Gene Shay, 85, the affable and influential deejay who was a much-loved mainstay on Philadelphia radio and the face of the Philadelphia Folk Festival for more than 50 years, died Friday night of the coronavirus.
Mr. Shay’s daughter Rachel Vaughan said on Saturday that her father had died peacefully at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood.
Mr. Shay’s impact on the Philadelphia music scene was immense. He began hosting a Sunday night folk-music show on WHAT-FM in 1962, the same year he cofounded the Philadelphia Folk Fest. He was the host at the event, always ready with a corny joke, until 2015.
“He’s one of our forefathers,” said Lisa Schwartz, festival and program director for the Folk Festival and its presenting organization, the Philadelphia Folksong Society. “His mellifluous voice and that mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye are as synonymous with the Folk Festival as the iconic smiley banjo logo that he helped design.”
“His 50 years in radio were celebrated concurrently with the 50 years of the Folk Festival," Schwartz said. “Gene is part of the Philadelphia Folk Festival’s DNA, and vice versa. You hear his voice, and whether it’s on the radio or behind the mic on the main stage, it’s like, ‘Welcome home.’ He’s been a lighthouse.”
Mr. Shay helped shape the course of history of Philadelphia music over half a century.
In 1963, he and his wife, Gloria, brought Bob Dylan to town for the first time, for a sparsely attended gig at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. In 1967, Joni Mitchell, whom he called “the most creative person I ever met,” played “Both Sides Now” for the first time on his show.
But it was as an informal — but seriously informed — presence on the radio through the decades where Mr. Shay had his most influence, particularly on the generation of rock deejays who came of age in the 1970s and were shaped by his style.
Legendary Philly DJ Ed Sciaky, who was Mr. Shay’s assistant in the 1960s, called him “the father of FM rock radio in Philadelphia.”
“I always tell people he’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing,” said David Dye, the former host of World Cafe. The nationally syndicated show on WXPN-FM (88.5) was named by Mr. Shay when it was founded in 1991 as part of his side gig as an advertising copywriter.
When Mr. Shay retired from the XPN iteration of his Folk Show in 2015 after hosting it for 20 years at the University of Pennsylvania station, Dye said: “He had a great, non-announcer announcer’s voice. And he also had complete command of the subject matter. His interviews were always really casual, informed, and interesting.”
"Without Gene Shay, I would never have had the career I did,” said Michael Tearson, who was at WMMR with Mr. Shay in the 1970s. “He was one of the most universally liked and loved people I have ever known.” At the Folk Festival, “his terrible jokes became an institution.”
Gene Shay was born Ivan Shaner and grew up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. “My family owned a brassiere store. I used to tell people: ‘My father’s in ladies’ pants. He pulls down 250 a week!’ ” he joked in 2015. As a boy, he would talk into a silver tube used to sell women’s stockings to practice his announcer’s voice.
At night, he listened to the radio. “You didn’t have a lot of entertainment when you lived on Germantown Avenue in Nicetown,” he recalled. He loved musicals like Pal Joey and South Pacific and studied smooth-talking Philly deejays like George Michael and Joe Niagara, “guys to me who sounded very false. Then I developed a style of my own of just being an ordinary guy. Which is pretty much what I turned out to be.”
Mr. Shay got on-air experience on Armed Forces Radio in Germany in the 1950s, and after working at the local TV station Channel 10, he landed an afternoon slot playing jazz at WHAT. In 1962, he took over the Sunday night folk slot.
He held down The Folk Show at WHAT for six years, then moved around the FM dial to WDAS, WMMR, WIOQ, and WHYY in the following decades. He was on WXPN from 1995 to 2015, when he stepped down and the show was taken over by its current host, Shay protégé Ian Zolitor.
To remember all the stations where he worked — “I had a show on WXTU in there somewhere” — Mr. Shay would consult the career timeline on the box for the Gene Shay Bobblehead presented to him in 2002 to celebrate 40 years in Philadelphia radio.
Along with silly jokes, Mr. Shay did magic tricks. In the 1970s, he wrote a book called Gene Shay’s Secrets of Magic Revealed: 15 Amazing Mind Boggling Magic Tricks You Can Master in Minutes.
He loved to tell stories, and had lots to tell, “enough for several lifetimes,” said Zolitor.
“When I first met Gene, my only intention was to learn as much about folk music as I could,” Zolitor recalled. “Without hesitation he said, ‘Why don’t you come by the station on Sunday?’ I learned that type of openness and generosity was not unique to my situation. That’s who Gene was. He loved music, and sharing it is what brought him joy.”
Mr. Shay would tell about meeting Charles Mingus at a restaurant in Chinatown, or giving Ramblin’ Jack Elliott a remedy for a cold that made the singer think the deejay was trying to kill him, or Jackson Browne playing a note-perfect “For Everyman” on his show even though his fingers were covered in Russian dressing.
In 1957, Mr. Shay had a small role in The Burglar, a film noir based on a book by Philadelphia author David Goodis starring Jayne Mansfield. Her daughter, also named Jayne Mansfield, would sit on Mr. Shay’s lap while he worked. “So I would call up my mother and say: ‘Hey, guess who’s sitting on my lap! Jayne Mansfield!’ And it was true,” he recalled.
In 1963, Mr. Shay and his wife — who died in 2018 — picked up a shy Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo at 30th Street Station. “They were lovebirds,” Mr. Shay recalled in 2018. He lost money, selling only 45 tickets at $3. Later that year, Dylan came back and played Town Hall on North Broad Street. The room sold out, and everyone knew the words. “Mostly because of Gene, playing him on the radio,” future WMMR colleague Jonathan Takiff recalled.
“I’ve had the most unusual and colorful life living among musicians,” Mr. Shay said in 2015. “My real value is how much I know about the music and how much I love the music. … The musicians I’ve known have all been very kind. Just the honesty and sincerity of music people. And I try to be fair to everybody.
“I met a lot of wonderful characters. I was on the board of Sing Out! magazine with Pete Seeger. That’s the joy of the music world for me. Music people in general. You couldn’t find a nicer group of people. People who love it for the music and not the bounty that stardom brings. I’ve had the time of my life.”
Mr. Shay tested positive for COVID-19 on March 27 and was put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit at Lankenau. He was removed from the ventilator on April 11, according to his son-in-law, Tom Vaughan, but was found to have had a stroke from which he never recovered. His death had been erroneously reported Wednesday on the Facebook page of the Philadelphia Folksong Society, and the group apologized for the error.
In addition to his daughter Rachel, Mr. Shay is survived by another daughter, Elana Benasutti; two grandchildren; and a sister..