John Sippel has left the building.
He died Jan. 6 at the Preston Health Center on Hilton Head Island at age 97.
He knew Elvis.
He wrote the first liner notes for Chuck Berry.
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He and his wife socialized with Roy Orbison.
Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie “Bird” Parker — his contacts could fill a hall of fame.
As a writer at Billboard magazine, he became the king of country music, and much more.
“Hank Williams would wake me up at night and play all the song for me and ask what I thought,” he told our writer Jacquelyn Lewis in 2004.
He said that at one point he reviewed more acts than anyone in America, and he brought more stories than records (6,000) or cookbooks (1,000) when he moved to Hilton Head in 1994. A couple of stories he shared with us: Roy Orbison was albino. Willie Nelson was once a struggling insurance salesman.
Sippel was a native of Fond du Lac, Wis. He had a journalism degree from Marquette University and experience as a cub reporter when he got a job as a music writer for Downbeat Magazine, specializing in jazz and the blues.
“This was the most wonderful job I could ever have,” he said. “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.”
He later moved to Billboard magazine where he wrote the Page 2 “Inside Track” column for decades. The column reflected his contacts in both writing and sales that reached into every radio station, television station, music promoter, retailer and distributor in the land.
“For almost three decades, reader surveys cited this column as the magazine’s most-read feature,” Ed Christman wrote in the obituary for Sippel in Billboard. In Sippel’s heyday, it was billed as the “world’s foremost amusement weekly.”
Sippel held a number of jobs with Billboard, and was on the magazine’s executive editorial board.
He also worked for a couple of record labels.
At Mercury, he was instrumental in its signing of the Platters and the Penguins, Christman writes.
And Christman writes: “Sippel traded on his relationship with Chuck Berry to help bring the musician to Mercury. ‘I was the intermediary,’ Sippel said. ‘At that time, he was coming out of a life of turmoil and I was very committed to making sure he was a happy artist with us.’ ”
At Monument Records, Sippel worked closely with Orbison, the “Pretty Woman” singer/songwriter.
And Christman writes that Sippel “befriended Leonard and Phil Chess, the founders of the iconic Chicago blues label Chess Records that played a seminal role in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll. While selling advertising to Chess, Sippel often hung around the label’s headquarters and soon was authoring liner notes. ‘I wrote Chuck Berry’s first bios,’ Sippel told Billboard in an interview upon the music legend’s death last March. ‘Chess was very good advertisers with Billboard, so I helped them out. I got paid $25 a cover. Some months I could make as much as $300, writing liner notes for 12 covers.’ ”
He once said he reported better than others because he had more experience in the industry than the entire staff of Billboard put together.
And he didn’t skip a beat on Hilton Head, where he loved to entertain in his airy home decorated with abstract art. He kept up with industry friends through phone calls. He was widowed two times.
“At 84 years old, he still likes his music loud, his conversation lively and his drinks double,” we reported in 2004.
He told us the greatest influences on his life were his parents and his Catholic religion. His brother is a retired Catholic priest, and he was a faithful member at St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head.