Bill Shapiro can't quite remember how old he is — 76 or 77. But he can recall the exact date, the precise moment, that he discovered Elvis Presley.
"I was born in '37, so I must be 76," he says after a moment, with a small chuckle. "But insurancewise, I'm 77."
Shapiro is seated at an enormous conference table in a plush, softly lighted room at Dysart Taylor Cotter McMonigle & Montemore, the law firm where he works. He is dressed casually in khakis and a denim button-up, with personalized silver cuff links. In person, he speaks in the same soothing rumble familiar to anyone who has heard Cyprus Avenue on KCUR 89.3. The weekly radio show marks its 35th anniversary Saturday with a Sam Baker concert at the Folly Theater.
Cyprus Avenue first went on the air in October 1978, through what Shapiro refers to as a lucky set of circumstances.
"I was given the opportunity to meet the program director at that station," Shapiro says. "I told him that I had this dream of being a disc jockey, and I'd had it for a long time. I said, 'I want to do an intelligent program about rock-and-roll music.' He said, 'OK. Put one together, and we'll see what happens.' Then I had to come up with my fantasy life and make it real."
He assembled a set that he titled "Ballads by Rockers," and the broadcast was born. "So I put together this show, and I walked in and I sat down behind the microphone in the studio," Shapiro says. "I'd never done radio before. And I did this show. And I walked out. And he [the director] said, 'Well, if you can do it every week, you're on the radio.'"
Over the years, Shapiro has built Cyprus Avenue into a Kansas City staple and a national reference point. The program itself has evolved relatively little — Shapiro is the first to admit his adherence to a now well-worn formula of critical commentary wrapped around his carefully chosen playlists. But that model and its longstanding success also reflect Shapiro's own nature — audiophile, music obsessive, rock historian (he has published two books) — and a simple qualification: having been in the thick of rock music from the day it started.
"Talk about events that were life-changing," he says. "I was at a friend's house on a Saturday night in January of 1956. At that time, there was a program that aired at 6 p.m. on Saturdays called the Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey show. I'm sitting there, by myself, listening to this thing, and it's 6:35. Jimmy Dorsey walks up to the microphone, and he says, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to a man from Memphis, Tennessee, who's creating quite a stir. His name is Elvis Presley.' And Elvis came out and did 'That's All Right, Mama,' and that's an event that changed everything for me. I became a rock-and-roll nut at that point."
Nearly six decades later, Shapiro still takes listening to music very seriously — and he worries that others aren't.
"Most people are now consuming [music] on their iPhone or on their iPad," he says. "They've got two little pieces they've stuck in their ears. They've isolated themselves from the rest of the world while they're listening to it, and they're not hearing everything there is to hear. I'm interested in the content of the music, and that's secondary today. I find that discouraging."
Of course, Shapiro has seen plenty of other industry shifts over the decades. He wryly dissects the return of the single-release format and the near death of the LP, for instance, which he partly blames for today's abundance of musical "junk."
But he doesn't play the role of elder antagonist, closed off to the new. Shapiro considers himself a musical optimist.
"I've always been able to find something that meant something to me, that spoke to me, through different times, through different ages," Shapiro says. "I mean, you know, that's a whole lifetime. Graduating from school, marrying, having children, having grandchildren, and I still find things that speak to me. It's there. I think that music, in its broadest form, is America's cultural contribution. Popular music has permeated the world's consciousness, and that is something that I think is oft times overlooked."
To Shapiro, things like seeing Elvis beamed into American living rooms and hearing Bob Dylan pave the way for generations of singer-songwriters remain epochal events, touchstones always at hand. With Cyprus Avenue, he has spent the past 35 years finding and attempting to elevate artists who have followed that trail, artists who he believes have something meaningful to say.
"I think that if you feed people pabulum all the time or Spam all the time, they're going to get hungry for steak," he says. Thirty-five years without Spam — that's something to celebrate.
In the spirit of radio playlists, we asked Bill Shapiro to assemble what he would consider the "ultimate mixtape." If you want a real rock-and-roll education, starting at the very beginning, Shapiro's Building Bricks makes a nice jumping-off point:
Jackie Bremston & His Delta Cats (arranged by Ike Turner): "Rocket 88," 1951
Chuck Berry: "Maybellene," 1955
Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel," 1956
Ray Charles: "What'd I Say (Part 1)," 1959
The Beatles: "I Want To Hold Your Hand," 1964
The Rolling Stones: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," 1965
Bob Dylan: "Like a Rolling Stone," 1965
Pink Floyd: "Money," 1973