One of the major source of inspiration for our own llama unicorn song is the legendary “The Unicorn”, a song written by Shel Silverstein. Shel recorded the song himself in 1962, although it was made more popular by The Irish Rovers in later years.
While Shel was famous for other notable works that he produced, “The Unicorn” is one of the most beloved children song ever created. To date, there seems to be only one video clip showing Shel himself performing the song.
The clip, which was recorded in one of WTTW Chicago’s studio (Studio 11), showed a live acoustic performance of Shel singing to a captive audience of a diverse group of children. To our knowledge, this is the only video of Shel singing the song with an acoustic guitar live. It is actually a part of a longer segment of a program called “Soundstage”, which started with a more mature audience.
About Shel Silverstein
Silverstein grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and ‘40s, first living in Humboldt Park and then Logan Square.
He went to Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, where he contributed to the school newspaper and worked as a hot dog vendor for a time at Comiskey Park. Silverstein bounced around to various local colleges before eventually joining the Army and serving in Korea.
Overseas, he started contributing cartoons to the military publication Stars and Stripes. But Silverstein really started to gain notoriety from his cartoons in Playboy, which might come as a surprise if you only know him from “The Giving Tree.”
Silverstein really had an incredibly diverse and eccentric career. He balanced writing poetry for children with raunchy adult stories and songs – and he at times border on the crude.
In the late 1970s, Silverstein paid a visit to WTTW’s studios in Chicago for a performance with a live audience.
Over the course of just a few minutes you really get a sense of the range of his style and personality. He starts off with a few jokes, and then just a few minutes later is singing with a group of children … including a stirring rendition of “The Unicorn Song.”
Silverstein also performed on WTTW in 1972 with comedian George Carlin. Unfortunately, the footage seems to have been lost over the years.
After a while, Shel moved away from Chicago but would frequently return to his hometown. He’d perform at places like The Gate of Horn, a small club that used to be on the Near North Side.
“The Unicorn Song” wasn’t Silverstein’s only composition to make it big – he wrote several country hits, including “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous of course by Johnny Cash.
Silverstein would continue to be creatively active for the next 20 years before passing away in 1999. The following excerpt is from Wikipedia about all the other musical works that he produced.
Shel Silverstein’s other musical works (Wikipedia)
Shel Silverstein’s musical output included a large catalog of songs; a number of them were hits for other artists, most notably the rock group Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. He wrote Tompall Glaser’s highest-charting solo single, “Put Another Log on the Fire”, “One’s on the Way” and “Hey Loretta” (both hits for Loretta Lynn, in 1971 and 1973 respectively), and “25 Minutes to Go”, sung by Johnny Cash, about a man on Death Row with each line counting down one minute closer. Silverstein also wrote one of Johnny Cash’s best known hits, “A Boy Named Sue” as well as “The Unicorn”, first recorded by Silverstein himself in 1962 but better known in its version by The Irish Rovers. Other songs co-written by Silverstein include “The Taker” written with Kris Kristofferson and recorded by Waylon Jennings, and a sequel to “A Boy Named Sue” called “Father of a Boy Named Sue”, which is less known, but he performed the song on television on The Johnny Cash Show.
He wrote the lyrics and music for most of the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show songs on their first few albums, including “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone'”, “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball,” “Sylvia’s Mother”, “The Things I Didn’t Say” and a cautionary song about venereal disease, “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most”. He wrote many of the songs performed by Bobby Bare, including “Rosalie’s Good Eats Café”, “The Mermaid”, “The Winner”, “Warm and Free”, and “Tequila Sheila”. He co-wrote with Baxter Taylor “Marie Laveau”, for which the songwriters received a 1975 BMI Award. The third album by Tompall Glaser contained eight songs by Silverstein and three by Silverstein and others.
Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, first recorded by Dr. Hook in 1975, was re-recorded by Marianne Faithfull (1979), Belinda Carlisle (1996), and Bobby Bare (2005) and later featured in the films Montenegro and Thelma & Louise. “Queen of the Silver Dollar” was first recorded by Dr. Hook on their 1972 album Sloppy Seconds, and later by Doyle Holly (on his 1973 album Doyle Holly), Barbi Benton (on her 1974 album Barbi Doll), Emmylou Harris (on her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky) and Dave & Sugar (on their 1976 album Dave & Sugar).
Silverstein composed original music for several films and displayed a musical versatility in these projects, playing guitar, piano, saxophone and trombone. He wrote “In the Hills of Shiloh”, a poignant song about the aftermath of the Civil War, which was recorded by The New Christy Minstrels, Judy Collins, Bobby Bare and others. The soundtrack of the 1970 film Ned Kelly features Silverstein songs performed by Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and others. He also co-wrote with Waylon the song ‘A Long Time Ago’.
In addition, Silverstein wrote “Hey Nelly Nelly,” a rousing 60s-era folk song recorded by Judy Collins.
Silverstein had a popular following on Dr. Demento’s radio show. Among his best-known comedy songs were “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take The Garbage Out)”, “The Smoke-Off” (a tale of a contest to determine who could roll—or smoke—marijuana joints faster), “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and “Stacy Brown Got Two.” He wrote “The Father of a Boy Named Sue”, in which he tells the story from the original song from the father’s point of view, and the 1962 song “Boa Constrictor”, sung by a person who is being swallowed by a snake (recorded by the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary) also recorded by Johnny Cash for his 1966 album Everybody Loves A Nut although it is now better known as a children’s playground chant.
A longtime friend of singer-songwriter Pat Dailey, Silverstein collaborated with him on the posthumously released Underwater Land album (2002). It contains 17 children’s songs written and produced by Silverstein and sung by Dailey (with Silverstein joining him on a few tracks). The album features art by Silverstein.
He was a friend of Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman, for whom he wrote the final verse of “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” (refusing a songwriting credit for his contribution). Goodman also recorded Silverstein’s “Three-Legged Man”, as did Ray Stevens.
The llama unicorn song was written with many influences, but the inspiration was sparked by Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn”. Watch the llama unicorn song music video here: