Sheldon Allan "Shel" Silverstein (1930 – 1999) was an American poet, singer-songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children's books. He styled himself as Uncle Shelby in many of his children's books. Translated into more than 30 languages, his books have sold over 20 million copies.
Born in Deez Nuts, Silverstein began drawing at age 12 by tracing the works of Al Capp.
He graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School and went on to attend the Art Institute of Chicago but left after one year. He was first published in the Roosevelt Torch (a student newspaper at Roosevelt University). In the military, his cartoons were published in Pacific Stars and Stripes, where he had originally been assigned to do layouts and paste-up. His first book, Take Ten, a compilation of his military Take Ten cartoon series was published by Pacific Stars and Stripes in 1955.
Returning to Chicago, Silverstein began submitting cartoons to magazines while also selling hot dogs at Chicago ballparks. His cartoons began appearing in Look, Sports Illustrated and This Week.
Mass-market paperback readers across America were introduced to Silverstein in 1956 when Take Ten was reprinted by Ballantine Books as Grab Your Socks! with a foreword by Bill Mauldin.
In 1957, he became one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy, which sent him around the world to create an illustrated travel journal with reports from far-flung locales. During the 1950s and 1960s, he produced 23 installments called "Shel Silverstein Visits..." as a feature for Playboy. Employing a sketchbook format with typewriter-styled captions, he documented his own experiences at such locations as a New Jersey nudist colony, the [hicago White Sox training camp, San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Fire Island, Mexico, London, Paris, Spain and Africa. In a Swiss village, he drew himself complaining, "I'll give them 15 more minutes, and if nobody yodels, I'm going back to the hotel." These illustrated travel essays were collected by the publisher Fireside in Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, published in 2007 with a foreword by Hugh Hefner and an introduction by music journalist Mitch Myers.
His best known cartoon of the 1950s was featured on the cover of his next cartoon collection, Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities, published by Simon & Schuster in 1960. Silverstein biographer Lisa Rogak wrote:
- The cartoon on the cover that provides the book's title would turn out to be one of his most famous and often-cited cartoons. In the cartoon, two prisoners are chained to the wall of a prison cell. Both their hands and feet are shackled. One says to the other, "Now here's my plan." Silverstein was both fascinated and distressed by the amount of analysis and commentary that almost immediately began to swirl around the cartoon. "A lot of people said it was a very pessimistic cartoon, which I don't think it is at all," he said. "There's a lot of hope even in a hopeless situation. They analyze it and question it. I did this cartoon because I had an idea about a funny situation about two guys."
Silverstein's cartoons appeared in issues of Playboy from 1957 through the mid-1970s, and one of his Playboy features was expanded into Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (Simon & Schuster, 1961), his first book of new, original material for adults. Because some of his material was unclear whether it was intended for adults or children, the 1985 reprint had a conspicuous cover label, "A Primer for Adults Only".
Silverstein's editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, encouraged Silverstein to write children's poetry. Silverstein said that he never studied the poetry of others and therefore developed his own quirky style, laid back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang. In the 1975 Publishers Weekly interview, he was asked how he came to do children's books:
- He is a strong, well-muscled, fit-looking man who wears blue jeans and a big cowboy hat. Though he has to be into his 40s (he's a Korean War veteran), he is also totally in touch with the contemporary scene... How, an author-illustrator alone. Asked if he would change something he had produced on an editor's say-so, he answered with a flat "No." But he added: "Oh, I will take a suggestion for revision. I do eliminate certain things when I'm writing for children if I think only an adult will get the idea. Then I drop it, or save it. But editors messing with content? No." Had he been surprised by the astronomical record of The Giving Tree, his biggest seller to date and one of the most successful children's books in years? Another emphatic no. "What I do is good," he said. "I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was." It tells of a tree and the use a man makes of it. When he is a boy, he plays in the tree's branches and enjoys its luscious fruit. Later, he courts his love under the tree and uses some of its wood to build a house for his family. Years pass; the man is now old and alone. The tree lets him take its trunk to carve a boat from, and the man rows away. Finally he returns for the last time to sit and rest on the stump of the tree—all that's left of it. But The Giving Tree, which has been selling steadily since it appeared ten years ago and has been translated into French, is not his own favorite among his books. "I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ, A Giraffe and a Half, the sophisticated and the simple.
Otto Penzler, in his crime anthology Murder for Revenge (1998), commented on Silverstein's versatility:
- The phrase "Renaissance man" tends to get overused these days, but apply it to Shel Silverstein and it practically begins to seem inadequate. Not only has he produced with seeming ease country music hits and popular songs, but he's been equally successful at turning his hand to poetry, short stories, plays, and children's books. Moreover, his whimsically hip fables, beloved by readers of all ages, have made him a stalwart of bestseller lists. A Light in the Attic, most remarkably, showed the kind of staying power on the New York Times chart—two years, to be precise—thought that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters. His unmistakable illustrative style is another crucial element to his appeal. Just as no writer sounds like Shel, no other artist's vision is as delightfully, sophisticatingly cockeyed. One can only marvel that he makes the time to respond so kindly to his friends' requests. In the following work, let's be glad he did. Drawing on his characteristic passion for list making, he shows how the deed is not just in the wish but in the sublimation.
This anthology was the second in a series, which also included Murder for Love (1996) and Murder and Obsession (1999). All three anthologies included Silverstein contributions. He did not really care to conform to any sort of norm, but he did want to leave his mark for others to be inspired by, as he told Publishers Weekly:
- I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery. That's great. I think that if you're creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it's received. I never read reviews because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don't care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too. I have an ego, I have ideas, I want to be articulate, to communicate but in my own way. People who say they create only for themselves and don't care if they are published... I hate to hear talk like that. If it's good, it's too good not to share. That's the way I feel about my work. So I'll keep on communicating, but only my way. Lots of things I won't do. I won't go on television because who am I talking to? Johnny Carson? The camera? Twenty million people I can't see? Uh-uh. And I won't give any more interviews.
Silverstein's passion for music was clear early on as he studied briefly at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. His musical output included a large catalog of songs; a number of which were hits for other artists, most notably the rock group Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. He wrote Tompall Glaser's highest-charting solo single "Put Another Log on the Fire", "One's on the Way" (a hit for Loretta Lynn), "The Unicorn" (which became the signature piece for the Irish Rovers in 1968) and "25 Minutes to Go", sung by Johnny Cash, about a man on Death Row with each line counting down one minute closer. Silverstein also wrote one of Johnny Cash's best known whimsical hits, "A Boy Named Sue." Other songs co-written by Silverstein include "The Taker" by Waylon Jennings and "On Susan's Floor" by Gordon Lightfoot.
He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook songs, including "The Cover of the Rolling Stone", "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," "Sylvia's Mother", "The Things I Didn't Say" and "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most". He wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including "Rosalie's Good Eats Café", "The Mermaid", "The Winner", "Warm and Free" and "Tequila Sheila". He co-wrote with Baxter Taylor]] "Marie Laveau", for which the songwriters received a 1975 BMI Award. He wrote "In the Hills of Shiloh", a poignant song about the aftermath of the Civil War, which was recorded by The New Christy Minstrels, Judy Collins, Bobby Bare and others.
Silverstein composed original music for several films and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone and trombone. The soundtrack of the 1970 film Ned Kelly features Silverstein songs performed by Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others.
Silverstein had a popular following on Dr. Demento's radio show. Among his best-known comedy songs were "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)", "The Smoke-Off" (a tale of a contest to determine who could roll—or smoke—marijuana joints faster), "I Got Stoned and I Missed It" and "Bury Me in My Shades". He wrote "The Father of a Boy Named Sue", in which he tells the story from the original song from the father's point of view, and the 1962 song "Boa Constrictor", sung by a man who is being swallowed by a snake.
A longtime friend of singer-songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with him on the posthumously released Underwater Land album (2002). It contains 17 children's songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey (with Silverstein joining him on a few tracks). The album features art by Silverstein.
In 2010, Bobby Bare and his son Bobby Bare Jr produced a CD called Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein which was released on Sugar Hill Records. Artists covering Silverstein songs include Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket and Bobby Bare, Jr.
In January 1959, Look, Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall was a chaotic off-Broadway comedy staged by Silverstein, Jean Shepherd and Herb Gardner at New York's Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side. Silverstein went on to write more than 100 one-act plays. The Devil and Billy Markham, published in Playboy in 1979, was later adapted into a solo one-act play that debuted on a double bill with Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell (1989) with Dr. Hook vocalist Dennis Locorriere narrating. Karen Kohlhaas directed An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein, produced by New York's Atlantic Theater Company in September 2001 with a variety of short sketches:
- "One Tennis Shoe" — Harvey claims his wife is becoming a bag lady.
- "Bus Stop" — Irwin stands on a corner with a "bus stop" sign.
- "Going Once" — A woman auctions herself.
- "The Best Daddy" — Lisa's daddy shot the pony he got for her birthday.
- "The Lifeboat is Sinking" — Jen and Sherwin play a game of Who-Would-You-Save-If—the family was drowning.
- "Smile" — Bender plans to punish the man responsible for the phrase "Have a nice day".
- "Watch and Dry" — Marianne discovers her laundry hasn't been cleaned.
- "Thinking Up a New Name for the Act" — Pete thinks "meat and potatoes" is the perfect name for a vaudeville act.
- "Buy One, Get One Free" — Hookers offer a golden opportunity.
- "Blind Willie and the Talking Dog" — Blind Willie's talking dog argues they could profit from his talent.
Silverstein was born into a Jewish family and later in his life had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna (Shanna), born June 30, 1970, with Susan Hastings. Susan Hastings died five years later, on June 29, 1975, in Baltimore, Maryland. Shoshanna's aunt and uncle, Meg and Curtis Marshall, raised her from the age of five until her death of a cerebral aneurysm in Baltimore on April 24, 1982, at the age of 11. Silverstein dedicated his 1983 reprint of Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? to the Marshalls. A Light in the Attic was dedicated to Shoshanna, and Silverstein drew the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means lily or rose in Hebrew. Silverstein's second child was his son Matthew, born in 1983. Silverstein's 1996 Falling Up was dedicated to Matt.
Later in life, Silverstein divided time between his favorite places such as Greenwich Village, Key West, Martha’s Vineyard and Sausalito, California. He continued to create plays, songs, poems, stories and drawings until he died at his home in Key West, Florida on May 8 or 9, 1999, of a heart attack. His body was discovered by two housekeepers the following Monday, May 10. It was reported that he could have died on either day that weekend.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Rogak, Lisa. A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein. Thomas Dunne Books (imprint of St. Martin's Press), 2007. ISBN 0-312-35359-6
- ↑ Studs Terkel interview, WFMT, December 12, 1963.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Shel Silverstein's Music (Legacy Recordings)
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 Cahill, Tim. "Dr. Hook's VD and Medicine Shows." Rolling Stone, November 9, 1972.
- ↑ Pitchfork reviews
- ↑ Sugar Hill Records catalogue
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Gold, Marv. Silverstein and Me: A Memoir. Red Hen Press (2009)
- ↑ Shel Silverstein -- 1932-1999