Terkel died of old age at his home in Chicago, his son Dan said.
The author of blockbuster oral histories on World War II, the Great Depression and contemporary attitudes toward work, Terkel roamed the country engaging an astounding cross-section of Americans in tape-recorded chats -- about their dreams, their fears, their chewing gum, about racism, courage, dirty floors and the Beatles.
With his loud laugh and raspy voice, plus his inept fumbles with his tape recorder, he set his subjects at ease and tugged from them memories, predictions and simple truths about their everyday existence. Terkel transcribed and edited the interviews, then compiled them into books that were at once intimate and sweeping, among them "Division Street," "Hard Times," "Working," and "The Good War," which won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
Terkel was also a legendary radio personality, hosting a daily music and interview show on Chicago's WFMT for 45 years.
He never prepared his questions. He interrupted his guests often. Yet Terkel was known as a master interviewer, able to establish an easy rapport with just about anyone. His secret, he once said, was simple: "It's listening."
And listen he did: to sultry jazz singers and insecure housewives; to a repentant Ku Klux Klan leader; to Bob Dylan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Marlene Dietrich, Bertrand Russell; to a parking lot attendant and a lesbian grandmother; to a piano tuner; and to a barber.
As the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt once said: "When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks."
Reviewers called Terkel's oral histories accessible, powerful and deeply moving. "Readers will experience emotions they didn't know they had," the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of his World War II book. Though they were lengthy -- some more than 600 pages -- most of Terkel's books shot straight to the bestseller list and much of his work was translated for publication abroad.
"I think he was the most extraordinary social observer this country has produced," said Dr. Robert Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry who considered Terkel a friend and inspiration.
Though Terkel did interview the rich and famous, "he recognized the need to pay attention to the poor, the vulnerable, the ordinary people," Coles said. "I pray for the day when American universities will understand that Studs Terkel is worth many departments of sociology. He's an institution in himself."
Louis "Studs" Terkel was born May 16, 1912, in New York City. His family moved to Chicago when he was a boy, and he quickly grew to love the city.
"It's not that Chicago is that great," he once said. "In fact, it's horrible. But living here is like being married to a woman with a broken nose. There may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."
Real was what Terkel always wanted to get at: real people, real lives and real emotions.
He did not claim to be a social scientist. He did not seek to conduct a statistically valid poll. He simply talked to people he found interesting. He didn't hide his liberal politics, and at times his cross-sections seemed tilted heavily to the left. In general, though, Terkel sought to reach across lines of politics, race, class, education and geography to coax America's history from its varied voices.
" 'Statistics' become persons, each one unique," he once wrote. "I am constantly astonished."
Terkel developed his taste for gabbing as a child hanging out with the blue-collar workers who lived in his family's Chicago rooming house. The men would get drunk on a Saturday night and talk to young Terkel for hours.
His father, a tailor, died when Terkel was 19. His mother, Anna, was able to put him through the University of Chicago for an undergraduate and a law school education. Yet Terkel graduated disillusioned with the law. So he worked for a time as a federal statistician. He acted in radio soap operas (usually playing a gangster, with lines of "stunning banality," he recalled).