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Philly folk giant, former radio DJ Gene Shay dies at 85 from the coronavirus

Philadelphia Folk Festival founder Gene Shay tips his hat to an adoring audience. (Jonathan Wilson for NewsWorks)

Philadelphia Folk Festival founder Gene Shay tips his hat to an adoring audience. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Updated 8:15 p.m.

Gene Shay, Philly’s “grandfather of folk music” and co-founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival,  has died from complications due to COVID-19. He was 85 years old.

Shay’s son-in-law Tom Vaughn shared on Facebook that he had “peacefully passed away Friday night, heading to join his wife Gloria in that great folk festival in the sky.”

Shay had been in hospice at the Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood.

(Howard Pitkow for WHYY)

Watch this video featuring the 2009 Philadelphia Folk Festival

 

Born Ivan Shaner, his radio career spanned more than 50 years. He got his first on-air experience with Armed Forces Radio while in Germany in the 1950s. The Nicetown native first became host of a Sunday night folk program on WHAT-FM in 1962, and he co-founded the Philadelphia Folk Festival that same year.

WHYY 30th Anniversary Gene Shay program.

Lisa Schwartz, festival and programming director of the Philadelphia Folksong Society — which presents the Folk Festival each year at Old Pool Farm outside Schwenksville, Montgomery County —  first met Shay when she began attending the festival as a teenager in the 1970s. In an interview Saturday, she described Shay as a “beacon of light” in the music industry.

Gene Shay (left) raffles off a Martin guitar commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Folk Festival. (Howard Pitkow for WHYY)

Beyond founding the festival, Shay also came up with its iconic logo, a smiling banjo.

“He gave us our voice and our brand,” Schwartz said. “That twinkle in his eye and that mischievous grin was as synonymous with Folk Fest as that smiling banjo that he created.

Schwartz said she’ll remember warmly the words of encouragement Shay would give to the many local musicians he helped put on the map.

An attendee at the Philadelphia lFolk Festival hold the Gene Shay 50th anniversary mask on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. (Howard Pitkow/for NewsWorks.org)

On the Folksong Society’s Facebook page, they’re calling for fans and friends to post memories of Shay over the years, as well as one of the corny jokes he would tell over and over.

“You could hear it for the 87th time and still laugh,” Schwartz said, “because it was coming from someone you loved.”

“Something about his voice, whether you heard it on the radio or on the Folk Fest main stage, said, ‘Welcome home,’” she said.  “And I’m gonna miss that a lot.”

From WHAT, Shay made his way to several Philadelphia radio stations, including WDAS, WMMR, and WIOQ. In 1981, he moved to WHYY-FM, where he remained for nearly 15 years before finding his final home at WXPN. After 20 years there, he retired from the Folk Show in 2015, passing the baton to Ian Zolitor.

Shay was a major influence in bringing such now-legendary artists as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Philadelphia for the first time. He famously brought Dylan to town for a show at the Philadelphia Ethical Society in May 1963, before the release of Dylan’s second album. About 45 people turned out, and Dylan made $150, Shay often recalled.

“He was a giant in terms of his impact on artists and the music. And to do it for close to 60 years is extraordinary,” said Roger LaMay, WXPN’s station manager.

In 2013, as he was being introduced by musician David Bromberg at his Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame induction, Shay said he put unknown talent on the air in the hope they could find an audience and perhaps a record deal.

“I play people who have a glint of something, some spark, … (and) just let them play good music where other people can hear them,” Shay said. “That is one of the great joys of my life.”

Gene Shay holds the original Main Point sign at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. (Howard Pitkow for WHYY)

Howard Pitkow, a Philly-based freelance photographer, got to know Shay over the years when he started to photograph the Folk Festival and eventually became a Folksong Society board member.

Pitkow remembered first listening to Shay on the radio in the 1960s during his Sunday night folk shows. He recalled how Shay was part of the beginning of a reinvention of radio — starting to turn away from the fast-paced AM disc jockeys of the 1950s.

Pitkow also got the chance over the years to photograph Shay and the artists he would interview during the Folk Show on WXPN. He said Shay’s impact on Philadelphia local music is undeniable.

“He gave the local people a place to come and a place to show off their talent and interview them and talk to them,” Pitkow told WHYY. “Gene definitely left his mark on Philadelphia.”

In honor of Shay, WXPN will be hosting a tribute starting at 11 a.m. Sunday with former World Cafe host David Dye. Zolitor will host a Folk Show tribute at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Shay’s wife Gloria Shaner died in 2018. He lived in Lower Merion and is survived by two daughters.

According to a Facebook post from the Philadelphia Folksong Society, Shay’s family will have a private burial but plans to have a “celebration of life” once it is safe to do so.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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