Sheldon Allan Silverstein (September 25, 1930 – May 10, 1999) better known as Shel Silverstein, was an American poet, singersongwriter, musician, composer, cartoonist, screenwriter and author of children's books. He styled himself as Uncle Shelby in his children's books. Translated into 20 languages, his books have sold over 20 million copies. Silverstein had two children. His first child was daughter Shoshanna (Shanna), born in 1970, Her mother died five years later. Shoshanna's aunt and uncle raised her from the age of five until her death of a cerebral aneurysm at the age of 11. Silverstein dedicated his 1983 reprint of Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros to the Marshalls. A Light in the Attic was dedicated to Shanna, and Silverstein drew the sign with a flower attached. Shoshanna means lily or rose in Hebrew. Silverstein's other child was his son Matthew, born in 1983. Silverstein's 1996 Falling Up was dedicated to Matt.
Silverstein continued to create plays, songs, poems, stories and drawings until his death in 1999. He died at his home in Key West, Florida on May 9, 1999, of a heart attack.
Silverstein's editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, encouraged Silverstein to write children's poetry. Silverstein said that he never studied the poetry of others and therefore developed his own quirky style, laid back and conversational, occasionally employing profanity and slang. In the Publishers Weekly interview, he was asked how he came to do children's books:
I never planned to write or draw for kids. It was Tomi Ungerer, a friend of mine, who insisted—practically dragged me kicking and screaming into Ursula Nordstrom's office. And she convinced me that Tomi was right; and I, quite frankly, could do children's books.
The relationship between Ursula Nordstrom and Shel Silverstein was mutually rewarding. He considered her a superb editor who knew when to leave an author-illustrator alone. Asked if he would change something he had produced, he answered with a flat "No." But he added: "Oh, I will take a suggestion for revision. I do eliminate certain things when I'm writing for children if I think only an adult will get the idea. Then I drop it, or save it. But editors messing with content? No." Had he been surprised by the astronomical record of The Giving Tree, his biggest seller to date and one of the most successful children's books in years? Another emphatic no. "What I do is good," he said. "I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was." But The Giving Tree, which has been selling steadily since it appeared ten years ago and has been translated into French, is not his own favorite among his books. "I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ, A Giraffe and a Half and Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back—I think I like that one the most."
Silverstein's passion for music was clear early on as he studied briefly at Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. His musical output included a large catalog of songs; a number of which were hits for other artists, most notably the rock group Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. He wrote Tompall Glaser's highest-charting solo single "Put Another Log on the Fire," "One's on the Way" (a hit for Loretta Lynn), "The Unicorn" (which became the signature piece for the Irish Rovers in 1968) and "25 Minutes to Go", sung by Johnny Cash, about a man on Death Row with each line counting down one minute closer. Silverstein also wrote one of Johnny Cash's best known whimsical hits, "A Boy Named Sue".
He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook songs, including "The Cover of the Rolling Stone", "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," "Sylvia's Mother", "The Things I Didn't Say." He wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including "Rosalie's Good Eats Café", "The Mermaid", "The Winner", "Warm and Free" and "Tequila Sheila". He co-wrote with Baxter Taylor "Marie Laveau", for which the songwriters received a 1975 BMI Award. "The Mermaid" was covered in 2005 by Great Big Sea, which released its version on The Hard and the Easy album.
Silverstein's "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan", first recorded by Dr. Hook in 1975, was re-recorded by Marianne Faithfull (1979), Belinda Carlisle (1996), and Bobby Bare (2005) and later featured in the films Montenegro and Thelma & Louise. "Queen of the Silver Dollar" was first recorded by Dr. Hook on their 1972 album Sloppy Seconds, and later by Doyle Holly (on his 1973 album Doyle Holly), Barbi Benton (on her 1974 album Barbi Doll), Emmylou Harris (on her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky) and Dave & Sugar (on their 1976 album Dave & Sugar).
Silverstein composed original music for several films and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone and trombone. He wrote "In the Hills of Shiloh", a poignant song about the aftermath of the Civil War, which was recorded by The New Christy Minstrels, Judy Collins, Bobby Bare and others. The soundtrack of the 1970 film Ned Kelly features Silverstein songs performed by Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others.
Silverstein had a popular following on Dr. Demento's radio show. Among his best-known comedy songs were "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)", "The Smoke-Off" (a tale of a contest to determine who could roll—or smoke—marijuana joints faster), "I Got Stoned and I Missed It" and "Bury Me in My Shades". He wrote "The Father of a Boy Named Sue", in which he tells the story from the original song from the father's point of view, and the 1962 song "Boa Constrictor", sung by a man who is being swallowed by a snake although it is now better known as a children's playground chant.
A longtime friend of singer-songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with him on the posthumously released Underwater Land album (2002). It contains 17 children's songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey (with Silverstein joining him on a few tracks). The album features art by Silverstein.
In 2010, Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein was released on Sugar Hill Records. Artists covering Silverstein songs include Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket and Bobby Bare, Jr.
'Backward Bill' from A Light in the Attic
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back
'Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too' from Where the Sidewalk Ends
The Actual '73 Giving Tree Movie Spoken By Shel Silverstein
The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back
'The Toy Eater' from Falling Up