born on 25/9/1930 in Chicago, IL, United States
died on 10/5/1999 in Key West, FL, United States
Short story writer
Sheldon Alan "Shel" Silverstein (September 25, 1930–May 10, 1999) was an American poet, singer-songwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter, and author of children's books. He sometimes styled himself as Uncle Shelby, especially for his early children's books.
Silverstein confirmed that he never studied the poetry of others and therefore developed his own quirky style: laid-back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang.
Silverstein's work did not include writing for children when he first began his career, but his editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), Ursula Nordstrom, encouraged Silverstein to write children's poetry. After having used his clever, silly ideas in his first book, Silverstein decided that he liked the result and wanted to do it again.
A blurb by Otto Penzler from his crime anthology Murder for Revenge (1998) says:
| 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 that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters.
And there's still more: 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 contributions by Shel Silverstein.
As a songwriter
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 great number of which were hits for other artists - most notably the rock & roll group Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (later shortened to just Dr. Hook).
He wrote the music and lyrics for "A Boy Named Sue" (which was performed by Johnny Cash and for which Silverstein won a Grammy in 1970), Tompall Glaser's highest-charting solo single "Put Another Log on the Fire," "One's on the Way" (which was a hit for Loretta Lynn), and "The Unicorn" (which became the signature piece for the Irish Rovers in 1968). Another Silverstein-penned song recorded by Cash is "25 Minutes to Go," sung from the point of view of a man facing his last 25 minutes on Death Row, with each line of the song counting down one minute closer.
He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show songs, including "The Cover of the Rolling Stone", "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," "Sylvia's Mother", "The Things I Didn't Say" and a cautionary song about venereal disease, "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most".
He also wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including "Rosalie's Good Eats Café", "The Mermaid", "The Winner", "Tequila Sheila", and co-wrote with Baxter Taylor the song "Marie Laveau", for which the songwriters received a BMI Award in 1975. "The Mermaid" was also covered in 2005 by Great Big Sea, which released its version on the album The Hard and the Easy.
Further famous songs that Shel Silverstein wrote were "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan", (first recorded by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in 1975) which was re-recorded in 1979 by Marianne Faithfull and in 1996 by Belinda Carlisle and later featured in the films Montenegro and Thelma & Louise and "Queen of the Silver Dollar", first recorded by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (on their 1972 album Sloppy Seconds), and later by Doyle Holly (on his 1973 album Doyle Holly), Emmylou Harris (on her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky) and Dave & Sugar (on their 1976 album Dave & Sugar). Shel was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his song I'm Checkin' Out for the film Postcards from the Edge. He also composed original music for several other films and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone, and trombone.
Silverstein also 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 rollor smokemarijuana joints faster), "I Got Stoned and I Missed It", and "Bury Me in My Shades". He also 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" that is sung by a man who is being progressively swallowed whole by a snake (recorded by the folk group The Brothers Four), although it is now better known as a children's playground chant.
A longtime friend of American singer and songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with him on the posthumously released 2002 Underwater Land album. It contains 17 children's songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey. Silverstein also appears along with him on a few tracks. The album also contains artwork by Silverstein.
Silverstein was posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
As a recording artist
Silverstein recorded a number of albums himself as a singer and musician, starting with Hairy Jazz in 1959. These included Inside Folk Songs, "Boy Named Sue" and His Other Country Songs, and Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball. Silverstein also performed and recorded with Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in the very early 1970s. One such account features Silverstein on stage with the band at Filmore East during the 1971 film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?. The movie also includes many songs written by Silverstein as sung by the film's star, Dustin Hoffman.
As a playwright
An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein was produced by the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City in September 2001. The collection of short sketches, directed by Karen Kohlhaas, comprised the following:
- "One Tennis Shoe" Harvey claims that his wife Sylvia is becoming a bag lady, but she claims that he is just overreacting.
- "Bus Stop" Irwin stands on a street corner with a sign reading bust stop and uses the opportunity to pontificate on the subject.
- "Going Once" A monologue in which an auctioneer shows off a woman who is putting herself up for auction to the highest bidder.
- "The Best Daddy" Lisa's got the best daddy in the world. After all, he bought her a pony for her birthday. Too bad he shot it dead.
- "The Lifeboat is Sinking" Jen and Sherwin sit safely on their bed playing a game of Who-Would-You-Save-Ifthe family was drowning.
- "Smile" Bender and his henchmen have found the man responsible for the phrase Have a nice day, and they're going to make him pay.
- "Watch and Dry" Marianne stops by the laundromat, but she's horrified to discover that her laundry hasn't been cleaned.
- "Thinking Up a New Name for the Act" Pete thinks that the phrase meat and potatoes is the perfect name for their vaudeville act.
- "Buy One, Get One Free" Two hookers who speak in rhymes are offering the deal of the century, offering a golden opportunity to passersby.
- "Blind Willie and the Talking Dog" Blind Willie begs for money as his dog argues that they could use his talent to make some real money.
Shel's Shorts was produced in repertory as two separate evenings under the titles Signs of Trouble and Shel Shocked by the Market Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 2001. Signs of Trouble was directed by Wesley Savick, and Shel Shocked was directed by Larry Coen.
"The Devil and Billy Markham" was published in an issue of Playboy magazine in 1979. It was written as an epic poem in doggerel form. It was then adapted into a solo one-act play that debuted for the first time on a double bill with Mamet's "Bobby Gould in Hell" in 1989, with Dennis Locorriere as the narrator. It has subsequently been performed many times by different companies and in different forms.
Silverstein had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna (Shanna), born June 30, 1970, with Susan Hastings. Susan Hastings died 5 years later, on June 29, 1975, in Baltimore, Maryland. Shoshanna's aunt and uncle, Meg and Curtis Marshall, raised her from the age of 5 until her death of a cerebral aneurysm in Baltimore on April 24, 1982, at the age of 11. She was attending the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore at the time of her death. Silverstein dedicated his 1983 reprint of Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros to the Marshalls. A Light in the Attic was dedicated to Shanna, and Silverstein drew the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means lily or rose in Hebrew.
Silverstein's other child was his son Matthew, born on November 10, 1983. Silverstein's 1996 Falling Up was dedicated to Matt. Matthew's mother is alleged to be the Sarah mentioned in the other thanks that appears on the dedication page.
Late in life, Silverstein loved to spend time at his favorite places, such as Greenwich Village, Key West, Marthas Vineyard, and Sausalito, California. He continued to create plays, songs, poems, stories, and drawings until his death in 1999.
Shel Silverstein died sometime during the weekend of May 8-9, 1999, in Key West, Florida, of a heart attack. His body was found by two housekeepers the following Monday, May 10. It was reported that he could have died on either day that weekend.
Silverstein had his own view of how his life started out:
| "When I was a kid 12, 14, around there 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 also lucky that I didn't have anybody to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style; I was creating before I knew there was a Thurber, a Benchley, a Price, and a Steinberg. I never saw their work till I was around 30. By the time I got to where I was attracting girls, I was already into work, and it was more important to me. Not that I wouldn't rather make love, but the work has become a habit."
Jean F. Mercier. "Shel Silverstein", Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975).
Silverstein 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
| "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. But for them, not for me. 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."
Shel Silverstein, from Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1975
The few interviews he did give throughout his life gave insight to his thinking patterns. One example of these interviews:
Question: "Why do you have a beard?"
Question: "How do you think your present image as world traveler, bawdy singer, etc. combines with your image as a writer of children's books?"
Question: "Do you admit that your songs and drawings have a certain amount of vulgarity in them?"
Question: "Do you shave your head for effect or to be different, or to strike back at the long-haired styles of today?"
Shel Silverstein (1965) from the album I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag.
Silverstein did not really enjoy interviews and because of this, he did not interview very much. Once in an interview he was asked about creativity and being an artist. This was his reply:
| I think that if youre truly creative, you can work in certain related fields of creativity, but then there are others that are beyond you. For instance, a man who works well with words might work as a writer and as a poet and as a lyricist. But if he tried to work in sculpture, he might get absolutely nowhere. And a guy who is very visual might easily work in painting and drawing, could also work in costume design, if he leaned that way, could work in stage setting, and in those related fields. I do believe that a person who is truly observant in one of the arts will be truly observant and sensitive in the others as well, but its his ability to express these things that would limit him. I believe that a man who is a sensitive painter is sensitive to life, and therefore would be sensitive as a writer or as a storyteller, but having the ability to write is something more than merely seeing. Having the ability to paint is something more than merely seeing the colors, seeking the form. Its in execution, in skill.
Shel Silverstein (1963) in an interview with Aardvark magazine.
- Take Ten (1955)
- Grab Your Socks! (1956)
- Now Here's My Plan (1960)
- Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book (1961)
- A Playboy's Teevee Jeebies oh la la (1961)
- (Uncle Shelby's story of) Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back (1963)
- A Giraffe and a Half (1964)
- The Giving Tree (1964)
- Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? (1964)
- Uncle Shelby's Zoo (1964)
- More Playboy's Teevee Jeebies (1965)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974)
- The Missing Piece (1976)
- Different Dances (1979)
- A Light in the Attic (1981)
- The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (1981)
- Falling Up (1996)
- Draw a Skinny Elephant (1998)
- Runny Babbit (2005) (published posthumously)
- Don't Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies (2008, originally published in 1964)
Silverstein believed that written works needed to be read on paperthe correct paper for the particular work. He usually would not allow his poems and stories to be published unless he could choose the type, size, shape, color, and quality of the paper himself. Being a book collector, he took seriously the feel of the paper, the look of the book from the inside and out, the typeface for each poem, and the binding of his books. He did not allow his books to be published in paperback because he did not want his work to diminish in any way.
- Hairy Jazz (Elektra Records) (1959)
- Inside Folk Songs (Atlantic Records) (1962)
- I'm So Good That I Don't Have To Brag (Cadet Records) (1965)
- Drain My Brain (Cadet Records) (1967)
- A Boy Named Sue And Other Country Songs (RCA Records) (1969)
- Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (Columbia Records) (1971) film soundtrack
- Freakin' At The Freakers Ball (Columbia Records) (1972)
- Crouchin' On The Outside (Janus Records), collection of I'm So Good... and Drain My Brain (1973)
- Songs & Stories (Parachute Records) (1978)
- The Great Conch Train Robbery (Flying Fish Records) (1980)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends (Columbia Records) (1984)
- A Light In The Attic (Columbia Records) (1985)
- Underwater Land (with Pat Dailey) (Olympia Records) (2002) (released posthumously)
- The Best of Shel Silverstein: His Words His Songs His Friends (Legacy/Columbia/SBMG Records) (2005) (released posthumously)
- Marv Gold: Silverstein & Me (2009) Red Hen Press
- Lisa Rogak: A Boy Named Shel. The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein (2007). ISBN 0312353596
- Flippo, Chet. (1998). "Shel Silverstein". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 484.
- Steve Pond: The Magical World of Shel Silverstein. PLAYBOY (US Edition) 1/2006. pp7478 & pp 151153.
- WFMU: Unreleased demo: Shel Silverstein: "Terrible Thing"
- Andreas Weigel: Die überdrehte Welt des Shel Silverstein. Leben, Lieder und Texte. ORF, "Spielräume spezial" (2006).
- Pop-Alphabet: Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show & Shel Silverstein.
- Bernd Glodek: Shel Silverstein. Was macht dieser Mann eigentlich nicht? (1977).
- Zum 75. Geburtstag des Kinderbuchautors und Songwriters Shel Silverstein. "Wiener Zeitung, Extra" (2005).
- Shel Silverstein's site
- Shel Silverstein at the Internet Movie Database
- Shel Silverstein and other famous poets, their poems, photos, biography.
- Shel Silverstein's Music (Legacy Recordings)
- Signature of Shel Silverstein
- Works by or about Shel Silverstein in libraries (WorldCat catalog)