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Shel Silverstein Set to Music

Getty Images / Alice Ochs

Shel Silverstein Set to Music

Today we're celebrating the life and work of chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning songwriter Shel Silverstein.

Yes, you read that right.

Like most people, you probably think of Silverstein as a children's book author, and you've got that right. He became famous after the publication of one of his first children's books, The Giving Tree. He cemented his reputation with three volumes of whimsical poetry for children: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic and Falling Up. These books and other children's fare sum up his legacy for many fans – they read the stories and poems to children and grandchildren, maybe even grew up on Silverstein's poetry themselves. It's a good thing to be remembered for, and Silverstein was proud of his children's books.

But Silverstein's career proved extremely diverse, and it neither began nor ended with his writings for children. He was a cartoonist for Playboy magazine and, earlier, for the Pacific Stars and Stripes military newspaper while he served in the U.S. Army. He wrote plays, typically for adults, penning more than 100 one-acts over the course of his career. He penned screenplays, and he even wrote whimsical poems directed distinctly toward the over-18 set; his adult work often tended toward the risqué.

You may not have seen any of his plays or read any of his ribald verses, but we bet you've heard some of his songs. Other singers made them famous, but many of them bear his unmistakable voice. Here are five Silverstein songs to listen to in celebration of his 85th birthday Sept. 25, 2015.

1. "A Boy Named Sue"

Yes, it's true! "A Boy Named Sue" is probably Silverstein's best-known song, the one that topped the charts and won a Grammy, and perhaps the only one that was ever recorded in a prison. Johnny Cash made Silverstein's tune famous after recording it in his At San Quentin prison performance, and the song became a smash hit. It was inspired by childhood stories told by Silverstein's close friend Jean Shepherd, the humorist who wrote and narrated the holiday classic movie A Christmas Story. When Cash recorded the song at San Quentin, he didn't yet know it well; he was giving it a try, to see how it went over, and had to consult the lyric sheet frequently. The audience loved it – see them laughing over and over in the clip – and Cash made it a regular part of his repertoire.

2. "The Cover of Rolling Stone"

Silverstein wrote some songs for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, including "Sylvia's Mother," "The Ballad of Lucy Jordon" and "Carry Me Carrie." Today, many music lovers best remember their track "The Cover of Rolling Stone," their ode to the traditional pinnacle of rock stardom: being featured on the cover of the popular music magazine. The band got its chance, making it to the cover in the year after the song's release … though in caricature form.

3. "Marie Laveau"

Silverstein co-wrote "Marie Laveau," a tale of a Louisiana bayou witch, along with folk singer Baxter Taylor. The song first went to Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, as many of Silverstein's songs did, but it was country star Bobby Bare who took it to No. 1. Bare praised Silverstein, who wrote some other songs for him, calling him "the greatest lyricist there ever was."

4. "The Unicorn"

You may not have heard his odd voice on your top-40 radio station, but Silverstein had a recording career, too, in which he sang some of the songs he wrote. He released more than a dozen albums, full of songs that were both familiar (as in his recording of "A Boy Named Sue" from a few years before Cash made it famous) and new to his fans. In 1968, a Canadian band called the Irish Rovers had a top-10 hit with Silverstein's "The Unicorn." Their fans know the song well – it's one of their most popular. But before the Irish Rovers were even a band, Silverstein recorded his own version of his song in 1962 and included it on his album Inside Folk Songs. Here's Silverstein's version.

5. "The Winner"

Bobby Bare first recorded "The Winner," another of the many Silverstein songs he brought to life. But in 2010, when Sugar Hill Records released Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein, Bare performed a different song and left this one to the outlaw country legend Kris Kristofferson. The tribute album includes some of Silverstein's songs for adults, as well as a sampling of his children's lyrics, such as "The Giving Tree" and "Daddy What If."