|Please help us save the Elvin Shepherd house. We are in the first stages of bidding on buying the house that is still on the demolition list, even though we blocked it from being torn down in July.
Elvin was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1923, but his parents brought him to Buffalo when he was three and with the exception of times he spent in New York City and on the road with name bands, Buffalo was home ever since. It’s where he and his wife the former Alma Wilkins of St. Louis raised six children and enjoyed their grand children. The son of a musical family, Elvin acquired an early taste for music, particularly the sound of the tenor saxophone. Ironically, Shep was initially deprived of his instrument of choice because the Hutchinson Central Technical High School where he signed up for musical rudiments, theory and harmony courses didn’t have a rental saxophone available at the time. Given his choice of trumpet or trombone Shep picked the trumpet. “I only had four lessons” Shep recalls, “but I practiced all the time. I wasn’t interested in baseball, hockey and all that, just music. How my mother endured it I don’t know. I must have driven the family crazy”.
Shep got his first regular paying gig at age of 17 when the owner of a place called Hanny’s heard the young man jamming one Sunday at the Colored Musicians Club and asked him if he’d like a job playing in his bistro. Drafted at the age of 18 Shep went off to camp Pickett, Virginia, for basic training where he made the acquaintance of members in an Army band and started sitting in with them on officers club jobs. Shep was on a troop train headed for Camp Barkley, in Ailene, Texas and made a stop in St Louis for a 5-6 hour layover. Shep and some of the guys made for place called the Hawaiian Club to hear a new band with a promising young, but unknown trumpeter named Miles Davis, and “Shep recalls I gave him some tips on trumpet”.
Given a family hardship Shep was discharged from the Army and went to Philadelphia to join the road band of Nat Towles that worked out of Omaha. Marva Louis, Joe’s wife was making her debut as a singer with the band said Shep who stayed with Towle’s band for about a year before leaving to join the Lucky Millinder band in New York. They where the house band at the Savoy, it was his first time in New York and he stayed with Millinder for several years until 1947 when he got tired of the road and came home. Shep had gained some musical notoriety and joined the Pete Suggs 6 piece band as the featured attraction at Buffalo’s Club Moonglow in the city’s jazz triangle district. It was there that he performed with the legendary jazz singer Joe Williams who was originally from Chicago but working at the Moonglow for better than a year as MC for the clubs shows.
In 1951 Shep severely injured his right hand in an accident at a battery plant where he held a day job and for while he played trumpet with his left hand. Adding to Shep’s malaise at the time was the public’s fascination with saxophone players. One day while talking to a friend and sax player named Wilbur Trammell (later to become a city court judge and candidate for mayor) Shep said “man I gotta get me a sax but I can’t afford it right now”. Trammell said “ I’m going to law school you can borrow my tenor; its just laying there”. Six weeks later Shep, who never had a sax lesson in his life but was blessed with phenomenal music talent, played his first job on the sax at a place called the Horseshoe Bar. “Once I found where “C” was on the tenor, I could find the rest of the scales”. With the exception of filling in once later on for Chuck Mangione who was unable to make an appearance with the University of Buffalo concert orchestra, Shep never went back to the trumpet.
Now a sax player Shep toured the country with the Lenny Lewis Big Band and later spent a few months in New York working with Hubert Laws at Sugar Ray Robinson’s club on 7th Avenue and 124th street in Harlem. Shep toured extensively during the ‘40s, ‘50s and the ‘60s playing with such greats as Billy Eckstine’s Big Band, Erskine Hawkins, Buck Clayton and Bill Doggett. While Jazz was and remained Shep’s milieu, his versatility led to jobs accompanying Dakota Staton, Della Reese, country and western singer Ray Price, Gladys knight and Aretha Franklin. While playing with Lucky Millinder at the Savoy in New York, Shep was in the trumpet section that consisted of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
A musical writer and arranger as well as a teacher, he has also been credited for the success of Grover Washington, Jr, also of Buffalo, who called “Shep” his idol and mentor. Other students that visited 204 Laurel street where organist Ronnie Foster, Guitarist James Clark and tenor saxophonist Herb Small Jr.
Legend has it, that while Shep was playing a live radio broadcast at the old Tralfamadore Jazz Club on Main street in Buffalo in the late 1970’s the legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon was in town laying in bed listing to the broadcast. Dexter got out of his bed and came down to the club to see in person what people in Buffalo already knew, and that was to witness one of the best musical geniuses of our lifetime showcasing the total mastery of the tenor saxophone!