Shelby “Shel” Silverstein, colorful songwriter, author of children’s books, illustrator and recording artist, was found dead Monday morning, May 10, of a heart attack. Silverstein, 66, was discovered by two housekeepers in his home in Key West, Fla. He had severe coronary artery disease, and friends said he complained of an upset stomach and “didn’t feel quite right,” said Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Eicher.
Silverstein had a powerful Nashville, Tenn. connection, having penned the hit song “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash, which won the Grammy in 1969 for best country song. He also wrote “One’s On The Way” and “Hey Loretta” for Loretta Lynn, “Big Four Poster Bed” for Brenda Lee, “The Taker” (with Kris Kristofferson) for Waylon Jennings, and “Queen of the Silver Dollar” for Dave & Sugar. Having been born and raised in Chicago, he was influenced musically by the folk music scene. His 1961 album, Inside Folk Songs, contained “The Unicorn” and “25 Minutes to Go,” which became folk classics.
Singer Bobby Bare recorded his groundbreaking concept album, Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies, from Silverstein’s songs, as well as several albums more of his work. The Old Dogs album on Atlantic Records, recorded by Bare, Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed, was another of Silverstein’s well-known projects.
After a chance encounter with the band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, Silverstein wrote their breakthrough pop hits “Sylvia’s Mother” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone.” The song landed the band on the cover of that magazine, and Buck Owens did a country spoof of the song, “On the Cover of the Music City News.”
Silverstein will perhaps best be remembered for his children’s books, which sold an estimated 14 million copies. His acclaimed works include The Giving Tree (1964), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981), which contain amusing and silly poems well-loved by children and adults alike. Silverstein illustrated the books himself with whimsical, irreverent images such as walruses with braces and camels in brassieres.
Besides authoring books, he wrote a screenplay with David Mamet titled Things Change, as well as an original play, The Lady or the Tiger Show. Silverstein began his illustrious career as a cartoonist for Playboy magazine in 1952. He also was a cartoonist for Pacific Stars & Stripes, a military publication, and Time magazine.