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Fri September 6, 2013
Bill Shapiro Looks Back As 'Cyprus Avenue' Celebrates 35 Years On Air
This fall marks a milestone for Kansas City radio and the metro’s many fans of rock, gospel, country and reggae. The now-iconic Cyprus Avenue program premiered on KCUR in October 1978. Piloting the program from the beginning was an eager, well-informed, dedicated host who was opportunely equipped with both an ideal voice for radio and a passion about the music he played.
Through the years, many listeners were surprised to learn that the man behind the microphone – who has imparted a veritable treasure trove of musical knowledge each week – is actually an attorney by day. With the launch of Cyprus Avenue, however, Bill Shapiro has been living his dream: to be ON THE AIR as a disc jockey.
Let’s go way back. What is your earliest musical memory? What might be the root of your passion?
It was 1942, I was five years old, and for Christmas I received an RCA Victor-Victrola, and I fell in love with pop music delivered on 78 rpm shellac records. My mother’s best friend’s husband, Howard Silverman, owned a coin-operated vending machine business – cigarette machines and jukeboxes. When the old 78s came off the jukeboxes, he gave them to me – songs like Sentimental Journey; Over There and Mairzy Doats! Those recordings led me to an interest in the big bands that played them, and eventually to jazz.
During the 50s, Norman Granz produced the series, Jazz at the Philharmonic, which featured an “orchestra” made up of the best jazz musicians in the world. Annual tours of the series always included a stop in Kansas City. I would take the streetcar to the Music Hall to see and hear those amazing concerts and legendary musicians. Ella Fitzgerald would close the show every year.
To this day, I enjoy a wide variety of music. But the moment that changed it all for me occurred at 6:30 p.m. on January 28, 1956 during the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey “Bandstand” television show when Jimmy said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who’s creating quite a stir down there… Elvis Presley.” [Presley’s famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show happened just a few months later.] The song I heard that night was “That’s Alright Mama,” and EVERYTHING changed. The sound was revolutionary; magical, and my passion for rock-n-roll was ignited.
Since 1962, you’ve worked as an attorney – specifically, as a business lawyer specializing in tax and estate planning. Did you ever consider making your interest in music more than a hobby? Do you play an instrument or sing?
I played a little piano as a child, but I stopped lessons in less than a year. I didn’t practice. At 13, I attempted to learn the vibraphone. I stuck to the vibes a little longer than I did piano, but that really had more to do with the fact that learning the vibraphone had been my idea. The last instrument I tackled was back in the 70s. At the time, I was listening to a lot of bluegrass and, for my birthday, I received a banjo and ten lessons. At the end of my tenth lesson, my teacher candidly suggested that if I was truly drawn to the sound of the banjo, I would be better off spending my money on tickets to a bluegrass concert!
Last year, the Missouri Bar Association recognized me for 50 years of active law practice. I’ve had a great run in my profession, but there was a time I considered making Cyprus Avenue the focus of my career. It was back when 35 to 50 stations carried the program – WDET in Detroit was probably the strongest, but the show also aired in San Francisco, Jacksonville, Florida, and numerous Alaskan towns. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a satellite that made distributing the program possible. I remember it was on a trial basis, and the show had to air between midnight and 8:00 AM. In the beginning, I could reach more than a hundred stations for about ten bucks a week. By the time I stopped paying for the service, the cost had increased substantially. While I kept the show available on satellite for a number of years, the increasing cost of doing so ultimately led me to the conclusion that I would need to attract national underwriting, and that building a network of sufficient size to do that would be a fulltime job. My stock line has always been, “It was a question of whether I’d practice law or become a national disc jockey.” Obviously, I chose the law and made KCUR the only station carrying the program.
How did Cyprus Avenue originate? Once the idea for the show was introduced, how long did it take to launch the program?
In the 1950s, I attended Southwest High School. Twenty-some years later, out of the blue, I received a call from a former classmate, Lynn Frye, who had recently become employed at KCUR doing PR work. I had been volunteering as an auctioneer during the early years of KCPT’s fundraising auctions, and Lynn had seen me. Around this same time, KCUR was starting to look into fundraising as well. Lynn invited me to lunch to ask me about my experience with public television. When the meal was finished, she thanked me for my time and advice; then ended the conversation with the oft-made remark, “if there’s ever anything I can do for you….” And I said, “There is something. I want to be a disc jockey.”
She was kind enough to set up a meeting with Mark Morelli, KCUR’s then program director. I told him, “I want to do an intelligent show on rock-n-roll music.” And even though I had never done radio, he asked me to put together a pilot. After hearing it, he said to me, if I could do that every week, I was on the air.
I’d chosen my theme song while the show was just my fantasy. When pressed to name the program, I came up with “Music.” When I put the show on the satellite, the name seemed too generic so I changed it to “Cyprus Avenue” after a song from my favorite LP, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.”
Tell us about that first broadcast. Do you remember the first song you played? The theme or the artists you highlighted?
The station was located in a house on Holmes Street. The show was an hour long, and I announced from a studio that had once been someone’s bedroom. The first show was entitled, “Ballads by Rockers,” and the first song was Elton John’s “Love Song.”
Has the show’s format changed through the years? Did the program have its share of “growing pains” and modifications made along the way?
The program’s concept was inspired by jazz pianist and commentator Billy Taylor. In 1961, I was in New York doing graduate work in tax law, and he had a weekly public radio show. Each show was built on an underlying theme that he illustrated through the music. He would play multiple versions of a song – comparing a big band to a small combo version, or he would play the work of one arranger working with different bands to illustrate the attributes of each aggregation. The point is that he would give you information. I wanted to use that format to explore rock-n-roll.
In the beginning, Cyprus Avenue aired at 6:00 PM Saturdays, which I considered a perfect way to begin a Saturday night. Later, to reach a wider audience, we moved to midday and became a two-hour program, and the ratings responded positively. The second hour was a repeat show, pulled from years of archives, and given an updated introduction for rebroadcast. Today, we’ve returned to a one-hour format, broadcasting from 1:00 to 2:00 on Saturday afternoons, with a repeat broadcast at 7:00 in the evening.
As the show celebrates its 35th year, let’s take some time to recognize the men and women who have been alongside you all of these years helping you to meet the challenges of a weekly broadcast. I am speaking, of course, of your program’s producers – the people behind the scenes who have worked to make Cyprus Avenue consistently sound as great as it does.
The show has had many talented producers through the years, and I dare not try to name them all. Originally, the program was produced by Mark Morelli, followed by Ron Jones – then came a long succession of others, including Craig Rastorfer, Jeffrey Harvey and Kolyn Pritchett.
We’ve asked you to compile a list of your “TOP 35” musicians and bands from your 35 years of hosting the program. Can you elaborate on one or two of your very top picks? What sets them apart from the pack? Why do you find their music so groundbreaking? So unforgettable?
There are so many! Bob Dylan would have to be at the top. He gave the music a relevance and breadth of lyrical context which made it a legitimate art form, one which truly illuminated the life experience for many. After Elvis, Dylan is the most influential artist to come into pop music. And then there’s Elvis – the man most responsible for bringing the joy and abandon of rock-n-roll to the world. Bruce Springsteen, who gave the best live performance I ever saw, on a Sunday night in 1976 at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. He walked onstage at 8:00 and offstage at midnight, and we still wanted more. Van Morrison, who speaks to my soul. Bob Marley, who made reggae music with its message of equality an anthem for the whole world. Marvin Gaye was the best singer Motown produced, and Motown was magic. Aretha Franklin is unquestionably the best female singer we’ve ever had. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, The Band. The list goes on and on. View the complete list here.
Among the artists performing today, who is the one you’d most like to meet for coffee and/or have on your show for a conversation and jam session?
Bob Dylan, of course. But everybody in the world of music would like to talk to Bob Dylan. It’s truly amazing that while experiencing worldwide fame for more than half a century, in a world that feasts on gossip about the famous, he’s kept his private life private. Dylan stands apart. He’s still out there on the road every year. An article I read recently in The Wall Street Journal said that since 1988, Dylan has played more shows than The Rolling Stones, U2, and Bruce Springsteen combined. Unbelievable. (For the novice, Bill recommends “Highway 61 Revisited” as the place to start.)
Tell us a little about the Cyprus Avenue Live concerts you host at The Folly Theater. How did these begin?
About seven years ago, I was invited to join the board of The Folly, a not-for-profit entity whose purpose is to preserve and maintain the 113-year-old Folly Theatre, a Kansas City landmark and the city’s best venue in which to hear and experience the joy of live music. Since The Folly relies on the revenue generated from its rentals to third parties and from the events it creates, I was asked to build a concert series (featuring artists heard on Cyprus Avenue) that would contribute to the growth of the theater’s revenue and also broaden the scope of its audience.
What have you learned from 35 years behind the microphone?
The unbelievable joy that comes from volunteering. None of the time I’ve spent at KCUR, The Folly, or any related activities has been for monetary compensation, but the personal returns have been amazing. Listener letters telling me the show has been a bridge between themselves and their children. The fund drives which maintain the great Kansas City voice that is KCUR. The invitation to write two books published by Andrews McMeel which earned me a national book tour. The co-creation of two dance programs with the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company that added a new facet to the experience of the music I dearly love and broadened the audience for both. The ability to bring great musical artists to my hometown to perform at a venue and before an audience that every artist has counted as a highlight. At the end of each concert, I turn away from the stage to look at the audience and their pure joy – you can’t buy that. I’m a very lucky guy. After 35 years, what might you still like to explore on Cyprus Avenue? I just want to keep on doing what I’m doing. It’s far and away the best gig I’ve ever had.
From all of us at KCUR: We congratulate you, Bill, for 35 years of memorable music. To borrow from your signature signoff, “Be well, Bill.”