Gallery: Shep Shepherd [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Donia Moore
Berisford ‘Shep’ Shepherd was there. Where is there exactly? Shep
believes that there is the state of mind of musicians who understand the music of life. At 98 years old, Shep is still there, a master at communicating the language and culture of music and
This musician/arranger/composer and his wife Joy just returned from his first cruise through the Panama Canal. This was his first opportunity to see where his father, one of the first engineers on the project, worked.
Born on the way between his parent’s West Indies home in Barbados and Philadelphia, Shep saw the light in Honduras in 1917. His father, Charlie, had taken a job working on the Panama Canal. Charlie sent his pregnant wife on to Philadelphia to safely await his arrival.
When Shep and his Antiguan mother eventually made their way to the City of Brotherly Love, they lived in a largely Jewish neighborhood. He had plenty of friends in the area but had trouble getting together to play with them. When he was older he realized why: every Saturday when he was ready for adventures, his friends had to go to the synagogue. On Sundays, when they were ready to play, Shep had to go to church.
Shep describes his early childhood as being in a state of cultural enrichment. “As a child, music, and the makers of it, fascinated me, especially brass and percussion. Mother saved her tabletops, chair seats, and other household furnishings by wisely investing in a toy drum for me to beat on instead. Years later, when people asked my father what instrument I played, he proudly grinned his mile-wide smile and boasted that I played the bass drum, even after I was playing 11 other percussion instruments plus the trombone.”
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears”
As Shep’s musical curiosity stretched, an elementary school music teacher recognized the potential in her young student. Miss Lattisa Cottman was the first of many teachers who encouraged Shep, seducing him into studying music with the promise of the most beautiful snare drum he had ever seen. The satin black rims and nickel-plated tuning rods of the old school-owned instrument so captured Shep that he would have promised anything to have access to that beautiful drum with its rich sound. Fortunately, all he had to do was promise Miss Cottman that he would take music lessons.
Shep’s paper route money soon found its way to drum lessons with the conductor of the Quaker City Elk’s Band. He realized the extent of Shep’s talent, and began grooming him for a percussionist position with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
While other 14-year-olds were playing marbles or kick the can, Shep was reading music and executing most of the varied drum parts, still using the school’s old drum. Along the way, he purchased a drum stand and music stand with his paper route money, and his mother made a cloth case for the drum and his lesson books.
Shep met Alfonso Joseph, a Tuskegee Institute graduate who supported his wife and large family during the week working as a neighborhood electrical repair man, but on the floor of his shop week-ends conducted a youth orchestra rehearsal. Four of his own children, as well as several other budding young instrumentalists from the neighborhood, joined Shep and to practice easy drum pieces. In concert, their best piece, and Shep’s favorite, was Anchors Away, played to a marching rhythm.
Pearl Bailey and the Little Drummer Boy
Tomboy Pearl Bailey often shot marbles with Shep and his friends. One evening, a man dashed to the Shepard house around 6 or 7pm. “Is the little drummer home?” he asked frantically.
A block party nearby was all set to kick off but the orchestra’s drummer had not shown up. Pearl Bailey lived nearby and told them “Berisford’s got a drum.”
That’s all it took to kick Shep’s drumming career into high gear. After that party, Shep, with his snare drum, read the music and faked the rhythms whenever there was a booking to be had.
He only knew one rhythm at that time – the marching rhythm he had learned for Anchor’s Away. His grand salary of $2 a gig beat out his paper route takings. His mother was doing laundry part-time, and together they bought Shep’s first drum set for $147 at $20 per month until he paid it off.
Word got around, and so did Shep. Soon he was making more money on his gigs than on his steady paper route. At that time, musicians hoping to make it big needed to play a secondary instrument. For Shep, that was the trombone –not because he loved the instrument so much, but after toting the drums around, a trombone was a lot easier to carry. He admired Tommy Dorsey’s style and worked at emulating it. Shep spent his extra money and time practicing on his trombone and traveling back and forth to Jules E. Mastbaum Area Conservatory and Vocational School. He studied Music Theory and Percussion Instruments in the Music Department. On the advice of a teacher there, he picked up woodworking.
“No matter what, keep up the woodworking,” advised his teacher. Since Shep never knew for sure when his next play-date was, he kept up with cabinetry-making courses and produced both beautiful furniture and wonderful music over the years.
Uncle Sam Really Wants You
Shep served four years in the army, composing, arranging and conducting vocal music, as well as playing trombone in army bands and USO canteens. Every extra penny went home to support his mother and sister back in Philadelphia. One camp Commander went to great lengths to keep him and his fellow musicians on the base to play at camp dances. The musicians were placed on the deferred list as Port Battalion cadre men, responsible for training. Shep was promoted to Sergeant, training drummers for the band. The officers often argued about which combo was going to play for the weekend dances. One officer got smart and authorized a 28-piece orchestra of Port Battalion musicians for his camp. He selected the very best of the musicians and ensured that they would remain there throughout the war.
Fame found Shep early in life, and has stuck by his side for over 70 years. He went to New York to play with big band greats Bennie Carter and Artie Shaw in the ‘40s. Here he discovered the difficulties of performing professionally when unions were involved. Never one to buck the system, he rolled with it. Union rules stated that no musician could play nightly without going through the Union. Like many musicians of his day, he figured a way around it by getting individual jobs working as a music copyist and as a session musician for many recording sessions. Soon, he realized he didn’t want to play full time for one band. He was so much in demand that he could choose his own path. The catchphrase among big band microcosms in New York soon became “Get Shep”.
An opportunity to travel with the bands took him on trips through the South at a time when the civil rights movement was in its infancy. Thanks to the loving generosity of family friends, there were very few occasions when Shep had to deal with restaurant and hotel rules. He is still appreciative of that hospitality, but also grateful that he had to deal with some of the other problems.
“When you’re in Paris, you don’t act the same way you would in Egypt”, he chuckled.
The Joy of his Life.
Shep left New York to tour with a company that played Broadway shows. When Miracle on 34th Street finished in San Francisco, Shep decided to stay. He had doubled as an actor on stage, music arranger and musician, the only member allowed to travel with the show. All the other orchestral musicians were hired at each stop the play made. After being on the road, San Francisco looked inviting and he decided he wanted to settle in. He looked for steady work and found it at Finocchio’s, where he remained for 23 years as the house drummer. He also hooked back up with an old neighborhood friend, Willis Kirk, now Dr. Willis Kirk , President of San Francisco City College.
Married at 91
Shep eventually migrated south to Orange County. When he celebrated his 90th birthday, his friend Willis came down to celebrate with him. Willis enticed Shep to come meet some of his homies living in the area. One of those was Joy.
“I saw what I wanted immediately,” says Shep. “I set my sights on her and after a long year, she finally agreed to accept me. We were married in Vegas on my 91st birthday.”
Joy’s family welcomed him with open arms. Shep discovered that he had played the Diamond Horseshoe in New York many years before with the uncle of one of her relatives, talented clarinetist Omar Simion. Joy and Shep moved to San Clemente shortly after their marriage and have been here ever since, delighting in close family relationships with their children and grandchildren.
Shep has performed with a star-studded list of musical greats, including Patti Page, Lionel Hampton, Lena Horne, and more. He has released several CDs.
Ever humble and grateful for the life he’s led, Shep still writes and arranges music as well as performing regularly around Southern California for charity events. He is featured in the Who’s Who of Black Americans and The Biological Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Shep may be 98 years old, but if you didn’t know it you’d never believe this kind, talented and loving man has survived with dignity and humor a century of historic significance that has taken us from horse carriages to Mars. And during it all Shep was definitely there.