April 18, 2020

Gene Shay — A Folk Legend Featured

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You are indeed a fortunate person if you have someone like Gene Shay as a friend or co-worker. He was the kind of individual who can change your life. Often, he did it by simply being himself. We all lost a real genuinely special person when Gene lost his battle with COVID 19.

When I first came to Philadelphia Gene was working at WHAT-FM. Before I had the chance to hear him, he was doing a Jazz show. His life and the of many performers changed when he started a new folk show on Sunday nights in 1962.

That show became one of the few reasons people would tune in to FM. In those early days FM was nothing like it is today. Just about everyone was listening to AM. Gene was a major reason that FM and the approach to presenting the music changed forever.

The voice you heard on the radio was not phony sounding. It was very smooth and friendly. His voice was almost as melodic as the music he played.

The show soon became the launching pad for many of the folk artists who making a major impact on the music scene in the 60’s. Every week you could hear artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush and countless others that not only played live but talked with Gene just like they were sitting on a sofa at home.

Years later when his Sunday show followed mine on Sunday night on WMMR, I recall Gene interviewing Linda Ronstadt while she sat barefoot on the floor of the studio looking through some record albums. That is how relaxed he made people feel.

The WHAT folk show ended, and Gene found a welcome home at WDAS-FM. That is where I was fortunate enough to have first worked with the folk music legend. He was so laid back that I found hard to believe that his “day” job was writing copy for commercials.

Since Gene was older than the rest of the staff and had a lot more experience, when he offered advice, we listened. Michael Tearson and Ed Sciaky were two members of the staff that owe much to Gene for their careers in radio.

Ed Sciaky was at first a listener. One day Gene forgot his bag of records that he used to playing on the air. Ed was listening and rushed to the station with of bunch of his own record collection to bail him out. It was a friendship that lasted until we lost Ed.

When Gene was on the air at WDAS, Ed was his assistant. None of us who were working there at the time had any idea of the talent that would soon be discovered. Gene let Ed on the air and we all knew right away that it was the birth of a major talent. That talent was developed and encouraged by Shay.

Later when we both worked at WMMR, I looked forward to seeing and talking to him every Sunday night. He had a wealth of music knowledge (not just Folk), stories and many very corny jokes.

His best story was the night when Gene brought Bob Dylan to town for a concert. This was before Dylan became a living legend, so the ticket sales were not enough for anyone to make any money. Dylan ended up sleeping on Gene’s couch for the night.

The name Gene Shay is so closely associated with the Philadelphia Folk Festival that it is hard to attend one today without hearing his voice. The Folk Festival and Gene’s time on the air were one and the same until he retired from doing his long time Sunday Folk show on WXPN in 2015.

At the same time, it was announced that there would a new plaque on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame on the Avenue of the Arts. You could see from his big grin just how much that meant to him. His star will shine forever.


Gene Shay Revue 2

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  • Comment Link John Campbell Sunday, April 26, 2020 posted by John Campbell

    Gene was a friend of the Cherry Tree Music Co-Op, though you probably never saw him inside the parish hall. In different realms, the club and Gene's show both brought the music on Sunday nights. Gene's name was on the club's volunteer list and at the top of the mailing list for the volunteer doing publicity. Much of the concert audience was Gene's audience first. On occasion, I had the pleasure of ferrying performers across town from a set at the Tree to Gene's WHYY studio. Gene treated his guests well, and even if you happened by on an errand, he treated you as a guest. When it became my turn to edit the Cherry Tree radio show, Gene had encouraging words. For the past three Augusts, I've needed to be at another festival, so it's been too long since I've heard Gene chat on the PFF grounds or deliver a groaner from the stage. Thanks for the music and the stories, Gene.

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