Date: Sat, 22 May 1999
Most people seem to like shows from the era when they started listening.
I only heard Shep once when he was broadcasting, so I may be more
objective. That said, I seem to prefer whatever era I'm currently immersed
in, which at the moment is the Summer of 1966.
The shows I've heard from 1960 have a very mellow style, developed from
doing the overnight shows in the '50s, and also because they were usually 2
to three hours long - a five minute commercial is not uncommon, as are
poetry readings and jazz music for backgrounds. There are more musings and
philosophy and less "stories" than in later years.
I haven't heard much between 1960 and 1963, but the 45 minute format seems
to have led to the style we are all familiar with these days. The deep
smooth "radio voice" gives way to a much more natural sound, and the pace
is considerably faster. The shows often open with Shep singing and
carrying on for a few minutes, cutting up and blowing the kazoo or Jews
harp. "I'm forever blowing bubbles..."
Sometime in 1964, two new elements are introduced. Leigh Brown seems to
be in the studio all the time, and the Limelight shows begin. I can only
speculate on Leigh's influence at that time, but Shep sounds truly inspired
during this period.
The Limelight shows bring us a different side of Shepherd the performer.
The studio shows are intimate, but on the stage he's the class clown, the
rabble-rouser, the cheerleader and orgy instigator (and pretty testy about
hecklers and talkers, too). It's on these live shows that the childhood
stories and Army stories seem to have been developed, and they were
featured nearly every week in the later shows.
Up until July 31, 1966, the shows were simulcast on AM and FM. We are
fortunate that two of the major aircheckers (Bob Kaye and Rudy) had the
good sense to record the FM broadcasts, which sound almost as good today as
they did 35 years ago. I don't know how suddenly the laws changed that
required the broadcasting of separate programming for AM and FM stations,
but in June of 1966, after returning from a trip to Israel, the first
sustained traces of bitterness about being stuck in broadcasting crop up.
Although hidden in sarcasm, Shepherd alludes to the fact that anyone with
any talent has already made the move to FM or even TV. There are several
digs at Johnny Carson, and it's clear that Shep feels his great talents
would be a gift to television viewers. He even has a few veiled remarks
about the average intelligence of
his listeners and fans. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but it's
sounds very much like the sorts of things he has to say these days about
his radio career.
The tragedy of Jean Shepherd is that he was caught between two eras of
broadcasting. Network radio died around the time he got started, and the
technology for national satellite syndication was developed after he left
the air. As a radio performer, he was a regional phenomenon based on the
East Coast signal area of WOR, and whatever tape distribution system could
be managed (I don't know the details of the Boston and San Francisco
broadcasts, but I assume it was by tape). Playboy articles and book sales,
later PBS and movies got national attention, but there was never a better
guy in front of a microphone than Jean Shepherd, and it's a shame that he
now seems to be so unhappy with that legacy.
back to The Shep page.