Tom Sheehy, 69, a rock-and-roll publicist and historian who was a fixture and sage adviser on the Philadelphia music scene, died Sunday, April 26, at his home in the Torresdale section of the city.
Mr. Sheehy died of a heart attack, said his sister, Rosemary Mariano, who was with him at the time of his death.
He was a shadow influencer to bands, promoters, and others in the business — a behind-the-scenes player who wore his passion for the music on the sleeve of his leather jacket.
The Philly rocker Kenn Kweder said, “Anybody who ever contemplated the cultural and philosophical significance of rock music in the last 35 years — anybody who took rock and roll seriously — you would have had to have crossed paths with Tom Sheehy. You’d have a question, and you’d find him in a bar. His invisible hand would lead you there.”
Mr. Sheehy was as well known for his perfectly coiffed gray mane as for the stories he would tell of his musical adventures.
He had many nicknames. In the early 1980s, he served as promotions director at then-dominant rock station WMMR-FM (93.3). Charlie Kendall, then the station’s program director, dubbed him “Streets” backstage during a show at the Cherry Hill rock club Emerald City.
Concert promoter Bill Rogers had suggested Mr. Sheehy for the WMMR job. “He told me I should hire him before he ended up sleeping on the street,” Kendall recalled Tuesday. “That was it for me, and it stuck.”
He called Mr. Sheehy “a star ... liked by everybody in the clubs, concert business, record companies, and the bands.”
Mr. Sheehy also answered to “the Colonel.” He managed John Eddie and the Front Street Runners in the 1980s, and helped the band get airplay for a cover of the Elvis Presley song “I Gotta Know.”
Eddie nicknamed him for Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager. “He was really instrumental in the early part of my career,” Eddie said. “I was proud to see he was still using the name after all these years.”
When the two parted ways, “I do remember that the night we decided to stop working together, we both cried. That’s not very rock and roll, is it? Either that or it is very rock and roll.”
Mr. Sheehy’s sister mentioned another nickname. Neighbors who saw him on daily walks with his dog, Buzzy, called him “the Mayor,” she said. “The Mayor of Janice Street.”
Mr. Sheehy saw the Beatles at John F. Kennedy Stadium and the Rolling Stones at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, both in 1966. He missed Bob Dylan at the Academy of Music that year, though, because it was a school night and his father would not allow it. He had to wait until 1974 to see Dylan at the Spectrum with the Band.
“As a former Roman Catholic altar boy, I recall the Spectrum shows as Holy Nights,” he told The Inquirer in 2018, recalling the arena lit up with matches and cigarette lighters. “Anyone who witnessed those performances would to this day mention them as among the greatest in Philadelphia music history.”
Mr. Sheehy had many stories, “and I heard them all,” said Jane McGowan Wilson, who cut his hair for over 40 years. “He was such a sweet guy.”
After she moved from Philadelphia to Collingswood, she said, Mr. Sheehy would take multiple modes of public transportation to see her, as he didn’t drive.
Her husband, Jeff, learned that there wasn’t a rock history question Mr. Sheehy couldn’t answer. “He was the Yoda of the Philadelphia music scene,” he said.
Mr. Sheehy’s favorite tale involved meeting Keith Richards at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1969 after the Madison Square Garden concert where the Stones’ album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out was recorded.
He learned what floor Richards was staying on, and left the show early to time his arrival to the return of the guitarist, who then invited him into his room.
Mr. Sheehy maintained a lifelong love for the band, but was a tough critic. His final tweet was about the new Stones song, “Living in a Ghost Town.”
“How many years has it been since this band released new music?” he asked. “And this is all they can come up with?”
He also had his own idiosyncratic rules of rock, including a contempt for outdoor performances. “No roof?” he would say. “No rock!”
Mr. Sheehy maintained a standard of professionalism not often seen in the music business.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked as publicist for J.C. Dobbs, the South Street club that hosted acts like Green Day, Dwight Yoakam, Oasis, and Rage Against the Machine.
He also represented local acts like Kweder and the Rolling Hayseeds. Former Inquirer music critic Tom Moon recalled his thoroughness. “I loved how much he cared,” Moon said.
Mr. Sheehy wasn’t Dobbs’ booking agent, but worked closely with owner Kathy James.
“He had his eyes on all that music coming out of Seattle, like Pearl Jam and Nirvana,” said Kweder. Nirvana played the 125-capacity club a week after its 1991 album Nevermind was released.
“He loved music, and he left his fingerprint behind,” said Kweder. “And everybody who knew him can identify that fingerprint.”
In the 2000s, Mr. Sheehy went back to school, completing a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s pictured wearing a cap and gown on his Twitter bio, which identifies his occupation with one word: “Historian.”
His sister is his only survivor.