Jack Sheldon, the stand-out jazz trumpeter and affable Merv Griffin sidekick whose gave voice to the Schoolhouse Rock classics I’m Just a Bill and Conjunction Junction, has died. He was 88.
Sheldon’s face and name were most recognizable to fans of The Merv Griffin Show thanks to his 16-year sidekick stint but his trumpeting reached its greatest acclaim via the big screen with the forlorn Oscar- and Grammy-winning song The Shadow of Your Smile from The Sandpiper (1965).
Sheldon’s voice, however, became a signature part of Saturday morning cartoons for years thanks to two beloved installments of the oft-repeated Schoolhouse Rock educational series of animated shorts. The ABC series was ramping up its second season when it brought Sheldon in and the charismatic jazzman delivered winning performances both as the dedicated train conductor from Conjunction Junction (1974) and lonely piece of proposed legislation in the civics-minded I’m Just a Bill. (1975).
The Schoolhouse Rock work would put Sheldon in the ear of several generations of TV-watching youngsters and opened up an unexpected legacy. Sheldon participated in a 2002 revival of the educational brand and also playfully parodied it in episodes of The Simpsons, Family Guy and Johnny Bravo.
Sheldon was born November 30, 1931, in Jacksonville, Florida, and took up the trumpet at age 12. It was on the far end of Interstate 10, however, where Sheldon would first find fame. Sheldon arrived in Los Angeles in 1947 and became part of the West Coast jazz movement that blossoms over the next decade. Sheldon recorded and performed with legends of the era including Stan Kenton, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, and Curtis Counce.
It was as a member of Mort Lindsey’s orchestra that Sheldon found his television spotlight. Lindsey was the musical director for Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and also for Griffin, who launched his namesake show in 1962. Sheldon, a natural for novelty songs and stage antics, became a favored foil of the host and eventually a front-and-center fixture of the popular talk show.
Griffin often noted that his favorite song was The Shadow of Your Smile and praised Sheldon’s poignant horn contribution to the bittersweet song that was written by by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster and memorably accompanied Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their 1965 drama The Sandpipers. Sheldon performed the song at Griffin’s funeral in 2007.
Sheldon’s eclectic career also included on-camera scripted performances as well with some movie roles (Freaky Friday, Radioland Murders, For the Boys) and a long list of guest appearances on television shows, among them Adam-12, Police Story, Gilligan’s Island, Police Woman, Petticoat Junction, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Sheldon’s musical gifts and talent for trouble were also the subject of a documentary called Trying to Get Good, which includes footage of Clint Eastwood, Billy Crystal, and Griffin singing the jazzman’s praises. The film won best documentary honors at the 2008 Newport Beach Film Festival.
Services will be at Forest Lawn in Cypress, California, on January 10th at 2:00 p.m.