The Shade Biography
by author Jack Feaser
"Being an entertainer has not been easy, but Jean and I have been very fortunate in having many strong supporters and many good, faithful radio sponsors. When we go out there and get that applause it makes it all worthwhile. In this business down through the years I have received thousands of "NOs", but I have never given up. I've always had a positive attitude and feeling. As far as I'm concerned there's something about country music that really gets into your heart and soul. We're here to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart."
That's the philosophy of Al Shade, a Gratz, PA native, who with his wife Jean Romaine, a Hershey, PA farm girl, has traveled over a million miles through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and Maryland to play hundreds of dates at parks, festivals, carnivals and clubs. The Shades have also produced 10,000 live and recorded shows on a number of central Pennsylvania radio stations. They have also written and recorded songs. All this has been an attempt to put a smile on the faces of those who come to see them perform and set that country song into the hearts of their listeners whether it be at a personal appearance, over the radio or by way of their recordings.
The song in Al's heart was set down early. Al's introduction to Country and Western music came when he joined the rest of his family as a small boy to listen to Saturday night radio shows featuring Lonnie Glosson and Wayne Raney on WCKY Cincinnati. He remembers the WWVA Wheeling, WV Jamboree, performers Doc Williams and the Border Riders with Chickie Williams. He was impressed with such stars as Crazy Elmer, Dusty Owens, the Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin. The radio in his parents' living room could be heard a block away in the Summertime because it was turned up to capacity.
At 12, Al convinced his parents to let him take guitar lessons at 75 cents each - a great deal of money out of his fathers weekly paycheck which was often a mere $5. He learned a note a week in his guitar class of 15 from Cal Conrad of Sunbury, PA. After a year Conrad gave up the teaching to participate in World War II. Before Conrad left he visited each of his pupils to reclaim the $5 guitar he had lent them for the lessons. Impressed with Al's progress, Conrad allowed the boy to keep his instrument - a blonde Gene Autry model.
Across the miles Jean Romaine Gesford's musical education began in a fashion similar to Al's. The song came to her heart when her family used to listen to country music on a battery-operated floor-model radio. Jean learned her country lessons listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM from Nashville, the Wheeling Jamboree, WRVA Richmond, WLS Chicago and WCKY. She particularly liked listening to Red Foley and the Ozark Jubilee. In the Summer she and her mother, brothers and sisters went to area parks and carnivals to hear stars popular in country and bluegrass music. It was on these trips that she counted herself privileged to hear Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Jean was especially impressed with Sally Fincher who with her husband Shorty owned and operated Valley View Park in Hallam, PA. Another woman whom Jean admired was Rosalie Allen, one of the top yodelers of the day, who appeared with the Finchers.
Jean used to listen to the Shorty and Sally Fincher's daily radio program. She vowed that someday she would yodel like Rosalie Allen. She used to try the voice exercises in the cow pasture on her parent's farm. At school she used to go into the girls lavatory, stand on the toilet seat and let out with the vocal variations. Later she and her sister Joann began singing Gospel music in church. Eventually the sisters heard Al Shade on his radio program and arranged to meet him.
As Al's expertise on the guitar developed he played with various people. Shiekie Erdman taught Al to play bar chords which he played at square dances. Later Leon Kessler showed Al how to play open string chords.
Al's mother did her share to keep the song in Al's heart. He got much encouragement for his musical efforts from her. Once in a local talent contest at a theatre in Valley View, PA Al appeared to sing "Chime Bells". He had rehearsed the number at home and felt comfortable and confident with the selection. At the theatre his confidence failed him along with his skill and he did a poor job. "I got excited and nervous when I got in front of the people and the radio microphone, " said the entertainer. His disappointment was double. Not only did he fail himself in that performance, but he disappointed his mother who was quite upset over his poor showing.
Eventually Al met up with Buddy Schoffstall - a fiddler and mandolin player. The two friends planned to go to a movie one night and stopped for another friend - Orlando Willier. Orlando had to work late on his father's farm. As they were lounging around the Willier home the conversation turned to music and Al and Buddy discovered that Orlando was a banjo player. Subsequently the three began to play together. Eventually Al, Buddy and Orlando landed a job playing at a bithday party at Eck. Eck "is" Pennsylvania German, a dialect Al speaks fluently, means "corner". For Al the date helped him turn a corner in his career. It was time to transfer the song from his own heart to the hearts of others.
The presentation took place in an automobile repair shop. The floor was so greasy that sawdust was spread on the floor so square dancing could take place. Al remembered that his fingers turned sore from playing that hoedown. That job earned the fledgling entertainers a dollar apiece.
Al recalled that he got an admonition at that first job. A neighbor of his was a guest at the party. She told the young performer, "Shady, either get hot or get home". He did not get hot and he refused to go home. Al also remembered a disparaging remark of his father's as he was developing his career in country music. Al had landed a job at a radio station in Lebanon, PA - 50 miles away from his home town. His father remarked that he would never last long running over the mountain to that job. As it turned out "The Al Shade Show" expanded in the Lebanon Valley and has been aired over regional stations for 38 years.
After his auto shop job Schoffstall's group landed a job in Klingerstown. A bar owner decided to offer his patrons square dancing. The weekly dance parties really became popular. The place was always packed to capacity. For a time Schoffstall's sister and Al alternated weeks playing the guitar for the Klingerstown job. The group was frequently busy after that time playing square dances. Schoffstall, Al and the group played at all the roller rinks in the area, Mandata, Herndon and Lykens. Sometimes the dances drew as many as 500 people on Saturday nights. The Schoffstall band also was invited to high schools for square dancing in gymnasiums. No matter where they went, Al recalls, they always attracted a following.
Al's brother Junior played an important part in his career. Early on one of his band's sidemen quit. The man had played bass and had "called" for the square dances. Thinking back Al believed that the loss spelled the end of playing for square dances. To Al's amazement he discovered that his brother knew all the square dance calls. A drawback was that Junior could only play guitar chords.
Al took Junior to Troup's Music store in Harrisburg to buy a blonde Fender bass. Al had to pay out the $100 for the instrument since Junior had no money. The same night the two brothers figured out the bass notes. From that Monday night until Friday Junior practiced until he mastered the bass well enough to follow the songs the group sang. There after when Junior did the square dance calling Al's second cousin, Les Harner of Valley View, PA - the groups steel guitar player, picked up the bass and played it.
Al gravitated to the airways next. It was a way to put the song into the hearts of a wider audience. One day he listened to some groups on Saturday afternoons on Lebanon's WLBR. "I'm better than those people", the young guitarist remembered having concluded. Now he admits he really wasn't, but he thought he was at the time. He went to the station and met up with the Fulton Boys. They left him and the boys in the band come down to the station to play. They were allowed 10 minutes once a month. At the time the group played one fiddle tune, Al sang a number and each of the other people in the group sang a number. Then they packed up and went home again. As time went on they were allowd more time. Al got sponsors from his home town merchants. One sponsor, Reeds Furniture Store in Gratz, continues to sponsor Al after 50 years!
At first there were up to 15 acts on that Saturday afternoon Jamboree. Each of the acts dropped off the show as time went on and Al continued to take up the time - eventually acquiring sponsors for the whole 3 hour show. Many of the sponsors continued to stay with Al to this day. Smith Candies of Myerstown, PA has been with Al for 3 generations. He began to advertise for the father, continued when the son took over the business and today advertises for the grandson of the original sponsor.
One Summer Al went to Santa Fe Ranch in Readin, PA to appear on one of the talent shows sponsored by Shorty and Dolly Long. After Al came off the show he was confronted by 2 young ladies from Hershey, the Gesford sisters - Jean and Joann. They had heard his radio program and wanted to meet him. Al consented to listen to the sisters sing. He was suitably impressed with the sisters to invite them to join his band. Joann and Jean's first job with Al's band was at the airport in Gratz. Jean, who drove the car, got $5 for the job while Joann took home $3. Al and Jean's relationship extended further than their entertainment association. They were married September 18, 1955.
The Gesford Sisters became part of Al's Saturday radio show over Lebanon's WLBR. Al continued the live shows for about 8 years and then gradually turned to broadcasting a record show. The live shows ceased completely and the band turned its attention to personal appearances. Al's band was frequently performing at Dell Lake Park (Hegins, PA), Twin Grove Park (Pine Grove, PA) and numerous other parks, carnivals and fairs all over the Keystone State. At various times Al's band was known as: Al Shade and the Short Mountain Boys, Al Shade and the Short Mountain Boys and Girls, Al Shade Hootnanny, Nashville Sounds with Jean Romaine, Al Shade and the Potter County Boys and Yodeling Al and Jean Shade.
Time goes on and circumstances change. Joann, Jean's singing partner, married and moved away. Al joined Jean for songs. The husband and wife team have been singing together ever since.
Al's development in country music was bound to change. He was an accomplished musician, an able singer / performer and a popular radio personality. It was inevitable that he would turn to songwriting. The next song he would put into the hearts of his listeners would be his own. One of his early efforts was inspired by his radio work. He wrote "I'm A Star on WLBR". The song sketched in his biography telling how he began a radio career 12 years earlier.
Al's love of hunting led him to write another song. A fan of his band that used to follow his personal appearances told him of Potter County, PA - an area noted by Keystone State sportsman as a rich hunting ground. He set the information aside for years. One year, however, the entertainer decided to take a trip to Potter County to do some turkey hunting. The ride north was impressive. Al was enthralled by the mountains and the abundant deer he saw in the remote county. On Route 6 into the northern tier county he was struck by a sign: "God's Country--Welcome--Potter County".
After he became acquainted with the residents of the county all elements conspired within the creative side of his nature. Al wrote "Potter County Was Made By The Hand Of God".
The county inspired another musical composition. He was lying out in the mountains on one trip to the hunting area and was prompted to write "My Potter County Mountain Home". One time in Potter County Al, Jean and another musician were playing for Germania Old Home Days. A fan approached the singers and gave Al a poem about Germania so Al put music to the verses and produced "Germania, Potter County".
Driving through a mountainous area, lying in a mountain retreat, shaving in the bathroom - Al admits songs caome to him out of nowhere. He was shaving one morning in 1979 at the time the country was struck with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. "I was feeling extra happy that morning and I was singing "Potter County Was Made By The Hand Of God". I added the line: but the devil made Three Mile Island".
"Hey," he said to himself, "that's a good idea for a song".
He rushed to his desk and wrote the words down, looked through the newspapers to choose several phrases and gave it some more thought. A couple of days later he announced to Jean that he had enough material to complete the song. He sent her off to do her weekly grocery shopping. By the time she returned he had the song together except for a clincher line. Out of nowhere Jean remarked, "May Jesus see us through!" It was the fitting line to complete the whole song. Al remembered he completed the song on a Thursday. The next morning he called Nashville and made arrangements to go there on the following Monday to record the new song. Al spent the week end collecting other songs like "That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine" and other selections and went to Tennessee to cut an album. "It was the fastest selling record I ever had," said Al.
One night Al went to bed and was jolted out of his sleep about one o'clock in the morning. The first thing that popped into his head was "Potter County, You're A Lady And I Love You Like A Baby". That composition completed a triad of songs about the northern Pennsylvania hunters' paradise.
Other songs that Al has had success with include "The Little Dogwood Tree", "The House Of God Is Never Locked", "Life Without Love" and "Spring Fever Hilly Billy Style".
All of Al's career he has been a yodeler. He believes yodeling is a natural talent - at least he cannot recal ever practicing or working at developing that phase of his talent. The first song he sang on radio back at the Valley View Theatre talent contest was a yodeling tune. Almost by accident he realized that he and Jean had the perfect blend for yodeling. When Jean and he started to sing together they found out that if Al took the lead in yodeling Jean, an excellent yodeler in her own right, could harmonize in yodeling. In harmony they yodel in their act such songs as "The Twin Swiss Moonlight Yodel", Cattle Call" and "The Railroad Bum Yodel".
If there is anything that Al can testify to over his 57 years in the Country and Western music business it is the phenomenon of change. Al maintained his association with WLBR radio for 25 years. Circumstances reduced his revenue from working at the station and he determined to switch to a new station that began broadcasting in the area - WADV. Al broadcast an hour each weekday and produced a 3-hour Saturday show for nearly 14 years. Changes occurred at the station, his broadcasting times were changed and his income was threatened again. He eventually took his sponsors and left for WCTX - a Palmyra FM station where he presented his show for 4 months before being invited once again back to WADV to present a 5 1/2 hour show each Saturday morning. Success seemed assured. Sponsors were abundant. Results for the sponsors were satisfactory. Upon returning from a recording session one day Al and Jean found a message on his phone recorder informing him the station was changing its format to Rock and Roll. Country was out. Al looked widely for another radio station from which to air his show. "I was just about ready to give up'" said the entertainer, "when we were informed that radio station WLBR would take us back."
People in the Pennsylvania German country where the Shades make their home like to say, "What goes around - comes around." So after a 15 year absence Al and Jean returned in 1989 to the familiar surroundings of WLBR (the radio station where they started their broadcasting careers) to present a 3-hour show every Saturday afternoon. Success continues for the show. Many of the couple's sponsors have been with them for 38 years - some for as long as 25 years. Al and Jean have not been alone in putting that song in people's hearts. For the past 8 years Jean has been with him on the show after all those years of spinning the records and delivering commercial messages by himself. In those 38 years Al never missed a radio show - except for one. A snow storm chased him back home one day as he began the trip to Lebanon. "It was snowing and blowing so hard," he remembered, "that I couldn't see to drive."
Al has also had a show on WHVR (Hanover, PA) for 25 years. Later he moved to WGET (Gettysburg, PA) where he continues with an hour show each Saturday morning from 9:05 until 10 AM.
An entertainer like Al Shade meets thousands of people each year in the course of traveling making personal appearances. He touches the lives of additional thousands with his radio broadcasts and through the recordings he has made. Some associations in a career that touches the thousands that Al and Jean do will stand out more than others. The song they put in one boy's heart had far-reaching affects both for Al and the listener. Al likes to say that entertaining people is a fascinating business - one that can provide unexpected rewards. He sees it as a great challenge and there are times when it can be very rewarding. He likes to tell a story to illustrate his point.
Once a boy from his home town was injured severely in an automobile accident and was in the hospital for quite some time. He was to be released from the hospital on a Saturday afternoon. Since this was the time his program was featured on WLBR radio the boy's parents requested that Al send out a song for him while they were bringing him home because he liked country music and he thought a great deal of Al and his show. His parents thought the surprise request of mentioning his name on the radio show would help to cheer him up. It did for the time being. Several days after Al's Saturday show at about 8 PM there was a knock at the Shade's door. It was the father of the boy. He told Al that his boy had been in convulsions for the past 3 days. The doctor could do nothing to bring him around. All the time he would cry out Al's name over and over again. So his parents hoped Al would come over to their house and sing a song. They thought a song by Al might help to bring their son out of the convulsions.
When Al entered the house he heard his name being repeated over and over again. The boy was twisting and turning. Al remembered that as he took his guitar out of the case he asked himself, "Gee, what song shall I sing?" The first lyric that came to mind was "What a friend we have in Jesus / all our sins and griefs to bear". Very softly he started to sing and abruptly the boy stopped twisting and turning. His outcries stopped, his breathing became normal and he drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep. The convulsions were over.
Al recalled that the boy's mother was sitting nearby sewing and his dad was sitting in a rocking chair smoking his pipe. "The entire room was filled with a stillness that one had to feel - a stillness of peace within," said Al, "With trembling voice that filled with emotion, eyes that were filled with tears and choked with the realization of what I had accomplished. I could barely sing 3 more lines of the song and those were in a mere shaky whisper. There was no need to sing more. Not a word was said by anyone. It was one of those situations where the eyes did all the talking. In no time at all the boy recovered."
Some times the smile the Shades put on people's faces came from unexpected sources. When Al first started to record shows for the radio he bought the proper equipment. Jean used to help him with the taping. He used to announce records and she had them set up on the turntable ready to play. When the couple had children she used to hold son Faron on her lap while she spun the records. Al recalled that every time they wanted to prepare their radio tape the children became cranky. Many times radio listeners were treated to more than regular records and announcements. There was often in the background on those tapes the sounds of children crying.
The Shades have 2 children noted for their singing ability. It was natural that the youngsters would help their parents in the business of song implanting. For a while Faron went along to sing on the shows. Faron at the age of 6 in 1961 made his debut playing a toy guitar on the stage and singing the song "Waterloo" in the town of Stevens, PA. Daughter Debbie Ann at the age of 5 in 1963 made her debut at the Baumstown auction in Baumstown, PA singing "Cotton Fields" and joined the show when she was only 6 to sing "I Got A Tiger By The Tail". She sang with the show until she was 16. Debbie joins the show occasionally to sing with her parents when her nursing duties allow. At times Faron also joins the family to sing.*
Al and Jean own their own recording company - Aljean Records and their own music company - Goose Pimple Music. For many years Al went under the name: The Goose Pimple Kid. He used to do a song called "Courtin' In The Rain". A lyric in the piece is "It made me feel so good". One day Al expanded on the line to add that he gets goose pimples from the tips of his little, bitty toe nails up to the roots of his hair whenever he hears Bluegrass and Country music. That spur of the moment addition developed into the nickname that stuck to him for some time.
Al sees Jean as an important part of his life and his show. She always has been. He sees much of his success as a result of Jean. She is an excellent listener. Fans who want to talk find a ready listener in the soft-spoken entertainer. Al traces a portion of the couple's popularity to Jean's warmth and willingness to hear and sympathize with her fans. On stage as a harmonizer Jean makes Al stand out. Al believes Jean's performance makes him a better performer. The couple have had many good years traveling to present Country music to listeners. Al traces his success and his ability to make a living at Country music to the fact that he and Jean always entertain people.
The Shades are proud of their fans, supporters and sponsors. Some of their fans were teenagers when they started following the Shades.
Jean and Al would like to reach out to plant songs in the hearts of a wider audience. Their lack of success so far has led them to say, "There is no room at the Inn." The observation was prompted by their failure to get on TNN in Nashville, the Wheeling Jamboree or the Grand Ole Opry. Their efforts have all come to naught, but they try to look on the bright side. They have achieved a comfortable level of living from Country and Western music in their home since 1953.
Al likes to look back at the evolution he has made as a performer. In his initial 2 albums he and his group played and sang Bluegrass. Then they changed to traditional Country music. Now in the twilight of their careers they are singing tributes to Roy Acuff, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams.
Planting songs and smiles has not always been easy. Many of Al's days in the earlier years of his career stretched from 9 AM until midnight or later. At first, he worked 8 hour days in a shirt factory and sold safes and massaging mattresses in the evening. In addition, he played square dances. During one hectic year in their careers Al, Jean and their band spent Saturdays by leaving at 6 AM to drive to Milton, PA to do a live radio show. After the show the performers got back in their cars and drove 110 miles to Lebanon to do another live radio show. Getting home around 6 PM the group prepared and left to play a square dance that night winding up the day at midnight. "It made for a long day," Al understated.
Al remembered one week he sold 5 mattresses, played 3 square dances and did 2 live radio shows in addition to working his 40 hours at the shirt factory. On top of that he spent part of his Sunday in a rehearsal session. Often to avoid having to work on Saturday mornings at the shirt factory Al worked there Fridays until midnight so his Saturdays would be free to pursue his musical obligations.
In 1963 Al gave up the shirt factory and went to full time freelancing in the Country music business. "You have to have a love for this business," said Al. "It's something that has to be in your heart and soul. Once you got this kind of love you go to great lengths to go out there and perform and put on a show for the people. You put in many more hours than you get paid for in money, but the pay is when you get out in front of people and you see those smiles and hear that applause. That's the real pay in this business of Country music entertainment," he said.
Today Jean and Al are into yodeling, Old-Time Country and Bluegrass music. Their shows include Western, Swiss yodeling, cowboy yodeling, trick yodeling and a touch of humor. They are available for personal appearances anywhere, anytime, anyplace. The couple love to sing and to entertain. Al vows that he and Jean will sing if they are able. "We'll never give it up until we're forced to because there is that certain satisfaction of entertaining, getting to meet people and putting a smile on their faces and songs in their hearts."
*additional information added by Jean Shade