An icon of the Philadelphia region’s music community, “Dean of Folk DJs” Gene Shay will retire from the airwaves this winter after more than five decades on the air. The bittersweet announcement was made by WXPN this morning that his final turn at the helm of The Folk Show will be on February 1st.
Shay, who debuted on Philadelphia radio network WHAT in 1962 – and has hosted the folk show on WXPN since 1995 – says retirement affords him the time to travel and take on special projects that remain important to him. “[It] will allow me to enjoy spending more time with my family,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity to do more for the organizations that I have been working with over the years, such the American Composers Forum in Cleveland, the National Recording Academy in Hollywood, and other organizations.”
The weight of Shay’s departure is being felt by his colleagues; his retirement from broadcasting leaves big shoes to fill.
“It is impossible to quantify the impact Gene has had on folk music and artists in the region and the country for the last half century,” says WXPN general manager Roger LaMay. “Folk music and Gene has been synonymous at XPN for over two decades. He is a living legend in his field.”
Even though he initially considered his musical pursuits a hobby – his day job through the 90s was at a variety of commercial ad agencies – Shay (born Ivan Shaner) has a formidable resume on the air. He got his start on Armed Forces Radio while stationed at a thirteenth century castle outside of Frankfurt in the small town of Heochst. Returning to Philadelphia, he landed a post at WRTI at Temple, later getting an afternoon slot producing a jazz show on WHAT and and taking over their folk show. In 1968, Shay launched his long-running Sunday eve Folk Show on WDAS. It moved over to WMMR in 1970, to WIOQ in 1976, to WHYY in 1981 and finally to WXPN in 1995.
During his run, he influenced a generation of new broadcasters, such as World Cafe’s David Dye. “Hands down, I learned more about music from Gene Shay than from any other source,” he says. “Tuning in Sunday night to ‘HAT or ‘DAS in the mid 60’s was going to school. Yeah there was Dylan and Joni, Judy Collins, Jackson Browne and Tom Rush. But there was also Judy Roderick. Doc Watson, Jamie Brockett and Patrick Sky and lots more ‘blues, ballads and bluegrass.'”
In addition to his musical knowledge, Shay developed a reputation and following for a casual, conversational tone on the air in an era where DJs were veering towards what he has jokingly called, in an interview with Philly arts writer Mike DelVecchia, as the “puking style” of broadcast – an “aggressive, bubbly, frenetic manner in which … DJ’s ‘vomited their words.'” Shay’s more candid approach carried over to the stage of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which he co-founded in 1962 and where he has acted as nighttime MC every year.
He tells corny jokes to put the crowd at ease during long breaks between sets. He chats up the performers backstage and comes to the microphone with an interesting tidbit to share about them.
“I know I have more credibility among the crowd, and that’s because I don’t B.S. anybody,” Shay told me in a 2013 interview. “If I say somebody’s really good, the crowd will listen to me. I always try to find things to say that are honest, credible, things to say about each artist I bring on, things that people don’t know.”
High up among his many career highlights over the years was booking Bob Dylan’s first-ever Philadelphia show on May 3, 1963, at the 250-capacity auditorium of the Philadelphia Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. This was before Dylan was the name that he is today; only about 45 people were in attendance, Shay recalls, and tickets were $1.50 for Folksong Society members, $1.75 for the general public.
“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. … “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.”
Dylan was not the only Folk royalty Shay crossed paths with in a big way. Between gigs in Philadelphia, Joni Mitchell wrote one of her most iconic songs, and Shay (as well as his listeners) were among the first to hear it.
Joni Mitchell, he says, sometimes worked one weekend at [The Main] Point and the next at [The Second] 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. …
“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. …
“She struck me with her talent, beauty and her great loneliness, her image set against the fake stained glass windows which [had been] assembled from theatrical gels and duct tape.”
Sometimes, his daytime work in the commercial advertising world would cross over with his musical pursuits.
During one of the Philadelphia Folk Festivals, [Philadelphia singer Tossi] 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.
“[Shay] saw this image and then had his agency base the Philadelphia Folk Song Society logo upon my design,” Mrs. Aaron explains.
He also wrote the radio spots for the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and came up with the name “World Cafe” for the popular syndicated radio series based at WXPN.
When he’s not on-air at XPN or onstage in Schwenksville, Shay hosts a two-hour program every Saturday and Wednesday on Folkalley.com. His has also been featured on XM Satellite Radio’s “The Village.” He has also produced albums and videos for Flying Fish/Rounder Records and his own label, Sliced Bread, which released the Philadelphia Folk Festival 40th Anniversary anthology in 2002.
And in 1977, he published a book: Gene Shay’s secrets of magic revealed: 15 amazing mind-boggling magic tricks you can master in minutes. (Seriously. It’s available on Amazon Marketplace.)
Shay is also a Governor of NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), as well as a board member of The North East Regional Folk Alliance and The First Person Arts Foundation. He has also served as an advisor and charter board member of the North American Folk and Dance Alliance, Sing Out! Magazine, the American Composers’ Forum and The Philadelphia Music Alliance.
He received lifetime achievement awards from the Delaware Valley Music Poll, The Extreme Folk Festival and was recently honored by his alma mater Temple University with the Lou Klein Award for distinguished work in media. At the same ceremony he was inducted into Temple University’s Radio, TV and Theater Hall Of Fame. In 2013, Shay was honored with a plaque on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame.
“When I came to XPN 12 years ago, one of the exciting parts for me is that Gene would be a colleague,” recalls XPN’s LaMay. “Now I am proud to call him a friend. He’s not leaving folk music, just the radio. But he will always be part of the XPN family.”
Bruce Warren, assistant general manager for programming at WXPN, says The Folk Show will air the next four Sundays – January 11th, 18th and 25th, concluding on February 1st. Details about special programming for those episodes will be announced in the days and weeks to come. “We’re planning on making his last four shows really special,” Warren says.
The Folk Show will continue after Gene’s retirement, running from 8 to 10 p.m. A search for a new host is under way, though World Cafe’s Dye underscores the irreplaceability of Shay as the voice of a musical community.
“Gene’s interviews allowed you to eavesdrop on what sounded like a great party every week,” Dye says. “Sad to hear he is hanging it up because it has been a hell of a ride.”
For a fascinating 1978 interview with Shay via the magazine The Folk Like, click here; to peruse his Philadelphia Folk Festival photo album, click here; for a 2011 tribute by Jonathan Takiff of the Philadelphia Daily News, click here.
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