Live out loud

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Live out loud

JACQUELYN LEWIS, The Island Packet
Published Monday, June 28, 2004 in The Island Packet  |  928 Words  |  /IslandPacket/features

John Sippel has never lived a quiet life.'
At 84 years old, he still likes his music loud, his conversations lively and his drinks double.'
On any given day, strains of jazz and gospel intermingled with the lilt of animated chitchat drift from his airy Hilton Head Plantation home.'
Music and dialogue come naturally to Sippel, a retired journalist who has worked everywhere from The Milwaukee Journal to Billboard magazine.'
Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Lou Reizner are just a few of the friends he met along the way, and he still keeps in touch with many of his industry acquaintances. '
"I know everybody in the business," says Sippel. "And I love the damn business."'
He says his adoration of music began even earlier.'
Sippel and his younger brother, Ed, spent the evenings during their childhood in their Fond du Lac, Wis., home. They listened to bebop on the radio, while their parents listened to country western in another room.'
"We loved to listen to the radio," Sippel says. "Anything that swung, I dug."'
Years later, he parlayed this passion into a career.'
Sippel studied journalism at Milwaukee's Marquette University, working his way through school with a hodgepodge of jobs, from a bellhop at a posh men's athletic club to a counselor at St. John's School for the Deaf.'
"I worked 80 to 100 hours a week," he says, adding that he often sneaked away to celebrate Mass. "When I graduated in June, I had $550 in the bank."'
After college, he had a three-month stint with the Marines in the Officer Candidates School, before being discharged with a back injury.'
Soon after, Sippel began his journalism career doing radio rewrites for the Superior Evening Telegram. A few jobs later, he worked as a general assignment reporter for The Milwaukee Journal.'
When he landed a music writer position at Down Beat magazine, he says, he was thrilled.'
He reveled in talking with bebop innovators, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Charlie "Bird" Parker.'
"This was the most wonderful job I could ever have," he says. "I had the opportunity to review all kinds of bands, and everything was free. I really lived regally, and I got to know these black musicians very well."'
In 1946, Sippel left Down Beat for a columnist position at Billboard magazine in Chicago.'
He turned what was once a songwriters' column buried in the middle of the magazine into a country music column that became one of Billboard's main attractions -- for both readers and advertisers.'
"By 1949, I was king of country," Sippel says.'
He also formed close friendships with future music superstars.'
"Hank Williams would wake me up at night and play all the songs for me and ask what I thought of them," he says. '
Sippel also covered every venue from hotels and swanky nightclubs to vaudeville houses -- rubbing elbows with the likes of Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra.'
"I reviewed more acts than anyone in the United States at that time," he says.'
He met and married fellow Billboard employee Betty Blake in 1947. Sippel's brother, now a Roman Catholic priest, performed the ceremony.'
"She was a wonderful person," Sippel says of Betty. "She could dance like nobody."'
Sippel left Billboard for a while, to work for record companies, where he bonded with even more up-and-coming musicians. He returned to Billboard twice, once as a billing salesman, and finally, as the magazine's news editor in Los Angeles.'
Betty, who had been ill for several years, died in 1982, and Sippel retired from Billboard in 1986.'
He moved to Hilton Head Island with his second wife, Jane Marshall, in 1994.'
"I just love this place," he says. "Anyone who wants to retire in the very best place in the United States, it's Hilton Head. It's a total gas."'
Jane, whom Sippel describes as "a brilliant woman," died seven years ago.'
Since then, Sippel has spent his time attending church, listening to his more than 6,000 albums, landscaping his yard, and shopping at thrift stores. He also visits his brother, still an active priest at age 82, as often as possible.'
Sippel wears tennis shoes and shorts, as if he were ready to dash out the door any minute.'
"I'm in pretty good shape for a guy 84 years old," he says. "I'm busy all the time."'
He also says he loves to entertain guests. Sippel can tell stories for hours, laced with secrets about almost every musical legend: Roy Orbison was albino. Willie Nelson was once a struggling insurance salesman.'
Sippel's taste in art, as in music, also is well-defined.'
A quirky array of Modigliani and other abstract pieces decorate the walls of his house.'
"My artwork is pretty wacky," he says. "But that's the way I like it, and that's the way it's gonna be."'
He has one other lifelong passion: Food.'
"I love to cook," Sippel says, pointing to shelves and shelves of more than 1,000 recipe books.'
And much like his life, the dishes he creates are robust and colorful.'
"It's just wild," he says, flashing a mischievous grin.