My thanks to those Hot Stove readers who got through my three (long) installments on baseball collusion. Despite the best efforts of my editor/wife Rita, I still often drift to posts that fit the dreaded TLDR designation. I had not heard of that term until last week when Hollis Hanover filled me in. It is internet shorthand for “Too Long. Didn’t Read.”
So I’m going to make a change. This long post will be about rock ‘n’ roll.
For the last 40 years, Bill Shapiro has told rock ‘n’ roll stories on his one-hour weekly radio show Cyprus Avenue. For the last 40 years, I have been listening to Cyprus Avenue. And now it is over. Bill, who had retired in 2015 from his day job as a tax and estate lawyer, has now retired from his other “job” – as a deejay/raconteur spinning records and telling stories on our local PBS radio station KCUR.
Bill also brought 51 “Cyprus Avenue Live” shows to the stage of the Folly Theatre over the last ten years. Fittingly, his radio retirement party was combined with his last Folly show on Friday night, May 11. Rita and I, joined by Irv and Sharyn Blond, were in the audience for the tribute to Bill, followed by a short documentary of his Cyprus Avenue career and then a rousing show by Kelley Hunt. It was a heartwarming but bittersweet evening.
This post will mostly track my email exchanges with Bill that started in 2009. But we were linked some 50 plus years before that by an emerging music genre – rock ‘n’ roll.
1955 – Lonnie: I begin with 1955 because it is the one and only year that I knew more about rock ‘n’ roll than Bill Shapiro. I started buying 45-rpm records in 1954, including “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Bill Haley and the Comets. But I did not yet fully appreciate the revolution that was on the way. That became more apparent in the summer of 1955, just before my freshman year at Van Horn High School. That’s when I first heard Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame”) and Chuck Berry (“Maybellene”), some of the first artists crossing over from the R&B charts to the pop charts. Later that year, Little Richard screamed out “Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bom-bom“ to announce “Tutti Frutti.” On the ballad side came the Platters with the “Great Pretender.” I bought (and still have) all those records. I was hooked.
There was another artist on the horizon that I first heard about from my parents. They had seen the “wild” Elvis Presley on TV on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show. As it turned out, so had Bill Shapiro.
1956 – Bill: Bill attended Southwest High School where he entertained school assemblies with his comedy act partner and future New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin. Bill graduated in 1954 and moved on to Washington University in St. Louis. He had been a pop music fan since childhood, but as the calendar turned to 1956, he was a self-described 19-year-old serious jazz aficionado.
And then it happened. Bill remembers the exact time and date – 6:30 on Saturday night, January 28, 1956, when Elvis Presley appeared on the Dorsey Stage Show. For Bill, “EVERYTHING changed. The sound was revolutionary; magical; and my passion for rock ‘n’ roll was ignited.”
What Bill saw is shown in this video. Elvis opened with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” using Bill Haley’s cleaned up lyrics of Joe Turner’s original risqué version. Elvis still paid homage to Turner by adding on some lyrics from Turner’s classic “Flip Flop and Fly.” Elvis then closed with a cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” [If your (Apple) device is not compatible with the video link, here is an audio-only version] Elvis returned to the Dorsey show five more times. Ed Sullivan was a little slow – his first Elvis show was in September of 1956.
As Bill later wrote, “Elvis was the incarnation of my personal world and world of much of America’s youth, one that was vastly different from that of our parents and our own very private reality. He was the tangible precursor of a post-war generation, one with more affluence and free time than any prior generation. For many it was the birth of the ethos that made the 1960’s the most turbulent decade of the 20th century – a moment of momentous change and all that was to follow.”
And another favorite of Bill’s, “Little Richard’s music was the truest generational litmus test – one’s reactions to his recordings quickly established what side the listener was on…a basic truth of rock ‘n’ roll…If the parents can’t stand it, the kids are definitely going to buy it.”
Bill took enough time away from his music passion to graduate from Michigan Law School in 1962. He returned home to Kansas City to practice law, but deep down he also wanted to be a deejay. He certainly had the voice for it, and he was developing an encyclopedic knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll. That word got to the right people at KCUR, and Cyprus Avenue was born in October of 1978.
Cyprus/Cypress Avenue?: First, a spellcheck. I have seen references to Bill’s show spelled both ways, including (embarrassingly) in emails that I have sent. For the record, Cyprus is the island and cypress is the tree. One of Bill’s favorite albums is Van Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks, which has a cut titled “Cyprus Avenue.” So it’s the island spelling and is inspired by a street name in Morrison’s native Belfast, Northern Ireland.
But that’s not the theme song that begins and ends Bill’s show. That would be “Interlude” by Matthew Fisher on his 1973 solo album Journey’s End. Fisher was in his own interlude between gigs as a vocalist/organist for Procol Harum, probably best known for his organ solo in “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” If you have been a regular listener of Cyprus Avenue, and you click here, I’m betting that after a few bars you will anticipate a wonderful voice saying “The name of the program is Cyprus Avenue and my name is Bill Shapiro.”
When the theme plays at the end of the show, the final words from Bill are “Be Well Everybody.”
The Emails: Bill and I did not practice in the same legal specialty, so my primary contact was listening to him on Cyprus Avenue. In 2002, Bill indirectly prompted me to send an email to David Basse, a popular KC singer and drummer who Rita and I have followed for years at various venues in town. One of the songs on David’s playlist is “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and he was quick to inform me that his version was inspired by the original version by Big Joe Turner, not the cover by Bill Haley and the Comets. We exchanged a few emails about the different lyrics of the two versions (Turner’s were more risqué), and a timely Cyprus Avenue show kept the conversation going:
David, I am sitting here at my desk listening to Bill Shapiro, and he is playing a Joe Turner set. “Shake, Rattle and Roll” just played, and I have my printout from Friday and sure enough, the words were very accurate except he actually finished much like Haley’s version in the last 3 lines…I never junked my 45 collection from the 50’s, and the records are staying with us as we move to Townsend Place in the next couple of weeks – Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc. Still my favorite music.
In 2009, the last part of that email (the “45 collection”) came to the forefront. My high school class was getting ready for its 50th reunion. I embarked on a project of writing a high school memoir based on my old records. I had always been interested in the details behind the music – the labels, the songwriters, the history of the artists, cover versions (often white artists covering black singers such as Little Richard and Fats Domino), etc. You know, like I do with my baseball posts – the nostalgia and trivia. Which is what Bill did every week on a more sophisticated level on Cyprus Avenue. I learned how hard it was to do what he did, and I let him know via email:
Bill, I have always admired your work, but now I have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to put on one of your shows.
As you can see in the attached “Lonnie’s Jukebox,” I got into more than I bargained for when I started out with what was to be a simple playlist/liner notes for converting some of my old 45’s to a CD. When I decided to do it chronologically, the high school years fell into place and filled my mind with many fun memories.
Lonnie, loved your “Jukebox”. Thanks for the kind words and musical memory lane excursion. I graduated from Southwest in ’54 when the first inklings of our changing world began to seep through on WHB and jukeboxes.
I just happened to be watching [the Dorsey Show with Elvis] and my whole world changed in the ensuing 2 plus minutes.
This exchange would be the start of a continuing email conversation about rock ‘n’ roll, supplemented by an occasional lunch or breakfast. In 2015, baseball was added to the mix. My emails are shown in italics and Bill’s in bold. These have been edited down for brevity, and the signoffs are not included. But as you get to the end of each of Bill’s emails, know that they always end with…
The Sun Sessions: I have borrowed the “sessions” term from Sun Sessions – the compilation of Elvis Presley’s recordings at Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis in 1954 and 1955 (Elvis moved to RCA in 1956). Bill often singled out one cut from the Sun Sessions as being “rock ‘n’ roll blues performed by the man who began it all in the first place with a blues song, “That’s All Right (Mama).”
Although Bill was not aware of Elvis until 1956, he worked his way back to the roots of what Elvis was doing. R&B. Soul. Country. He liked the raw sound and creativity of what owner Sam Phillips had done at Sun Studio with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash (a/k/a the “Million Dollar Quartet”). Bill laments how much recent popular music has strayed from that creativity. We talked about this in 2012 when I sent him a New Yorker article about how a relatively small number of producers were creating a disproportionately large share of hits, which explains why so many of them sound similar. There are now even algorithms to determine the likelihood of what songs will be hits.
Bill, I thought this might be of interest to you. Sure sounds a lot different than the Brill Building, Hitsville USA and Sun Studio (where my wife and I stood in the recording studio last year and breathed the Million Dollar Quartet – great tour).
Lonnie, thanks for thinking of me. It’s an interesting piece which proves once again that what goes around comes around. Before rock ‘n’ roll established musically that individual creativity trumps committee products, we had recorded product from Tin Pan Alley that was listenable, but not really relevant; and so it is today. Glad you made it to 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. Graceland is a carnival. Sun Studio is holy ground.
In 2015, we returned to this subject, but from the standpoint of how music is delivered. As much as Bill appreciated those single records that defined early rock ‘n’ roll, he was impressed by the bigger thinking that went into concept albums like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As the music has gone from the physical (vinyl, cassette, CD) to digital downloading, listeners have returned to playing singles. I sent Bill a fascinating chart that showed this evolution from 1975 to 2015. This touched a nerve.
Lonnie, the news just keeps getting worse and worse. The early “50’s” introduction of long playing records opened the door to a “deeper wider palette” which freed the pop music artist from the obvious limitations of the two to three minute single and ushered in the Beatles, the Stones, the Dead, the Who, Pink Floyd, etc. who in turn brought us the golden age of popular music. The download of just another “single” from cyberspace has resulted in a diminution in the quality of current pop product. I remember being upset with the advent of MTV because imposing video on a musical product took away the imaginative doorway which the ambiguity of words and music opened and was what made it so special. We’re living through one of the seismic shifts that have marked mankind’s history as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Cyber one and far too little attention if being paid to its negative aspects. In my world this is a major negative. Always a pleasure to hear from you. It might be interesting to pursue this over lunch.
In 2015, Peter Guralnick’s bio of Sam Phillips came out, and I sent Bill a copy of a page quoting Sam on this same subject in 1979:
Bill, you and Sam could be speechwriters for each other on individual creativity in music. Your reference to music by committee…matches Sam’s worry about scientific analysis, patterns/trends and conformity.
Lonnie, small coincidence. [Just received as a gift the] Sam Phillips’ bio…If all goes as planned I’ll be reading it in Jamaica in mid-January. I’m still waiting for someone to do a bio on Colonel Tom Parker. [Presley’s manager] He was one sleazy sharp dude who, in my opinion, had almost as much to do with Elvis and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as Phillips. By the by, as of 12/31/15, I will be retired from 56 years of legal practice. More time for music.
Bill’s Top 35: In 2013, Bill’s 35th year on the air, he named his top 35 artists. His top 10: 1. Bob Dylan. 2. Elvis Presley. 3. The Beatles. 4. Chuck Berry. 5. Ray Charles. 6. Bob Marley. 7. Van Morrison. 8. Bruce Springsteen. 9. James Brown. 10. Paul Simon. Others range from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to Leonard Cohen to Aretha Franklin. I sent Bill some thoughts:
Your Top 35 list has several things of interest to me. I see one of the comments was the lack of women. But in the early days, it was truly a man’s world. When I did my Lonnie’s Jukebox on the 1955-1959 era, I had to point out that my 50 choices included only one solo by a woman (LaVerne Baker). [My personal Top 10 list] would have included Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, but I realize you cover a much broader spectrum of music. Proving, as always, lists are personal.
Bill’s number one artist is Bob Dylan, for his lyrics and the relevance of the message, not the voice (“high, nasal…unpleasant sound”). Bill makes a similar analysis for Leonard Cohen whose “vocals make little pretense toward musicality but are more like chants of wondrous words.” Also high on his list is Chuck Berry who he says matched poetry at the level of Walt Whitman to a vocabulary of rhythm guitar licks. It is no accident that Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature and that Cohen and Berry won the first-ever prestigious PEN awards for songwriting. I love Leonard’s line from the awards ceremony, “The thing I like about this award is that I’m sharing it with Chuck Berry. ‘Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news’. I’d like to write a line like that.”
Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan
Rhiannon Giddens: Rita and I became fans of Rhiannon Giddens in 2014. She appeared in a TV documentary about recording sessions where she, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and others prepared tracks based on the Bob Dylan “basement tapes.” The resulting album is superb (Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes). In the summer of 2015, I ran into Bill at a Folly fundraiser, and he said he was working on getting Giddens to play the Folly. He got it done. And as soon as she made her entrance barefoot on to the Folly stage, she owned the room. A stunning performance.
Bill was likewise pleased and sent me an email: By the by, the concert at the Folly by Rhiannon Giddens last Sunday evening (which our piss poor local paper failed to cover) may have been the best I’ve ever seen.
Baseball: I think the first instance that Bill and I traded emails that touched on baseball was when I sent him a Joe Posnanski column in August of 2015. Joe had veered off from his usual sports beat to talk about Bruce Springsteen. The first paragraph of Joe’s column sounded like a mash-up of several Cyprus Avenue shows:
“Born to Run was the first rock and roll song I ever heard, but it’s important to define our terms, particularly the phrase “rock and roll” and the word “heard.” Rock and roll is a big beautiful mess of a thing, a Chuck Berry guitar, a Janis Joplin screech, a Bono cry, a Ronnettes groove, Buddy Holly’s glasses, Joan Jett’s leather, Abbey Road, Clapton is God, grapevines, stairways, rings of fire, pinball wizards, mosquitos and libidos, rolling stones both upper and lower case, an Elvis swivel, a Beach Boys fog, a Jerry Lee Lewis piano, white albums, yellow submarines, purple hazes, a Bob Dylan stream of consciousness, a Smokey Robinson miracle, an Eddie Vedder rumble, a Keith Moon solo, a James Brown walk, Aretha spelling and Jimi Hendrix kissing the sky.”
Bill, Joe is my favorite sportswriter, but he is also good on rock ‘n’ roll. Anyone who quotes Little Richard’s “Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bom-bom“ has a special place for me.
Lonnie, we share another passion – Posnanski – I read the article earlier and was seriously impressed. I have a strong feeling that some of his quotes will be aired on a public radio show I listen to every Saturday.
As the Royals headed to their 2015 World Series win, I sent posts to my baseball nerd friends. Bill jumped in…
Thanks for sharing some of your passions. The similarities we share make reading your posts on music and now the Royals clearly resonate. I, too, am a lifelong KC baseball fan beginning with the Blues and like yourself I attended all the ’85 Series games, as well as the playoffs…I’ve been a Royals season ticket holder since the early 90’s.
In one of my posts, I mentioned that my grandson Ian’s favorite player was Alcides Escobar who became the MVP of the ALCS. Bill’s take…
Your grandson Ian has a good eye for talent. My favorite part of my favorite sport has always been defense…Ozzie Smith…was impressive. But in my opinion Escobar is appreciably better…my favorite Royal since that wonderful Greinke trade…if he doesn’t get the Gold Glove I’ll be writing some letters…If Yost isn’t manager of the year there’s something terribly wrong in Mudville.
After the Series, I began my Hot Stove postings. Bill often has comments, and here are some samples:
I’m a…fan going back to the Blues at Municipal Stadium on Brooklyn where we parked in front yards and watched the Yankees’ farm club which included a brief stint with Mickey Mantle, probably the most complete player I ever saw.
It is a true joy to be on your email list, at least if one is a baseball (Royals) fan or a music nut and since I meet both criteria, I just want to say “THANKS.”
I didn’t have any talents for baseball but I’ve compensated beyond my wildest hopes on the radio side.
After Leonard Cohen died, I paid tribute to him in a Hot Stove post. My appreciation for him was closely tied to how much his lyrics meant to Rita when she was going through chemo (e.g., “There is crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”). I ended that post with “Thank you Leonard.” Bill responded with a one-liner: “Thank YOU, Lonnie.”
Two Old Lawyers Talking: From November of 2016…
Bill, I see I guessed right and that Leonard Cohen made your show with his new album.
How is retirement treating you?
Lonnie, I admit I’m as much of a sucker for new releases today as I was as a music mad teenager 6 decades ago. Doing a weekly show for almost 40 years requires new material to keep it fresh, as well.
Retirement has proved to be a walk in the park, sometimes literally, for me. Fortunately I’ve never been a “one trick pony” so I haven’t had much difficulty filling the days.
Hope you’re well and still enjoying the lawyer’s life.
Bill, my “lawyer’s life” is that I still use my office, but to write my Hot Stove reports rather than practice law. The office is my man cave – our condo is nice, but confining in some ways.
Technically, I’ll still be of counsel this coming year – to get in my 50th year as a lawyer.
I also walk in the park (Loose) and have no problem keeping busy.
Chuck Berry: One of my favorite emails from Bill is about Chuck Berry who Bill calls “the original architect” of rock ‘n’ roll. When Chuck died in March of 2017, I wrote a Hot Stove post about him, and I (humbly) quote Bill’s response:
Lonnie, you are a treasure. I always enjoy your electronic missives but this one was a true classic. You not only captured his history, you captured his essence as well.
I hope you heard yesterday’s edition of Cyprus Avenue, my musical acknowledgement of the man who inspired my program so very long ago.
I was tempted to read your piece on the air, but didn’t want to try to run you down on short notice for permission.
We ought to do lunch again. Give me a call.
Closing Time: I’ll end this post in Bill Shapiro style…
Be well Bill.
A playlist for those who did not say TLDR.
Lonnie’s Jukebox – Lonnie’s Top 50 for 1954-1959.
And now, for your listening pleasure…
“Shake, Rattle and Roll” – Big Joe Turner
“Shake Rattle and Roll” – Bill Haley and the Comets
“Ain’t That a Shame” – Fats Domino
“Maybellene” – Chuck Berry
“Tutti Frutti” – Little Richard
“That’s All Right” – Elvis Presley
“Like a Rolling Stone“ – Bill’s favorite from Bob Dylan
“Cyprus Avenue” – Van Morrison.
“Closing Time” – Leonard Cohen. Oh what lyrics.
Encore! One more golden oldie. In 1961, Ben E. King recorded a soulful song that he co-wrote with the famous team of Leiber and Stoller. There have since been over 400 recorded cover versions. And yesterday, millions of people watched a live performance of “Stand by Me” that has gone viral.
“Stand by Me” – Ben E. King (1961)
“Stand by Me” – Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir at the Royal Wedding (2018)