How many people do you know who have earned the nickname Superman? Your list is probably a short one—maybe even zero. My list is a short one as well. There is just one person on it, and that’s my old friend blues guitarist David Shelley. Down here in sunny South Florida, where he was a legendary blues rocker, his fans and friends called him just that—and that’s how I’ll always remember him. You see, as I write this, I just returned from Superman’s memorial celebration on Fort Lauderdale Beach where hundreds of fans, musicians, and family gathered to bid him a gentle goodbye.
David was an exceptional blues guitarist with a strong, muscular voice. He had what seemed like superhuman-superstar talents with the looks to match. His flowing blond hair and trim but muscular physique made him a woman’s dream. He was also the epitome of a man’s man. We regular mortal guys did not stand a chance against him. Yes, he was the Rock Star poster child, but he also had a sweet, soft, and humble spirit.
David’s signature song was the powerful rocker “When I Was Your Superman.” When he’d soulfully blast this tune wearing his ever-present cowboy hat at gigs, it wasn’t hard to believe that he was indeed Superman. As far as Rock-‘n’-Rollers go, David Shelley was the real deal.
I met David back in the early 1980s. He was a young struggling musician, and I was the owner a health food store with a twist: a full-service restaurant. In the spirit of South Florida’s South Beach, the restaurant was an Art Deco celebration down to the high-gloss black mica bar. On Friday and Saturday nights, we showcased jazz musicians from the area and called the shows “Jazz Goes Natural.” David was one of the musicians who played there regularly.
David and I spent a lot of time playing side by side on stage and then hanging out during breaks and sharing our hopes and dreams over beers and carrot juice—with parsley and celery, of course. My dream was to one day open a large health food supermarket and his dream was to one day be a rock-‘n’-roll star. During one of our breaks he told me that his grandfather wrote the song “California, Here I Come.” My jaw dropped when I grasped the irony that this California-born “Adonis,” who had transplanted himself in Fort Lauderdale, was the grandson of the great songwriter Buddy DeSylva.
As the years progressed, David and I would bump into each other at clubs, and we’d laugh and reminisce about those “good old days.” We were also kind of amazed that the dreams we’d shared had become a reality for both of us. I’d ended up opening Natural Foods Supermarkets, and David had become, well you know, a rock-‘n’-roll Superman!
All of these memories flashed through my mind this morning on Fort Lauderdale Beach as I met up with faces, old friends, and musicians with whom I had the honor of sharing the stage. I had a chance to talk to David’s ex-wife and daughter, who reminded me that David’s grandfather was the great songwriter and co-founder of Capital Records, Buddy DeSylva. When I relearned this bit of trivia, a Twenty-One Gun Salute fired in my mind, bringing me back to the day David told me who his grandfather was. And then my brain juices surged, because I am a fanatic for George Gershwin, and he had collaborated with DeSylva on many projects.
Gershwin partnered with DeSylva to write the music for George White’s “Scandals of 1922.” Historically, the Scandals were full of half-naked wiggling girls and slapstick comedians, including The Three Stooges—seriously. The young songwriting duo scored a big hit with their show-stopping first-act closer “(I’ll Build A) Stairway to Paradise.” Gershwin wrote the music and David’s grandpa Buddy DeSylva and a guy named Arthur Francis wrote the lyrics. (Mr. Francis was one of the greatest lyricists of all time, but you may remember him by his real name, Ira Gershwin!)
In Ira Gershwin’s autobiography Lyrics on Several Occasions, he relates the evolution of the Gershwin/DeSylva Stairway to Paradise hit. The Brothers Gershwin wrote an unpublished number called “New Step Ev’ry Day,” which was about a singer who boasts of learning a new dance step every day. The brothers did not think much of the tune, but DeSylva wanted to use it as a springboard for a new tune in the “Scandals of 1922.” One night, after the threesome finished dinner at DeSylva’s Greenwich Village apartment, they drilled into the song and came up with the new and improved “(I’ll Build A) Stairway to Paradise,” finishing it up at about 1 a.m. They scrapped everything from the original tune except for the line, “with a new step every day.” So the “new step” was transformed from a dance step to a stairway step.
“Stairway to Paradise” ended the first act of George White’s “Scandals of 1922″ with a bang, but the song had legs . . . and not just dancers’ legs. It was dusted off and reused in the 1951 Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly’s silver-screen blockbuster “An American in Paris.” The movie won six Academy Awards! It has been reworked into a Broadway Musical and is currently playing on the Great White Way to rave reviews. It recently garnered twelve Tony nominations and four Tony Awards.
What an amazing story that the Brothers Gershwin and DeSylva could supercharge a little throwaway ditty and transform it into a mega hit, which is still being sung on Broadway today!
My favorite story about this highly successful and ambitious trio happened late in the evening of January 3, 1924. The three twenty-somethings were hanging out at the Ambassador Billiards Parlor on Broadway and 52nd Street, smoking cigars, downing a few beers, and shooting pool. Buddy and George were involved in a game of three-cushion billiards (which, by the way, George lost to Buddy), while Ira sat on a stool, perusing the early edition of the New York Tribune.
Ira yelled out, “Your name is in the paper!” Then, he read aloud, “George Gershwin was at work on a jazz concerto” that the Whiteman Orchestra would play at the February 12, 1924, Valentine’s Day Concert in Aeolian Hall.
Just to bring you all up to speed, this was the first time Gershwin heard about this, and it turned out it was the impetus for him to write “Rhapsody in Blue,” his signature work. George Gershwin’s buddy, Buddy DeSylva was with him at the moment he first found out he’d been hired to compose what is arguably his most-renowned work, “Rhapsody in Blue.” Amazing!
And, of course, all of this leads me back to my old pal, band mate, and grandson of Buddy DeSylva—David. Both Buddy and David were exceptional musicians. With great passion, David had inherited the building of his grandfather’s “Stairway to Paradise.” David added more than one new step every day. A gentle, kind, and talented man, he enriched us all through his music, presence, and friendship. It has been such an honor to share some time on this planet with him. He leaves us now to continue building the stairway ourselves. Be assured, David, we will continue to build that “Stairway to Paradise” by honoring your rockin’ music.