Gene Shay, a folk DJ who spent a half-century on the Philadelphia airwaves and helped promote the careers of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and countless others, has died of complications of the coronavirus.
Shay, 85, who had been hospitalized in recent weeks, died Friday, according to WXPN-FM station manager Roger LaMay. His weekly “Folk Show” ran on various stations in the city from 1968 to 2015, the last 20 of them at WXPN.
“He was a giant in terms of his impact on artists and the music. And to do it for close to 60 years is extraordinary,” LaMay said.
Shay, being introduced into the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame by David Bromberg in 2013, said he put unknown talent on the air in the hope they could find an audience and perhaps a record deal.
“I play people who have a glint of something, some spark, … (and) just let them play good music where other people can hear them,” Shay said. “That is one of the great joys of my life.”
Shay also helped start the popular Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he long served as emcee, and the organization that runs it, the Philadelphia Folksong Society.
Shay’s daughter, Rachel Vaughn, told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Saturday that Shay died at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood.
Shay, born Ivan Shaner, joined WRTI at Temple University in 1962 and later worked at many of the city’s top stations. He also worked a day job much of his life as an ad man, and according to the Music Alliance wrote the original radio commercials for Woodstock.
He famously brought Dylan to town for a show at the Philadelphia Ethical Society in May 1963, before the release of Dylan’s second album. About 45 people turned out and Dylan made $150, Shay often recalled.
Shay’s wife, Gloria Shaner, died in 2018. He lived in Lower Merion, and is also survived by another daughter. His WXPN colleagues did not know if he had ever legally changed his name.
“He was so generous in spirit,” LaMay said. “I loved the guy.”