he began writing for an obscure and eccentric rock group known as Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show.

Doctor Hook and company stumbled into a big break when Silverstein had them record "The Last Morning" for his movie soundtrack Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying All Those Terrible Things About Me? "Shel and the producer of the record wanted to have the song recorded by an unknown band," recalled Doctor Hook guitarist Rik Elswit for Salon.com, "and there was nobody more unknown than these five maniacs playing to the drunks in a bar across the river Union [in New Jersey]. Shel loved them, and they quickly found themselves lifted out of obscurity and hanging out with movie stars. The producer assured them there's be money in it for them later. It wasn't the last time he'd be less than truthful to them, but they did get a recording contract out of it and Shel wrote three albums worth of songs for them."

More importantly, Dennis Locarriere's penetrating vocal style brought into play all the shades of wastoid humor and hippie heartbreak that Silverstein intended but could never deliver personally. As a result, the band's 1972 rendition of "Sylvia's Mother" was a million-selling hit. Better still, their whoop-it-up take on "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" not only made them stars, it gave the band a public identity--not to mention an actual cover story in Rolling Stone. The band repaid part of their personal debt to their benefactor by backing him on the 1972 Columbia disc Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball. Easily the best produced album of Silverstein's career, the lyrical content careens between doper humor, children's poetry, masochism, and advice about venereal disease, all done in a zany, fun-loving party style. Despite good word of mouth and a vigorous promotional campaign, the album barely sold.

In country music, Silverstein's soul mate was Bobby Bare. A clever singer-songwriter in his own right, Bare's laconic, comedic timing seemed tailor made for Silverstein's work. Together they made the first country concept album, Lullabyes, Legends, and Lies, which spawned two major hits: "Daddy What If" and "Marie Laveau," the latter complete with Silverstein's own voodoo-inspired shrieks. Songs that started out as poems--"The Winner" and "The Jogger," most notably--were hilarious as done by Bare, and the remarkably prolific Silverstein eventually contributed heavily to eight of Bare's albums. "Shel is the greatest lyricist there ever was," Bare told the author. "He worked harder than anybody I ever met. He would get involved with me doing these albums and wouldn't give up. We'd be mixing and mixing and I'd have to say, 'Shel, it's over, it's done, it's finished.' 'Well what about...?' 'It's done!' 'Well, we could do...' 'No, it's over! Let's go home. All it needs is out.'"

Also a Playwright

When not doing music, Silverstein continued to churn out a mix of funny, philosophic children's books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree, and The Missing Piece, which garnered accolades and impressive sales. He stretched himself creatively by teaming with David Mamet to write a series of one-act plays billed as Oh Hell and create the Golden Globe-nominated screenplay for the 1989 film Things Change. But friends kept drawing him back into the musical arena. He composed most of the songs for folk veteran Bob Gibson's final album, and took on another country concept album with Bobby Bare featuring fellow middle-aged country-charts castoffs Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and Waylon Jennings (titled Old Dogs). It would be Silverstein's last major recording project. "We spent about a year in the studio working on that," recalled Bare. "We had a ton of fun. I was just devastated when he died. It just floored me because he was the last one I expected to go. He was the only one of all my friends who took care of himself. He ate right, he exercised, and everything."

At the time of his death, Silverstein seemed more content with his status as a children's author and entertainer. The financial rewards stemming from a lifetime of hard, compulsive work allowed him to keep homes in Sausalito, Greenwich Village, and Key West, and his success made him philosophical. "I am free to leave," he told the writer's biography series Something About the Author, "go wherever I please. Do whatever I want. I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else--man, woman, child, or dog. I want to go everywhere, look and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life."

by Ken Burke

Shel Silverstein's Career

Renowned author, songwriter, cartoonist, and recording artist. As a musician, released first album, Hairy Jazz, on Elektra, 1959; created first album of funny songs, Inside Folk Songs, for Atlantic, 1962; recorded for Cadet label, 1965-1967; recorded the album A Boy Named Sue with Chet Atkins producing for RCA, 1968; recorded Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show for Columbia, 1969; recorded for various labels, 1972-1979. As a songwriter, wrote hits for Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show. Composed songs for several films and TV specials including The Moving Finger (1963), Ned Kelly (1970), Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), Payday (1972), Thieves (1977), and Free to Be You and Me (1974). His album A Light in the Attic nominated for Best Recordings for Children Grammy Award, 1984; shared Edgar Award nomination with David Mamet for co-writing the film Things Change, 1989; received Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for Best Music, Original Song for his contribution to the film Postcards from the Edge, 1991.

Shel Silverstein's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Country Song for "A Boy Named Sue," 1969; Grammy Award, Best Recording for Children for Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1984.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

BooksOnline

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almost 7 years ago

There has never been a more generous spirit, better friend or big brother born anywhere any time, ever. Thank you Shel, thank you for being much of the best part of the lives of what you always called 'the trio from out of our past' you will always be well loved, treasured and remembered... you left this world too soon