A lot of songs have been written over the years about work — from Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” to The Who’s “Dirty Jobs” to Rose Royce’s “Car Wash.” But Elliot Shapiro works in a field that does not exactly lend itself to song: he’s a criminal defense lawyer in the Bronx.
Shapiro, 67, grew up in Queens but often visited the Bronx to see his grandparents, and after law school he landed a job working in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.
After 11 years representing the city, Shapiro moved over into criminal defense, a decision he says helped him see the big picture. “After all these years, it’s my feeling that if you can’t do both sides, you shouldn’t be in the game,” said Shapiro. “It keeps you from getting too righteous.”
But before the law, there was music. Shapiro first learned to play guitar as a teenager working in a summer resort in the Catskills. He taught a co-worker how to swim in exchange for lessons.
The first real song he ever wrote, “Bronx County Assistant D.A. Talking Blues,” describes a moment in a job interview, when the Bronx district attorney asked him if he had ever used marijuana:
“I wanna ask you something,” he said,
Pointing his big D.A. finger at me.
“You ever smoke pot kid?”
I paused, “Yes sir I did.”
“That’s against the law,” he said,
“That’s something you should know.”
“But Mr. D.A., your honor sir,
I did it where it was legal.
On vacation in the nation of Morocco.”
“Oh I like that,” he said, “I like that. Very Sweet.
Because in the courtroom kid you gotta be fast on your feet.”
So instead of getting kicked out for smoking pot,
He hired me on the spot.
As an assistant D.A.
You might say the world works in strange ways
It did that day in the Bronx.”
Bronx criminal defense attorney Elliot Shapiro talks about the 42-year legal career that inspired his music. Video produced by the Daily News.
In the courthouse of the law, the young men come and go, some will visit once, some will there grow old.
“To me, the greatest skill of a trial lawyer is being a storyteller,” Shapiro told the Daily News in a recent profile piece.
The stories he tells in song are informed by autobiographical experiences; the lyrics are filled with exactly the colorful characters one might expect to meet in a Bronx courthouse. He sings about a woman who filed a complaint about her upstairs neighbors, whom she claimed were slowly killing her with a powerful ray gun. On the advice of a court officer, Shapiro instructs her to go home and protect herself by covering her apartment with aluminum foil to reflect the rays. It may not have solved the underlying problem, but she never returned to the courthouse, he sings.
Other songs capture the life-or-death drama of the courtroom and humanize those suspected of serious crimes. In the song “In the Courthouse of the Law,” a man is tried for allegedly selling the hallucinogenic drug PCP to an undercover police officer, but the court finds him innocent. “In the courthouse of the law,” Shapiro sings, “the young men come and go. Some will visit once, some will there grow old.”
Shapiro’s songs range from the folksy “talking blues” style popularized by artists like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie to the more traditional blues of B.B. King. He cites bands like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers as early inspirations.
According to a profile in the Daily News, Shapiro is “known for his bolo ties, love of yoga and meditation, and the Tai Chi classes and legal advice he gives fellow lawyers.”
So does his heart of gold make it hard not to get emotionally involved with the cases he tries in court? “No. You have to be like a surgeon. You have to maintain that level of professional distance,” he said.
With additional reporting by Daniel T. Allen.