The Jimmy Sheldon Geil Story

November 1, 2015 // Personal

Jimmy/James Sheldon

Composer, pianist, bandleader, entertainment industry executive.

Born James Sheldon Geil, Jr. in Bandon, Oregon, September 20, 1926 to James and Beulah (Crow) Geil.  Beulah began teaching her son piano at age three.

The family moved to Livermore, California in 1935 where Jimmy’s mother worked as a cook in the kitchen of a tuberculosis medical treatment facility and young Jimmy first took formal piano lessons from retired Australian concert pianist Myrtle Hampson..  It was soon apparent that he had a tremendous gift for music, and by age twelve he was working part-time at home as a transposer, transcriber and copyist.  In 1940 the family moved to Richmond, California where Jimmy continued his lessons and began to perform.  Because he was exceptionally tall (6 foot 2 inches) at only fourteen years of age, he looked old enough to pass as adult and began playing piano with local bands in small clubs in the East Bay area.  He attended Richmond High School where he played piano and French horn in the school band and orchestra.  At 16 he graduated from high school and enrolled at University of California at Berkeley where he majored in English literature and mathematics.

As the US entered WWII, more young men, including musicians, went off to military duty.  This left a lot of employment opportunities for a still young, eager, talented pianist.  During this time Jimmy got work with bigger and better Bay Area band leaders including Del Courtney.  Through Del’s guidance he met Alvino Rey, Rod McKuen, Merv Griffin, the King Sisters and, in 1944, was eventually recommended to audition for Jan Savitt’s Orchestra, which was about to begin a tour featuring Frank Sinatra.  He secured the job that was to be the first big break in his career.  That 1945 tour which began at the Hollywood Palladium included performances at the Paramount Theatre, Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall in New York.  In March of that year he married Ann Elizabeth Robison of Los Angeles, California whom he’d met while performing at the Brockway Hotel, Lake Tahoe, California.  He was 18 and she was 17.

From February of 1946 through the end of 1948 he continued to tour and perform with various big bands and vocal groups including Will Osbourne, Freddy Martin, the Ink Spots, Jane Russell, Larry Stevens, Rhonda Fleming, the Merry Macs, and Peggy Lee.  In between touring gigs he divided his time working the clubs in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.   By 1949 he was the father of three small road weary children (James III, Terese, and Stephen) and returned to the Bay Area working day gigs on radio in both Oakland and San Francisco while performing at night at such famous clubs as Geary Cellar, Showboat, Cable Car Village, El Morocco, the Sunset Room at near-by Carmel’s Highlands Inn, and with Don Churchill and his Texas Mavericks on KRON-TV San Francisco.

It was during the ensuing years, 1949 through 1953, Jimmy composed the final movements, and arranged for full orchestra, his musical homage to San Francisco, a piano concerto, the Nob Hill Nocturne.  (The original theme, Blue Mist, had been composed in 1945.)  On November 17, 1953, shortly after his fourth child, Samuel, was born, the Nob Hill Nocturne was introduced.  As author and San Francisco columnist Dean Jennings later wrote:

“ After many years as a favorite piano showpiece for the composer, the first piano      and orchestra performance of James Sheldon’s Nob Hill Nocturne took place in San Francisco’s renowned sister-city across-the-bay with the highly acclaimed Oakland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Dr. Orley See.  Because this musical portrait focuses on the nocturnal moods of San Francisco as seen from the Nob Hill vantage point, it was unusual that this major musical effort would be  launched from the nemesis-city of vaudevillians around the globe.  Performers built the legend ‘…if you can be a success in Oakland, you can make it anywhere!’  Thanks to the combined efforts and concern of a determined quartet of San Francisco Bay Area community leaders Sam Watts, Del Courtney, Jack DiMello and Bob Ramsey, young café-society radio-TV personality Jimmy Sheldon was encouraged to expand into a ‘white tie and tails’ composer and soloist to be reckoned with … more than somewhat like young song plugger George Gershwin graduating from Tin Pan Alley to Aeolian Hall in New York in 1924 with the prodding of Paul Whiteman and Ferde Groffe.

“The November 1953 concert was the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and the evening was abounding in special tributes, including warm salutations from Oakland resident and ex-clarinetist Governor Earl Warren.

“ An apprehensive silence settled over the auditorium as Sheldon found his way to the Steinway following Listz’s ‘Les Preludes.”

‘  The standing room only audience was alert, but hopeful.   As this premier performance of the Nob Hill Nocturne proceeded, the attentiveness became absolute.  A mystical magic engulfed the cavernous Oakland Auditorium and it became apparent to all that history was in the making.

“As the final sweep of Dr. See’s baton brought the Nocturne to it’s electrifying conclusion, there followed a hush stunned silence.  Then, flying splinters of applause ricocheted from side to side … from top to bottom … gradually swelling to a furor.  Dr. See hastened to the piano to steady the limp composer, who openly wept at the impact of the tidal wave reaction.  The orchestra stood, joining in as the entire assemblage leaped up wildly ecstatic.  The seemingly endless ovation continued until sheer exhaustion re-established a semblance of order, enabling the special Anniversary to continue.

“No one in attendance will ever forget that night.  James Sheldon and his Nob Hill Nocturne had stepped forward from the diaphanous shadows of composers” dreams into a permanent place in the public light.

“I know, I was there.”

Shortly after the premiere of the Nob Hill Nocturne, Jimmy was tapped to be pianist for the Horace Heidt Orchestra.  Heidt had just secured a 2 year TV contract to take his show on the road for Swift and company as it celebrated it’s one hundredth year in business.  The Swift Centennial Show Wagon was a once-a-week variety and new talent program that aired on NBC.  The second year it became the Horace Heidt Show.   At the conclusion of the 1955 TV season, Jimmy moved his family to Los Angeles where the Heidt orchestra was now playing in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

By 1956 the Big Band Era was over and Horace Heidt had retired and gone into real estate and hotel development in Las Vegas, NV, and Palm Springs and Hollywood, CA. But it was also a new opportunity for Sheldon. Jimmy began a long term relationship with Fred Hayman and the Hilton Hotel brand, where Jimmy and his quintet opened the Star-on–the-Roof nightclub and where he later was named Musical Director of the Beverly Hilton Hotel’s Showcase of New Stars.   Most of the young entertainers he was coaching were the children of some of Hollywood’s most venerable stars including Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Lloyd Bridges, Harold Lloyd, Paul Henried, and William Bendix.

By 1965 Jimmy was a corporate VP for Unifilm Corp/Gemco where he supervised recording, publishing, and talent development while composing a film score for a Jayne Mansfield project, Single Room Furnished.

In 1966 James Sheldon was named Director of the USO-Hollywood Overseas Committee.  He was responsible for USO shows performing in the Pacific Theatre, specifically Viet Nam.  In 1967 he became Director of USO Shows worldwide where he remained for a decade, first in Hollywood, then in New York.

In 1977, the Viet Nam era closed, and Sheldon left the USO, returning to Southern California.

So began another chapter for Jimmy.   He was hired to travel and promote a new international chain of jet-set supper clubs owned by restaurateur Tony Roma and Dallas Cowboy’s president Tex Schram.  The clubs included an ambience that featured the solo pianist, a la Bobby Short, who could play for or accompany big names like Barbara Streisand or Liza Minnelli.  Openings and ensuing gigs in big cities like New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, London and Paris lasted up to 6 months each.

In 1981 Jimmy moved to Cambria, CA and DJ’d a nostalgic morning radio show featuring the music of the 30s and 40s on KOTR, a central coast station.  It was his semi-retirement gig.  Four years later he retired in earnest to a small farm near Silverton, OR, close to his roots.  He became an avid record and sheet music collector and a gentleman farmer.  He passed away there on February 2, 2000.