Gene Shay, a local radio legend with a six-decade career, died April 17, at age 85 of coronavirus complications. Among his many accomplishments, Shay was a prime mover of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which opened in 1957 at 7113 Emlen St. in West Mt. Airy and stayed there until late in 2016.

by Len Lear

When I first interviewed Gene Shay in the early days of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which he helped found in 1962, hours just flew by. My father was in the jukebox business and used to bring home the 45-RPM discs that were no longer popular and give them to me. As a result, I had the greatest record collection in the neighborhood and was the envy of my peers, who often came to my house after playing basketball to listen to my treasure trove of pop, folk and rock ‘n’ roll records.

So I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Gene Shay, who shared with me stories about musical groups we both loved but which today’s generation has undoubtedly never heard of, such as The Clovers, The Drifters, The Flamingos, The Platters, The Coasters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, et al. Talking to Gene about these musicians, some of whom he knew personally, was like reading an encyclopedia of 20th century music but much more entertaining.

“I know that many of our parents think this music is just noise,” he said, referring to rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, “but I think this music is going to be listened to and enjoyed 100 years from now. This is our generation’s classical music.”

Shay, who later became known primarily for his support of folk music, died Friday, April 17, at age 85 of coronavirus at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood. Among his many accomplishments, Shay was a prime mover of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, which opened in 1957 at 7113 Emlen St. in West Mt. Airy and stayed there until late in 2016.

At that time, they moved to a converted Lutheran church at 6139 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough, where they staged live performances regularly until the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to the performances, the Society’s stated mission is to “preserve the past, promote the present and secure the future” of folk music through education and exposure.

Shay, who was often called “the dean of Philly D.J.s” or “the father of FM rock radio in Philadelphia” (a moniker conferred on him by fellow radio D.J. Ed Sciaky), was born Ivan Shaner in the Nicetown section of North Philadelphia. He told me that his father owned a brassiere store (of course he had a few jokes about that) and that his ambition was always to be a radio D.J., even as a child, when he would listen to the radio late at night with the lights out. “It sounded so cool,” he said. “Other kids liked movie stars and athletes. I liked radio D.J.s”

Shay got his first radio job on Armed Forces Radio in the 1950s in Germany. When he came back to Philly, he secured a job on TV’s Channel 10, but he could not wait to get back to radio. In 1962 he was hired by WHAT Radio and proceeded to host the weekly “Folk Show” for six years.

After that he had D.J. jobs on five FM stations in the city. His last one was on WXPN from 1995 to 2015. His last show was on Feb. 1, 2015, after 53 years on the air in Philly. On that final show, Shay was surprised by a singalong featuring 111 musicians and friends from the Philadelphia area music community.

A new tribute song, “Sing for Gene Shay” was even written, recorded and produced for the occasion under the name of “Friends Of Gene.” The first two verses went as follows: “There’s a voice coming through on my old radio. Well, it’s warm and it’s kind and it feels just like home. It’s the voice of a man with a deep history, a great sense of humor and a spirit so free. He’s been down on the farm and up on the stage. A friend for so long, never showing his age. Now the years have gone by, but the music’s the same, and we’ll be missing that voice on the radio waves”

In his six-decade career, Shay introduced listeners to musicians who would go on to become household names like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, but he said he was even more proud of the unknown local acts he discovered and whose music would most likely have never been heard on the radio if not for him.

Shay’s show featured live performances as well as interviews with musicians he admired. “When I started out,” he once told me, “it was at least possible for an unknown but talented artist to come to a station and ask to be listened to, and maybe a D.J. would put that person on the air. That is how Buddy Holly and Patsy Cline were discovered, for example. Now, though, everything is corporate. Almost all D.J.s on the radio cannot even decide what to play. The entire playlist, mostly innocuous, unoriginal music, is prepared by corporate bigshots at almost every station in the country.”

Shay, whose wife, Gloria, pre-deceased him, is survived by two daughters, two grandchildren and a sister. His burial will be private, but there will be a memorial celebration when the pandemic subsides enough to permit it.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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