Folk Music Ambassador Gene Shay Dies at 85

Gene Shay’
“Whether he was wearing a headset and in the studio at WXPN or on the main stage at the Folk Festival, Gene Shay’s voice said ‘welcome home,’” said Lisa Schwartz, the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s festival and programming director. (Photo by Lisa Schaffer)

Broadcaster Gene Shay, who over six decades introduced generation after generation of Philadelphians to the expansive patchwork tapestry of folk music, has died from the coronavirus. He was 85.

Born Ivan Shaner, he grew up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia, where music and broadcasting consumed him from an early age.

“He always loved the radio and always wanted to be an announcer,” daughter Rachel Vaughan said. “As a kid, he used to read the backs of the cereal boxes at the table and practice.”

Out of all that practice came an on-air voice that was remarkably casual, unvarnished and without affectation — his trademark was the quintessential non-announcer announcer’s voice.

This, in itself, was no tactic or gimmick, assured Ian Zolitor, who worked under Shay for two years before taking over as host of the WXPN “Folk Show” when Shay retired in 2015.

“His style of hosting and interviewing was very, very casual, just super-relaxed,” Zolitor said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that stood out about Gene — his lack of ego in presenting the music he was passionate about.”

After getting his first on-air experience broadcasting to U.S. servicemen on Armed Forces Radio in postwar Germany, Shay landed his first of six posts at Philadelphia-area FM stations, at WHAT, in 1962. That same year, he co-founded the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Over the course of the next 53 years, he’d bounce around the FM dial taking his folk show to WDAS, WMMR, WIOQ, WHYY and, finally, in 1996, to WXPN, where he’d stay for 20 years, his longest residency.

As emcee of the Folk Festival each August, Shay played Pied Piper first to modest crowds then to throngs in the tens of thousands, to whom he endeared himself through notoriously corny jokes.

“He was really, actually, a quick wit and very funny, but then some of his jokes were really … not good,” Vaughan said, laughing. “But, yeah, that was his shtick, and he enjoyed it, and so did the audience.”

Colleagues like Zolitor make time spent around Shay sound like the antidote to modern cynicism. In the music business struggle between music and business, the odds may not be in music’s favor, but Shay erred on the side of the underdog.

“It’s easy to get lost in the business mechanism of it all, and there are a lot of people in the music business who, at least, seem to not really care about the music as much the bottom line and the dollar behind it, but that was never Gene’s priority at all,” Zolitor said.

“He helped hundreds of artists along the path to success in their careers, and he never asked for anything in return, even from people who reached pretty high levels after coming on his shows for many years.”

“That’s stuck with me,” he added. “To always keep that love of music in the forefront, have that be the priority.”

The music may have been at the forefront, but Shay’s relationship to it, for most of his professional life, was secondary.

“Most people are surprised to know that (the radio) wasn’t even his main career; that was his side gig,” Vaughan said. “But his passion for it was so strong that everyone just assumed that’s what he did for a living.”

Shay made his primary living as an ad executive, first with an advertising firm he and a partner started called Group Two, then, later, with the large Philadelphia firm of Kalish and Rice. A talented copywriter and idea man, he wrote spots for Silo and First Pennsylvania Bank, as well as the original radio ads for the Woodstock Festival in 1969. In 1991, he’d come up with the name for the locally produced radio show that’d become the most listened-to public radio music program in the country, WXPN’s nationally syndicated “World Cafe.”

Shay had talents and passions and he pursued each with vigor, regardless of whether they aligned.

In the ’60s, he and his wife Gloria were the first to bring Bob Dylan to play in Philadelphia. Dylan played to a scant crowd at the Ethical Society, and Shay lost money. Undeterred, he played Dylan in even heavier rotation and, later that year, Shay’s WMMR colleague Jonathan Takiff told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Dylan came back … the room sold out and everyone knew the words.”

In the ’70s, he published a book of magic tricks. “The sleight-of-hand he was very much into,” Vaughan recalled.

Lisa Schwartz, the Philadelphia Folksong Society’s festival and programming director, who worked the festival with Shay for the last 45 years, characterized him as that most elusive breed of Jewish man: “a mensch, with both humility and chutzpah.”

This is the man younger daughter Elana Benasutti wishes people knew better.

“Everybody focuses on Gene Shay, but I would love it if somebody would focus on Ivan Shaner, the man. Because he was the most wonderful, supporting, loving father who was always, always there for me.”

Shay is survived by his two daughters, sister Shelly Gutin, and two grandchildren.

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