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Shel SilversteinShel Silverstein wasn’t born in Texas, but he lived for awhile in Kemah, when it was a little fishing village. The year was 1963, and Shel was 31 years old, had already served a stint in the US Army, and had a job drawing cartoons for Playboy. Playboy was the biggest deal there was in the early 60s, and Shel had a nice little boat tied up under the drawbridge at Captain Wick’s place. But he kept a very low profile – not just then, but throughout his career. He always avoided publicity, and was always unimpressed with wealth.
It was during his Texas hiatus that Silverstein wrote what would later become a number one hit for Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, Sylvia’s Mother. You remember Sylvia, the girl who’s “marryin a fellow down Galveston way” in the song.
It turns out that there was a real Sylvia. In a rare interview in 1972, Silverstein told Rolling Stone: "I just changed the last name to Avery, not to protect the innocent, but because it didn't fit. It happened about eight years ago and was pretty much the way it was in the song. I called Sylvia and her mother said, 'She can't talk to you.' I said, 'Why not?' Her mother said she was packing and she was leaving to get married, which was a big surprise to me. The guy was from Mexico and he was a bullfighter and a painter. At the time I thought that was like being a combination brain surgeon and encyclopedia salesman. Her mother finally let me talk to her, but her last words were, 'Shel, don't spoil it.' For about ten seconds I had this ego charge, as if I could have spoiled it. I couldn't have spoiled it with a sledge hammer."
Born in Chicago on September 25, 1930, Sheldon Silverstein grew up to attain an enormous public following as an author of books, songs, poems, and cartoons – but he always preferred to say little about himself. “When I was a kid,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1975 in the final interview of his career, “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. So I started to draw and to write. I was lucky that I didn’t have anyone to copy. So I developed my own style.”
Silverstein drew his first cartoons for the readers of the Pacific Stars and Stripes when he was a G.I. in Japan and Korea in the 1950’s. He also learned to play guitar and to write songs, a talent that would later produce such hits as “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” for Dr. Hook, as well as “Sylvia’s Mother” and many other songs recorded by dozens of artists.
It was Playboy founder and editor Hugh Hefner who gave Silverstein his first big break, in 1956, by featuring his cartoons, stories and poems in that very adult magazine. “He was a giant as a talent, a giant as a human being,” Hefner later said. “A true Renaissance man.”
Dr. Hook recorded 60 of Silverstein’s acutely observed tunes. He parodied the group’s desire for success in “Cover Of the Rolling Stone” and “Everybody’s Makin’ It Big But Me”.
The group backed Silverstein on his outrageous solo album, “Freakin’ At The Freakers Ball” (1972), including: “Polly In A Porny”, “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”, “Don’t Give A Dose To The One You Love Most” and “The Wild Side Of Life”.
Shel gave Dr.Hook a poignant song about the pressures of modern life, “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordon”, which was recorded very successfully by Marianne Faithfull. Silverstein wrote of an older man’s love for his girlfriend in “A Couple More Years”, recorded by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, and of the difficulties of satisfying a partner in “More Like The Movies”, another hit for Dr. Hook (1978). He became a millionaire, but never owned a car, looked for bargains in flea markets, and lived a very simple life.
Taking up a challenge, he wrote an album, “Lullabys, Legends And Lies”, for country singer Bobby Bare in four days in 1973. The classic LP included a country hit about the witch queen of New Orleans, “Marie Laveau”; how you lose even when you’re “The Winner”; and an eight-minute picture of grotesque characters in a late-night diner, “Rosalie’s Good Eats Café”. The album was immensely successful, so Silverstein wrote two more albums for Bare in quick succession: an album of children’s songs, “Singin’ In The Kitchen” (1974) and “Songs for the New Depression” (1975). A child comments on her father’s unemployment in “Daddy’s Been Around The House Too Long” and times are so hard that even God is in “The Unemployment Line”.
Many other classic songs came from Shel’s active mind in the 1970s including Emmylou Harris’ portrayal of a barroom prostitute, “The Queen Of The Silver Dollar”, Tompall Glaser’s response to Women’s Lib, “Put Another Log On The Fire”, and Burl Ives’ touching look at old age, “Time”. He commented on the hypocrisy behind Nashville’s tributes to the bluegrass musician, Lester Flatt, in Bobby Bare’s “Rough On The Living”. (“They didn’t want him around when he’s living, But he’s sure a good friend when he’s dead.”)
A restless man, he tired of writing songs and returned to children’s books and cartoons. His books include “Where The Sidewalk Ends” (1974), “The Missing Piece” (1976), “A Light In The Attic” (1981) and his poems, which express anarchic views. “Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird, And catch the worm for your breakfast plate, If you’re a bird, be an early early bird, But if you’re a worm, sleep late!”
Many of Shel’s song lyrics appeared as illustrated poems in “Playboy” and were often much longer than the recorded versions. His epic poem about a bad songwriter making Faustian deals, “The Devil And Billy Markham” (1978), became an off-Broadway musical.
Shel Silverstein’s heart disease made him view death as a subject for popular songs. The remarkable result, the album, “Old Dogs” (1998), performed by Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed, happened to be the funniest album in several years. Still writing exceptional lyrics, he wrote his own epitaph: “You’d better have some fun before you say bye-bye, ‘Cause you’re still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die.”
Up until his death in May 1999, he continued to create plays, songs, poems, stories, and drawings, and most importantly, in Shel’s own words, to “have a good time.” GATOR