Bill Shapiro wanted to be a disc jockey. And as host of KCUR's long-running popular-music program, “Cyprus Avenue,” he managed to do that for 40 years (though he never quit his day job as an attorney).
After wrapping the show’s final episode, and ahead of a special event in his honor with Kelly Hunt at the Folly Theater on Friday night, Shapiro sat on the other side of the microphone for a conversation with “Up to Date” host Steve Kraske.
Joining them was the program’s longtime producer, Ron Jones (who is also KCUR’s director of community engagement). Here is much of that conversation.
STEVE KRASKE: What a ride it’s been. Congratulations on just an absolutely amazing run.
BILL SHAPIRO: Thank you.
KRASKE: How tough is this for you to bring this show to an end?
SHAPIRO: Actually, it isn't that tough.
KRASKE: That's not the answer I expected.
SHAPIRO: After 40 years, I've kind of run the route so to speak. I'm proud of what I've done, and I don't feel the need to be on the air every week.
KRASKE: Ron, you were his producer when you were first at KCUR.
JONES: I started at KCUR in January of 1980 and soon after became producer of “Cyprus Avenue.” I did that until 1993, and then moved to Boston and subsequently Chicago and the Detroit area and I was gone for 20 years. And then I came back in 2013 –
SHAPIRO: And guess who was still on the air?
JONES: Bill was still on the air. Even for those 20 years I was gone, Bill and I were still in contact.
KRASKE: You know, Bill, you're such a unusual combination of vocations: lawyer and disc jockey. You're covering all corners of your brain, I think, by doing that.
SHAPIRO: I guess. I think of them fairly separately. The lawyer thing was to earn a living and to give me the money to buy the music that I play on “Cyprus Avenue.” The “Cyprus Avenue” thing was clearly my lifelong passion.
KRASKE: So how many CDs and record albums do you own?
SHAPIRO: Oh good Lord. I don't have a number. I think of the LPs in terms of linear feet. Seriously. Ron's laughing, but he's seen them. I don’t count them. I don’t have time to mess with that. I keep them alphabetized.
KRASKE: One time you were kind enough to invite Ron and me to your house and we were sitting there in your living room. You asked me to sit on the couch at a certain point on the couch where the music would envelop me most effectively. And that point on your couch, it was pretty well worn. It’s clearly where you had spent a lot of time carefully listening to the music you were picking.
SHAPIRO: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I love to listen. I don't get tired of listening.
KRASKE: Where did that passion come from in your life?
SHAPIRO: I was thinking about that before we sat down today because I figured it would come up. I had a maternal grandfather who was a Russian immigrant who had an RCA Victor Victrola that played 78 rpm records. The first time I heard it, I didn't want to walk away from it. (And) my mother’s closest friend’s husband was in the coin-operated vending machine business and he had all kinds of records that came off the jukeboxes, so that was my first source — and that's why pop music was my turn-on.
KRASKE: How did you get this show?
SHAPIRO: I wanted to be a disc jockey.
KRASKE: And you told management here that's what you wanted to do.
SHAPIRO: That's right. And they said yes, obviously.
KRASKE: You named the show after a Van Morrison song. Let’s listen. (Kraske plays the song.) What a great track that is. Why did you name the show after the song?
SHAPIRO: I needed to have a name for the show. My first impulse was “Music.” (Laughs.) That struck me as too generic. I had to come up with a title, and it just struck me that if I had to pick my favorite song, it would be “Cyprus Avenue” by Van Morrison.
KRASKE: You’re emotional just listening to that song. You’ve heard it I don’t know how many times and it still obviously moves you. What is it about Van Morrison's music that's drawn you so much?
SHAPIRO: It’s the fact that the guy sings his heart out. There’s a feeling of honesty, honest emotion behind what he does. Also, his work covers such a broad spectrum. He’s not a rock and roll singer. He’s not a jazz singer. But he’s both those things.
KRASKE: You modeled this show after a jazz program hosted by (the jazz pianist) Billy Taylor. Tell us why did you do that?
SHAPIRO: I spent a year in New York City going to graduate law school. Billy Taylor had a show on the radio and I was fascinated by it because he did something that I hadn't heard anybody else do. He didn’t just play a song and say, “That's one by (so and so),” and off we go. He would talk about it. He would get you into it. He would tell you what made it interesting.
JONES: Bill's ability to tell stories about the music is what he excels at. I was just so fascinated when I heard him place popular music in a social context, I wanted to be involved with it.
KRASEK: Well, here's some trivia for you. Your first show aired in 1978 from the station’s old headquarters on Holmes Street near the UMKC campus. The first show had the theme “Ballads by balanced by rockers,” and the first song was this one.
KRASKE: That’s the first song Bill Shapiro ever played on “Cyprus Avenue,” 40 years ago. Do you remember why that was your first one?
SHAPIRO: I can't tell you how I picked it out. I remember agonizing about, “What am I going to play to start this show on the road?” And I listened to a number of things that put that on. It just met my soul.
KRASKE: During the 1950s, there was a guy named Norman Granz who produced this series Jazz at the Philharmonic, featuring these iconic lineups of jazz greats. You always made a point of attending these concerts at the Music Hall when they came to town. Man, I would've loved to have been there with you. What do you recall about these Norman Granz produced lineups that came to Kansas City?
SHAPIRO: Oh, it was an amazing experience because I was a hardcore jazz buff at that time. I still like jazz, but I hadn't found my passion for popular music, so Norman Granz was a king. He was bringing me music. Nobody else was. And I'd listen to it constantly.
KRASKE: Ella Fitzgerald always closed out those concerts. You got to hear and see Ella Fitzgerald.
SHAPIRO: Oh yeah. It was an awesome experience. You had the best instrumentalists in the world, and then they always had Ella.
KRASKE: Another key moment in your life: You can still recall the time and the date: 6:30 p.m, January 28th, 1950. On television that night, during the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Band show, a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, was introduced. His name was Elvis Presley and this is the song that you heard that night. (Plays “That’s Alright (Mama)”) How did you react to what you heard that night?
SHAPIRO: Thanks for bringing it back. I remember it. It’s one of those moments that we have an experience that is just so potent that everything is frozen. I remember that night with that kind of clarity. I was going to school then at Washington University in St Louis. My closest friend lived there and he was the only guy I ever knew who could play jazz piano. He could sit down at a keyboard and improvise and it was wonderful, but he didn't get into other kinds of music. I was at his house and he was in another part of the house. That song came on and I was just absolutely gobsmacked.
KRASKE: As was the rest of the country.
SHAPIRO: That’s right. I remember going upstairs, knocking on the door and saying, “I don’t care what you’re doing. You got to come downstairs right now and to hear and see what’s going on.” Which he did. I don't think he appreciated it as much as I did, but we sat there, captivated by it.
KRASKE: What was it about the way (Elvis) played that just took the world by storm?
SHAPIRO: It was unique. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
KRASKE: Did you have any musical talent yourself?
SHAPIRO: My parents thought, ‘He loves music this much, let's get him away from a radio or phonograph and see if he could do something creative.’ They sent me for piano lessons and I wasn't good. Then, (because) I was so much a jazz fan and I decided I wanted to play the vibraphone. So I took vibraphone lessons and I wasn’t very good. It didn't work. As I said to people back then, I play the phonograph better than anybody I ever met.
KRASKE: You're a Kansas City kid. You went to Southwest High School and there you ran into a guy named Calvin Trillin. He became the great writer for The New Yorker and everywhere else. Didn’t you end up doing a comedy act with him?
SHAPIRO: He and I were very close friends. He was a year ahead of me in school and we did a comedy routine at high school assemblies and things of that nature. They invited us back, (so) we must’ve been halfway good.
KRASKE: I mentioned your enduring appreciation of Van Morrison and Elvis. The other guy you talked about so much on this show was Bob Dylan. Are Dylan and Van Morrison the two top ones on your list after all these years?
KRASKE: Do you ever meet him or Van Morrison?
SHAPIRO: No, never did. I've never played the part of wanting to be that close of fan. I've seen them live on numerous occasions, but I didn't try to go back stage.
KRASKE: So how has music changed? What's been the evolution during these 40 years? Has it changed for the better?
SHAPIRO: I think it’s changed for the better. I think the breadth of it is the biggest thing. We have so many influences now. We have access to so much. It’s amazing what’s out there — not only what's being currently done, but the history of it all is there today.
KRASKE: How do you feel about the future of pop music as you leave your career here? Because as you know, critics have said over and over again that rock and roll is dead and that music is hardly evolving anymore. What do you make about that kind of criticism?
SHAPIRO: I think it’s garbage. Music is part of the human condition. It's been around since the ancient Greeks for heaven's sake, a bit around by, you know, in prehistoric cultures, There's a part of the human being, that responds to music, whether it's the rhythm, whether it's the melody, the combination of it, but it's like food or water or anything else. If you have access to it, you want it.
Listen to the entire conversation here.
Cyprus Avenue Live, 40th Anniversary Celebration with Kelly Hunt: A Tribute to Bill Shapiro, 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 at the Folly Theater, The Folly Theater, 300 West 12th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64105; 816-474-4444.
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital content editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.