Bill Shapiro’s passion for music began at the age of 5 with a phonograph player and the song “Mairzy Dotes and Dozy Dotes,” but it didn’t truly ignite until February 1956. That’s when Elvis Presley appeared on national television and Shapiro gave his heart to rock ’n’ roll.
“If you had grown up in the repressed 1950s as I did, Elvis Presley was just off the goddamn wall,” says Shapiro, a transactional attorney with Kansas City’s Dysart, Taylor, Lay, Cotter & McMonigle, a firm with about 25 professionals. “He was doing and saying things we talked about among ourselves when our parents weren’t around … he was incendiary. He was just galvanizing.”
Shapiro’s enthusiasm is well known in Kansas City. For 27 years Shapiro has donated his time hosting “Cyprus Avenue,” a serious radio show about rock ’n’ roll that airs from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays on KCUR. The show is named after an early song by Van Morrison, one of Shapiro’s favorite artists, who, Shapiro once said on air, “has about him a sense of the totality of American music.”
“Cyprus Avenue” follows a spare format: Shapiro selects music he likes and discusses it and plays it, sometimes grouped by artist, category or genre. It has no interviews, guests, call-ins or gimmicks — and it’s one of KCUR’s most popular shows. Its listeners number about 22,000, and Shapiro has raised nearly $1 million for the public station over the years. “I’m in it for the love of the music,” says Shapiro, 68, who works in the office full-time and spends a few hours a week planning each show.
Shapiro began practicing law in 1962, and in the late 1960s he was a local pioneer in convincing doctors’ offices to incorporate for tax purposes. He talks proudly about his career but summarizes it curtly: estate planning and general representation of small to medium-sized businesses. It’s not like talking about rock ’n’ roll — he could go on about that for hours. “My Walter Mitty dream was always to be a disc jockey,” he says.
He admits he has little aptitude to play anything except a stereo but he makes up for it with volume: he owns thousands of CDs and records. His collection was once so large he gave away 18 linear feet of jazz records. Willing to listen to anything, Shapiro’s an ever-searching enthusiast but no bottom feeder. Of the 20 to 30 new CDs he hears a month, he uses this criteria: “I look for music that transports me. I look for music that enlightens me. I look for something that opens a door.”
If music can be a door to the world, it’s also Shapiro’s vehicle for learning about history, culture, race and other topics that transcend the arrangement of notes and rhythms. He’s the author of 1988’s The CD Rock and Roll Library and 1991’s Rock and Roll Review, and he has studied rock ’n’ roll’s roots in country and R&B, its influences from sunny California and gritty New York, its major artists and their styles, and the genre’s continuing evolution.
Right now he’s appalled at the media conglomerates “run by a bunch of lawyers and CPAs whose only focus is on the bottom line.” He praises the days of Sun Records in Memphis, Chess Records in Chicago, Specialty Records in Los Angeles — labels run by music lovers. But a breakdown is occurring, he predicts, because giant Clear Channel Communications, Inc., is marked for “abusing their audience by running up ticket prices,” and Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and other “no originality” performers are losing ground.
Even though Shapiro doesn’t own an iPod or MP3 player — and doesn’t plan to — he sees a future where the album, as a concept, is considered nonessential. This boggles him. “When I think of music that matters I think of albums, and we’re not in an album world anymore,” he says. But he keeps looking for smart, independent talent, and in recent years he’s found (and showcased on “Cyprus Avenue”) Ramsay Midwood, Kyle Riabko, Nellie McKay, Jim White and Bright Eyes.
There might not be another Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley on the horizon, but even if one came along Shapiro might not relate anyway. He says the 1990s grunge movement was the culprit that turned him off from the musical trends of today’s youth.
“You can play [Nirvana’s] Nevermind for me from now until hell freezes over — and I have it because it’s a landmark CD — but it doesn’t hold a candle to what happened 20 years before,” Shapiro says. “For the youth for whom that was new music it’s as important as the Rolling Stones were to me, and I respect that, but they’re not talking to me anymore.”
But he’s listening anyway. Just in case a door might open.