Jack Sheldon, Trumpeter and ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ Singer, Is Dead at 88
By Peter Keepnews
Jan. 3, 2020
He played with leading jazz musicians. He bantered with Merv Griffin. But his best-known work may have been on a children’s cartoon series.
Jack Sheldon was the vocalist on songs like “I’m Just a Bill” from the animated television series “Schoolhouse Rock!” But he was also a prominent jazz trumpeter.Kari Rene Hall/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images
Jack Sheldon, an accomplished jazz trumpeter who also had a successful parallel career as an actor — but whose most widely heard work may have been as a vocalist on the animated television series “Schoolhouse Rock!” — died on Dec. 27. He was 88.
His death was announced by his manager and partner, Dianne Jimenez. She did not say where he died or specify the cause.
Jazz fans know Mr. Sheldon as a mainstay of the once-thriving West Coast scene and as a sideman with Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman and other bandleaders, as well as the leader of his own ensembles. Lovers of obscure TV shows might remember him as the star of the sitcom “Run, Buddy, Run,” the story of an innocent bystander who finds himself being pursued by gangsters, which lasted all of 13 episodes in the 1966-67 season.
And anyone who grew up learning about grammar, arithmetic and civics by watching the ingenious short musical cartoons known as “Schoolhouse Rock!” knows Mr. Sheldon’s voice, if not his name: He sang two of that series’ most memorable ditties, “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
He was also for many years a member of the band led by Mort Lindsey on “The Merv Griffin Show,” one of Johnny Carson’s more durable late-night competitors. In addition to being featured as a trumpet soloist, Mr. Sheldon honed his comic chops in goofy exchanges and vocal duets with Mr. Griffin. (His humor sometimes toyed with television’s taste standards. Mr. Griffin once asked him if he had finished high school; he responded by rolling up a sleeve, pointing to his arm and saying, “I had the highest marks in my class.”)
Beryl Cyril Sheldon Jr. was born on Nov. 30, 1931, in Jacksonville, Fla., and was playing trumpet professionally by his early teens. He briefly attended the University of Southern California and Los Angeles City College and, after two years in the Air Force, where he played in a military band, settled in Los Angeles in 1952.
He was soon working and recording regularly, with his own groups and with the saxophonists Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon, among many others. He toured Europe with Benny Goodman’s band in 1959 and continued to work with Goodman on and off for more than 20 years.
“There actually weren’t so many of us at the time,” Mr. Sheldon told JazzTimes magazine in 2011, recalling a West Coast contingent of young modernists that also included his friend and fellow trumpeter Chet Baker. “Now there are a million jazz guys out there, and they all play great. But what we were doing back then, back in the ’50s — that was different. We knew we were doing something special.”
Known for his warm, rich trumpet sound, Mr. Sheldon was also a busy studio musician, accompanying singers like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and playing on the soundtrack of numerous movies. He was a favorite of soundtrack composers like Johnny Mandel — who featured him on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” from the 1965 movie “The Sandpiper” — and Henry Mancini.
“It’s a haunting trumpet he plays,” Merv Griffin told The Los Angeles Times in 2002. “Henry Mancini once told me, ‘If I’ve got a couple making passionate love onscreen and I’m writing the score, it’s Jack Sheldon’s trumpet I want.’”
Mr. Sheldon led an onscreen big band in the 1991 movie “For the Boys,” starring Bette Midler and James Caan as performers entertaining the troops through several wars, and kept the band together afterward for nightclub engagements. He also led a small group, the California Cool Quartet.
But he had more than trumpet playing in his portfolio. As a singer, he charmed audiences with an appealingly laconic, conversational style. His offbeat between-songs patter — inspired, he once said, by the nights he spent on bills with Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl — led to occasional work as a stand-up comicand acting opportunities on TV comedy shows including “The Cara Williams Show” (1964-65), on which he played a jazz musician, and “Run, Buddy, Run,” his first and only starring vehicle, as well as his long-running role as Mr. Griffin’s foil.
When the jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Bob Dorough was hired in the 1970s to provide music for what became “Schoolhouse Rock!,” Mr. Sheldon was one of the vocalists he used. He breezily sang about the use of words like “and” and “but” on ”Conjunction Junction,” written by Mr. Dorough, and about how a bill becomes law on “I’m Just a Bill,” written by Dave Frishberg. Years later, he would sing parodies of those songs on episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”
In addition to Ms. Jimenez, Mr. Sheldon’s survivors include a son, John; a daughter, Jessie Sheldon; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A daughter, Julie, and a son, Kevin, died earlier.
In recent years Mr. Sheldon had various health problems but continued working. He lost the use of his right arm after suffering a stroke in 2011, but he was eventually able to resume playing using one hand.
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