Swingin’ Shepherd Blues

My father was a journeyman musician in Toronto for over three decades starting in the early 1950’s. This meant he made his living playing miscellaneous gigs like bar mitzvahs, weddings, dances, and jazz clubs, as well as lots of studio work and shows for the CBC. He was in his prime at a time when such a job was viable because you pretty much had to hire live musicians if you wanted music at an event. He made a sufficient amount to give his wife and five children a very comfortable life, with enough left over that my siblings and I were well taken care of in his will. Unfortunately those days are long gone and now it’s virtually impossible for gigging musicians to make a decent living.

One of my father’s contemporaries was Moe Koffman who played woodwinds while my dad played guitar. In 1957 Mr. Koffman wrote a song called “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” which was not only picked up by pop radio, but also crossed over into the jazz world. Luminaries such as Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald recorded it, although my brother informs me that Ella recorded pretty well everything so maybe that’s not so impressive. I’m usually met with blank looks when I mention this song but always see dawning recognition when I sing a few bars, so I’d recommend you look it up if you’re not familiar with it so you’ll know what I’m talking about as this story goes forward.

From 1954 to 1960 my dad and Mr. Koffman both played on a CBC variety program called Cross Canada Hit Parade. Every Saturday night this show would present the most popular songs on the radio from the previous week using a cast of singers, dancers and of course the band. When “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues” hit in 1958, the producers of the show thought it would be fitting to feature Mr. Koffman playing it – you know, showing off one of their own. Television was very young at the time and there was no tape involved; everything you saw at home was happening live in the studio. The director wanted to make the spot more visually appealing and came up with the idea of having a sheep stand next to Mr. Koffman while he played, what with the song being about a shepherd and all. Sounds simple enough.

So the fateful Saturday arrived and the afternoon dress rehearsal, sans the sheep, went off without a hitch. Everything was ready the night of the performance, the sheep was brought in, Mr. Koffman and the song were introduced by the show’s host, and the band began to play. The initial shot was of Mr. Koffman’s head and shoulders only, with the camera slowly panning out to reveal the band and the little sheep standing on Mr. Koffman’s right. Everything was going perfectly and the director could not have been more pleased.

Suddenly the poor sheep, no doubt terrified by the bright lights, the volume of the band and the all-around unfamiliarity of the place, began to pee. Not just a little pee, but a copious stream which hit Mr. Koffman at the knee, darkening his pant leg as it spilled downward and pooled around his foot. The people in the booth freaked out when they saw this, with the director frantically shouting,

“Zoom in! Zoom in!”

Suddenly Mr. Koffman’s head and shoulders again filled the screen, and the director could only hope that nobody at home had noticed. The band, of course, had noticed, and it was all they could do to keep from bursting out in hysterical laughter which was obviously not an option on live TV. My dad told me that when they debriefed after the show, the musicians pretty well to a man said the way they got through it straight-faced was by breathing deeply and maintaining a laser focus on their music. They knew they could not keep their composure if they let their eyes wander, even for a second, to the urine-soaked Mr. Koffman and the now trembling sheep beside him.

Meanwhile in the booth the director was starting to feel antsy. It was not good to remain on the same shot for too long – it became static and people at home got bored. He decided that this would be a good time to get the sheep off the stage because currently the audience wasn’t seeing anything below Mr. Koffman’s shoulders. Even if he couldn’t show the sopping pant leg and the puddle beneath, he would still be able to change the shot sufficiently to keep the viewers engaged. He therefore called down on his headphones to a P.A. just off stage and told him to remove the sheep.

So, the P.A. immediately ducked on stage to do what he was told, but as soon as he touched the sheep it started to bleat pathetically. The director frantically yelled over the headphones for the P.A. to back off, but the damage had been done. The unfortunate band members once again had to call on every ounce of concentration they had to keep from laughing, not only because of the baaing but also because the petrified sheep had now pooped as well and there was getting to be a very funky smell on stage.

Meanwhile poor Mr. Koffman, still with just his head and shoulders on the screen, had to continue as if nothing was happening – making eye contact with the camera and pretending to enjoy himself while this stinking, sodden catastrophe was happening just out of the shot. To his credit however, he did it. He maintained his composure and played flawlessly to the end of the song. My father told me that this was one of the funniest things that happened in the whole of his long career, but also that he and his colleagues learned new respect for Moe Koffman on that day. Surly his performance was the very embodiment of professionalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: