Jack Sheldon, a West Coast trumpeter who was perhaps better known for the outsized voice and personality on which he built a long television career, died December 27. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Dianne Jimenez, to The Hollywood Reporter on December 31. Location and cause of death were not disclosed.
Sheldon spent 18 years as the sidekick to the host on TV’s The Merv Griffin Show and performed roles in several television series. His booming voice, in both speech and song, endeared him to several generations of children through his work on cartoons such as Schoolhouse Rock! and Louie the Lightning Bug.
However, he was a highly accomplished musician as well, a veteran of the United States Air Force Band and the Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman Orchestras who made an impact on the legendary West Coast bebop scene of the early 1950s. His job with Griffin involved far more than wisecracks and laughing at other people’s jokes; he also served as the show’s music director. Sheldon made dozens of recordings, including more than 20 under his own leadership.
“I’ll play anything, do anything for money,” he jocularly told interviewer Monk Rowe in 1999. Left to his own devices, however, “I was always jazz; I played jazz.”
Jack Sheldon was born November 30, 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida. His father abandoned the family when his son was very young, moving to Michigan; Sheldon’s mother, Jen Loven, followed him there in a futile attempt to reconnect. If his mother was unable to provide a stable home life, however, she did provide motivation, bringing home a record of Clyde McCoy playing “Sugar Blues.” Between that and seeing Harry James in the movies, Sheldon became obsessed with the trumpet. At 12 years old, with experienced professional musicians in short supply because of World War II, he joined the musicians’ union and began playing professionally.
When he was 15, Sheldon and his mother moved to Los Angeles; she would soon open Hollywood’s famous Jen Loven Swim School, where her son worked giving lessons. By that time, young Jack had also been introduced to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. “It sounded really strange,” he said of their music, “but it was so hip, and I wanted to be hip.”
Joining the Air Force at 18, he spent two years performing as a military trumpeter, and almost immediately upon discharge was offered a seat in the Kenton band. He only remained there for four months before getting work with Mel Tormé, then with Benny Goodman, with whom he toured Europe. (It was Goodman who first featured Sheldon as a singer.) Back at home, he worked in the Los Angeles clubs with the likes of Art Pepper, Jimmy Giuffre, and Gerry Mulligan, and became a busy session musician with big bands led by Quincy Jones, Marty Paich, and Henry Mancini. In performing with small and big bands alike, Sheldon discovered a gift for getting laughs onstage; he also formed his own successful quintet and began earnestly incorporating self-driven comedy routines into the act.
Both the humor and the music attracted television producers, who tried Sheldon out on a few short-lived programs before he got hired in 1962 for Merv Griffin’s new talk show, where he remained until 1980. Though he wasn’t the show’s bandleader (Mort Lindsey held that title), he was its offscreen music director—and was a more prominent presence on the program thanks to his willingness to participate in comedy bits and sketches (and a proclivity for his own off-the-cuff, and off-color, jokes). Sheldon also sang frequently on the Griffin show, with a deep, full-bodied voice that was as distinctive in music as it was in speaking. This opened the door to substantial voiceover work in the TV industry; most famously, Sheldon worked in the 1970s on the ABC series of children’s cartoon shorts Schoolhouse Rock!, where he was the voice of iconic songs such as “I’m Just A Bill” (in which he shared vocal duties with his son John) and “Conjunction Junction.” In the ’80s, he portrayed the voice of Louie the Lightning Bug in a series of public safety advertisements that advocated electrical safety. Sheldon would reprise both roles over succeeding years.
Even as he found success in television, Sheldon maintained his busy music career. He played trumpet with a virtuoso ability (and trademark triple-tongue technique), a deep knowledge of tradition, and a full, expressive tone that was beloved by vocalists like Rosemary Clooney, Anita O’Day, Shirley Horn, and Tierney Sutton, all of whom he worked with. Sheldon also led a 17-piece big band of his own that toured occasionally, but primarily remained active in the greater Los Angeles area. His trumpet playing brought demand from the film industry as well: Sheldon performed in motion pictures by the likes of Robert Altman (1973’s The Long Goodbye) and Francis Ford Coppola (1982’s One from the Heart). In 1994 he appeared as a trumpet player in the George Lucas-produced Radioland Murders. He ultimately amassed more than 70 screen credits, and in 2008 was himself the subject of a film, the documentary Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon.
Sheldon’s larger-than-life personality often translated into a hard-partying lifestyle. He struggled for decades with alcohol abuse and cocaine addiction. He eventually stayed sober for more than 30 years, however—and worked darkly humorous stories of his addiction struggles into his stage act.
In 2011, Sheldon suffered a massive stroke that led to incorrect reports of his death. Indeed, the affliction didn’t even end his career; though he could no longer move his right arm, he simply learned to play trumpet left-handed and went on performing well into his eighties.
Sheldon was predeceased by a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Julie. He is survived by a son, John Sheldon; a daughter, Jessie Sheldon; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A funeral service will be held January 10 at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress, California.