A.K.A. Gene Shay

by Mike DelVecchia
Philadelphia Arts Writers
April 2004

Gene Shay is 68. The name on his driver's license is 'Ivan Shaner'. When Mr. Shaner wakes up in the morning, he likes to have eggs and sausage and a cup of coffee and chat with his wife Gloria and perhaps read the newspaper. He leaves his home in Wynnewood jumps on Route 76 and drives through West Philadelphia and the UPenn campus to reach his broadcasting chair. But if it is a "non-broadcasting" day, he might see his grandson and granddaughter or chat on the phone with his two daughters Rachel and Elana, or gab with a retail chain about improving their broadcasting copy.

Or then again, he may go to 88.5 WXPN and interview Janis Ian, Ani DeFranco or Tom Paxton.

Born in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia, Ivan's grandfather changed the family's Russian name to its derivation, "Shaner." They opened a women's lingerie store on Germantown Avenue.

"Bra's and panties, of all things," said Mr. Shay. "And the store is long gone."

Mr. Shay's first musical love was musical comedy. He became especially fond of Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan, putting on productions while he was a dramatic counselor at summer camp, portraying Luther Billis, in "South Pacific."

"Bloody Mary, is the girl I love," he sings and reminisces about organizing "Pirates of Penzance" and "Oklahoma." He says he never misses the latter whenever it comes to Philadelphia, arguing that today's Andrew Lloyd Weber-type musicals are nothing like the "Carousel's of yesterday, when an opening show used to put, "six or seven songs into the top ten."

"It's possible I was attracted to these shows because of the 'American Standard' aspect of the songs, which are pretty folky and much about tradition and Americana--- things I've always loved," said Mr. Shay.

"But I never got into folk with any depth until the 60's, after hosting Armed Forces Radio, in Germany, playing jazz and pop," said Mr. Shay.

A graduate of Temple with a degree in Mass Communications and having worked professionally while a civilian, he asked his superiors to transfer him to the Armed Forces Network. Here, he found himself working as News and Music Programmer and Broadcaster at a thirteenth century castle overlooking the Main River in the little town of Heochst, outside Frankfurt.

"If you ask the army to put you in 'radio', they will think you want to run wires through the trees, so I had to be clear that I was interested in broadcasting," said Mr. Shay.

A civilian once more, his name "again" changed. While at WRTI at Temple, he was still Ivan Shaner, the derivation from the original Russian, which felt still sounded ethnic.

"When I auditioned for Director Charlie O'Donnell at WHAT, he told me that I had passed and could start in two weeks, but asked what I wanted to call myself," said Mr. Shay.

Mr. O'Donnell, famous as the announcer of TV's "Wheel of Fortune," has never changed his name but has sometimes been credited as 'Charlie Tuna'.

"In those days, ethnic names had to be changed. I soon found myself getting into anglo-American folk music, Scottish ballads, etc. and found I liked traditions," explained Mr. Shay.

One day, folk singer Tossi Aaron telephoned Mr. Shay's radio station, suggesting that he might like to hear the Blind Boy Fuller original of a jazz tune he played on his, "Mostly the Blues" program on WHAT-FM.

"I soon met one of the most creative and imaginative persons I've ever known," Mrs. Aaron said.

During one of the Philadelphia Folk Festivals, Mrs. Aaron hung her banjo on the lobby notice board of the Schwenksville motel housing the talent. She hung thin, curled, red ribbons from the neck of the instrument to emulate broken strings, attaching cards to the ends of the tentacles, upon which she wrote the names of each performer. She drew a smiling face upon a circular piece of paper, which she placed over the face of the banjo.

"Ivan saw this image and then had his agency base the Philadelphia Folk Song Society logo upon my design," Mrs. Aaron explains.

Mr. Shay ended up taking guitar lessons from Mrs. Aaron who introduced him to the members of the Philadelphia Folk Society.

"First, Tossi taught me the hammer-on riff opening of Joan Baez' 'Silver Dagger' and I was overjoyed," recalls Mr. Shay.

As Mr. Shay puts it, his life "suddenly changed." He ended up managing Mrs. Aaron, writing album liner notes for folklorist Ken Goldstein, meeting people like Sonny Terry, going to parties with Lonnie Johnson, and then suddenly "somebody came up with the idea of starting a folk festival."

One needs to think twice while listening to Mr. Shay describe club life in Philadelphia, to realize that he is vividly describing a scene that all but died out with clubs like Manny "Money" Rubin's Second Fret on Sansom Street, or Ed and Esther Halpern's Gilded Cage on 21st Street or the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, the latter of which is still going strong.

Joni Mitchell, he says, sometimes worked one weekend at the Point and the next at the Fret. After performing, Ms. Mitchell would be too tired to drive home to Manhattan and would sometimes crash at the apartment of Fret manager, Joy Schrieber who lived in downtown Philly with her husband, Mr. Rubin. Ms. Schrieber's maiden name, back in the day, was Flebbins.

"One Sunday, Joni left Joy's place and debuted 'Both Sides Now' on my show. She had written the song at Joy's apartment."

He describes visiting Ms. Mitchell at a vacant Fret one day with a friend, climbing the spiral staircase and approaching the front room, seeing the relatively unknown Ms. Mitchell practicing guitar by herself.

"Most of those clubs were open Thursday through Sunday and would be dark from Monday through Wednesday," he recalls.

"She struck me with her talent, beauty and her great loneliness, her image set against the fake stained glass windows which Manny had assembled from theatrical gels and duct tape."

Or later at Mr. Rubin's rock emporium the Trauma--- a harder, short-lived club whose founder quickly found couldn't compete against Larry Magid's and Allen Spivak's harder-rocking, newer Electric Factory and the infant Spectrum.

"One night I ran into Joni at The Trauma and she was wearing a US Marine Corps dress blue jacket," said Mr. Shay, who recognized her star rising with invention and flair.

It was always Ms. Mitchell's way, he remembers, to variegate her wardrobe with perhaps a Mandarin type of collar offsetting the epaulets and the ever-present blue jeans denoting her folksong backbone. During the 'uniform period', everybody from Duke Ellington to the Beatles was donning military or costume motifs.

"Gary Puckett and the Union Gap were playing the Trauma that night and Joni just came in with her latest boyfriend. She was not working that night. She was a folkie and the Trauma was for Rock and Roll bands."

It was clear that Ms. Mitchell had a yen for Philadelphia.

"So she would stay the whole week with Joy Schrieber who lived in downtown Philly. I used to bump into Joni in Rittenhouse Square occasionally where she would be shopping for antique clothes and jewelry.

"This was somebody brilliant and special," he insists.

Mr. Shay recalls Ms. Mitchell describing her original mythology during radio interviews. "These were stories which Joni would write, paralleling J.R.R. Tolkein, having characters whose names were acronyms. The name of her publishing company for instance, says Mr. Shay, 'Siquomb', stands for 'sad is the queen of mind and beauty'."

One day, Ms. Mitchell relaxed between shows at the Fret, commanding Pentels and onion paper. "She would cut and repositioned the paper at angles," Mr. Shay said, "filling-in outlines with color to produce a picture plane which when held up to a light source became really stunning and totally original."

On January 30, Mr. Shay's longtime protégé and friend, WMGK DJ Ed Sciaky died. Forty years earlier, Mr. Sciaky--- who would always refer to Gene as his mentor, had been hired to play half-hour gospel tapes on WHAT AM on Sunday night, the same time that Shay was doing his show. *****

"Ed was almost a son to me," said Mr. Shay.

The idea to record Ms. Mitchell's and other artists' performances and interviews did not belong to the "mentor." Mr. Sciaky had convinced Mr. Shay to bring a tape recorder to the Fret to record Ms. Mitchell's show. Mr. Sciaky made many priceless recording of Fret performances for WRTI while a student at Temple.

Archiving is a philanthropic endeavor. Ingrid Croce has recently requested recordings of interviews and a festival performance by her late husband and former singing partner, South Philadelphia native, Jim Croce. Mr. Shay intends to meet Mrs. Croce at her San Diego restaurant, Croce's, to deliver the tapes.

"One day in his teens, Ed came to me and asked if he could help me with my radio show. He started off emulating my announcing style which he thought was very natural," said Mr. Shay, who then took a long, emotive breath.

Most of the top-40 DJ's back then were engaging the "Puking Style." Mr. Shay describes this to be the aggressive, bubbly, frenetic manner in which these DJ's "vomited their words."

"I watched Ed grow as a person and personality and found that we had a lot in common," said Mr. Shay.

He did not realize until attending a memorial get-together that Mr. Sciaky had, like himself, possessed a musical comedy background and had died on the streets of New York while returning from "Gypsy."

"And my mentor was Ken Goldstein," Mr. Shay said.

Mrs. Aaron explained that she had introduced the pair. She was one of the Philadelphia acts whom Mr. Goldstein signed to Prestige Records. Her albums, "Jewish Folk Songs for the Second Generation" and "Tossi Sings American Folk Songs and Ballads," evince an original Philadelphia folk sound--- although she has usually been described as an interpreter. Mrs. Aaron is still a guitar teacher with small, private student base, specializing in the Orf system of guitar.

"Ivan has always been a joy to be around. People are magnetized to him because he is both fun, yet very serious and masterful when it comes to the folk industry, altogether qualities which Ken realized were special," she said.

"Mrs. Aaron is an interpreter of traditional, Celtic and Yiddish songs and has an excellent singing voice," said Mr. Shay. "We are talking about a cultural treasure."

Mr. Shay's sense of humor is also renowned. One day, many years ago, Ms. Tossi explains, during a wedding reception, Mr. Shay, an usher, entered the bridal suite of his close friend, the groom.

"Ivan filled their bathtub with forty boxes of colored gelatin, turned on the hot water and created a bathtub gelatin mold," said Mrs. Aaron.

Mr. Goldstein joined UPenn's folklore department in 1959 where he shared his massive library of folk records, transcriptions, tablature, books and articles. He was publishing countless, otherwise overlooked songs and acting as producer for a voluminous number recordings.

"Ken put Philadelphia on the map as a folk city," performer Tom Gala said.

Mr. Goldstein became a magnet for acts seeking guidance in traditional music and acted as advisor for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which began in 1962, co-founded by Mr. Shay. The number of Philadelphia-based acts back then was usually few.

"Kenny, like me, realized that one doesn't find traditional musicians in Philadelphia, where instead, one finds interpreters. Traditionalists or interpreters who stayed pretty close to tradition found Kenny's library to be remarkable," Mr. Shay said.

Bonnie Dobson, the first person to record, "The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)," first heard the song in the basement of Mr. Goldstein's home in Hatboro. She performed the song at the first festival.

"And because Ken the archivist, collector, folklorist was busy producing such acts as Peggy Seager, Ewan MacColl and the early Odetta albums, he had a backlog of tapes and transcriptions of music that hadn't been recorded.

Remembering Mr. Goldstein's library, Mr. Goldstein sounds like an eyewitness describing the Coney Island of yesterday.

People would come to his home, stare at awe or then poke around and find something that interested them."

Mr. Shay once went down to the basement wanting to see what a broadside ballad looked like. He found one from the 1700's regarding a public hanging.

"Tonight's my last night, my love, tomorrow I will be dead, I bid my love goodbye," he recalls with a laugh. He described another broadside about a woman who killed her newborn, produced on a Guttenberg press and sold near the execution for a penny, "in Scotland or Ireland, which was where Ken would do much of his collecting."

"Ken used to befriend locals during his journeys, and say, 'I'll bet there was a song you used to sing while growing up', and then switch on his tape recorder," recalls Mr. Shay who likens this activity to the work of folklorist Alan Lomax.

"There's never a man who will take my maidenhead and it will never be thee," sings Mr. Shay, conglomerating "The Gypsy Laddie" and "Get Away Old Man," songs whose Goidelic cognates Mr. Goldstein had once helped him to decipher.

Mr. Shay and his wife Gloria are responsible for bringing Bob Dylan to Philadelphia, organizing his first show at the 300-seat auditorium Philadelphia Ethical Society in Rittenhouse Square.

"He received $150 for this gig and he was such a sweet person," Mr. Shay recalls, recounting how he picked up Mr. Dylan at the 30th Street Station on Friday, May 2, 1963, the day before the show.

"I'm a man of constant sorrow," Mr. Shay now sings, explaining how he loves the single-note harmonica solo of this traditional piece of the first album.

"Bob's manager Albert Grossman had told us what train Bob would be coming on. Then there was Bob standing with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo (the woman pictured on the 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' album) on the platform, while I carried over a copy of the letter we had sent to Grossman."

Mr. Shay drove Mr. Dylan and Ms. Rotolo to Mrs. Aaron's house in Cheltenham Village where the couple lodged.

Mrs. Aaron, laughing, continues, "On Saturday night, the 8:30pm show time came, but Mr. Dylan refused to go on without a microphone, delaying the show forty-five minutes."

"When we got there, the sound system they promised us was locked up and there was no janitor and Dylan didn't want to go on," Mr. Shay remembers, mentioning that there were only about forty-five people in the audience. Few people then knew who Mr. Dylan was, he insists. Tickets were priced at $1.75 for Folk Society Members and $1.50 for the general public

"Finally," Mr. Shay concluded, "Dylan said, 'oh fuck it' and went on with the show."

After the performance, Mr. Dylan and Ms. Rotolo went to Mrs. Aaron's house in Cheltenham

"Now, Tossi, she has a nice house with a superb folk library and she's a great cook, so Bob and Suze end up staying over through Tuesday," said Mr. Shay.

"Following breakfast on the porch, Bob, Suze and my daughters, Ellen and Rachel played ball in our little backyard on Saturday morning," Mrs. Aaron rejoined. "They were having such a great time that they drew attention from all the neighbors."

Mrs. Aaron who was recently teaching at Germantown Friends, and at Cheltenham Adult School, assures that Mr. Dylan truly was famous in Philadelphia by this time.

"Cheltenham neighbors peering through hedges!" she stated with a chuckle.

Today, radio has withdrawn the "pukers" and the naturalists alike. Most DJ's are permitted to select a limited number of "wildcards" per half hour. These are supposed to be songs chosen by the disc jockey. Actually, they are selections from a secondary, wider pool of numbers, tracks typically spun more seldom, which producers allow DJ's to air "outside" of the play list.

"Even WXPN distributes wildcards, but still the host must then pick from a larger list of approved selections falling outside the daily list," mentioned Mr. Shay. "However, I have been lucky for the most part not to have been futzed with."

Whenever the ratings drop, the program directors request that he play the Lucy Kaplansky's and the John Gorka's, whereon he considers helping out.

"Figuring out how to integrate the up-tempo, more contemporary requests with Celtic ballads and Mississippi John Hurt singing 'Coffee Blues' is a challenge whereby I'll try to suck my directors in on preceding a Taj Mahal piece with something with which they are more familiar by Tom Rush or Bruce Coburn or Gorka," explains Mr. Shay, who boasts, that if the managers are listening, by the second time I've played my tune, they'll be more familiar with the tune, not just the sugar coating."

Of course, Mr. Shay would never contend that programming directors are an ingenious lot. "After listening to advice from their consultants, WHYY decided to concentrate on talk radio, and get rid of their jazz, opera and folk shows simultaneously, which was a terrible mistake for them."

On the side, Mr. Shay has always worked in advertising. Presently, he is writing copy for old movies coming out on DVD. In the last couple of years, Mr. Shay has written copy for car dealerships, home furnishings and old movies whose first DVD premieres will display his liner notes (look for "White Gorilla," 1945, several Victor McLaughlin features and "Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus," 1938, starring George 'Spanky' McFarland). Mr. Shay still visits his eccentric pals, such as the "Flids" in the makeshift, camping communities at the folk festival, whom he says are always good for a laugh when they dress up as baby or some other theme. Mr. Shay is not working on a book, but says that he ought to write down his memoirs before he forgets them.

Mrs. Aaron is now living in Elkins Park with her husband Lee and is still a member of the society, for whose website she writes a monthly column. Mrs. Tossi's daughters temporarily took over teaching Mrs. Tossi's classes after she retired. Ellen is now temping as a bookkeeper and is also a Scottish dancer. Rachel, who received her masters in management, is now living in California. The groom whom Mr. Shay pranked with gelatin is now a pharmacist.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: https://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=2089

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