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Who Was Don Shirley?
Jamaican-American pianist and composer Don Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) displayed immense talent at an early age, debuting in concert with the Boston Pops at age 18. Despite the obstacles of segregation, he performed at prestigious venues and earned acclaim for his work with the Don Shirley Trio, showcasing a unique style that melded classical, spiritual and popular elements. Largely forgotten by the time of his death, Shirley was introduced to new generations of fans with the 2018 premiere of Green Book, starring Mahershala Ali as Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as his bodyguard and chauffeur, Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga.
Movie: ‘Green Book’
In 2018, audiences were reintroduced to the life and talents of Shirley through the Peter Farrelly-directed Green Book. The film showcased the growing friendship between two men of disparate backgrounds during a tour of the American South in the early 1960s. Its title is drawn from a guidebook designed to help black motorists find safe passage in unfriendly regions.
Green Book claimed the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and was touted as an Oscar contender, though it also drew backlash for perpetrating the “white savior” trope and being made without consultation with Shirley’s surviving family.
Don Shirley and Tony Lip
Although some narrative liberties were taken with the Green Book script – including the decision to condense Shirley’s year-plus tour into two months – the central story of the protagonists’ professional and personal relationship is largely accurate. When they met in 1962, Shirley was looking to bring his music on the road but wary of the hostile treatment endured by Nat King Cole in Alabama a few years earlier; it was determined that Tony Lip, a working-class Italian from the Bronx and a bouncer at Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub, would provide any necessary muscle.
According to the Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, who wrote the screenplay, his dad was shocked by the discrimination he witnessed on tour and rethought his own prejudices while developing an admiration for his employer. He said the men remained close friends, with Shirley unfailingly calling on the holidays, until they died within months of each other in 2013.
Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida, to Jamaican immigrants: His father, Edwin, was an Episcopal minister, and his mother, Stella, was a teacher.
Shirley first showed an interest in the piano at two-and-a-half years old, and by age 3 he was performing on the organ at church. At age nine, around the time his mother died, Shirley traveled to the Soviet Union to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He later received lessons in advanced composition from Conrad Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
In June 1945, at age 18, Shirley made his concert debut with the Boston Pops, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat. The London Philharmonic Orchestra performed his first major composition the following year, and in 1949 he received an invite from the Haitian government to play at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince.
Shirley’s Musical Style
Despite his training, Shirley in his 20s was dissuaded from pursuing a career as a classical pianist by impresario Sol Hurok, who said the country wasn’t ready to accept a black man in that arena. Shirley subsequently developed his own genre, melding his influences in blues, spirituals, show tunes, and popular music to deliver compositions that were both familiar and original to audiences.
His imagination and deft touch drew praise from musical luminaries like Igor Stravinsky, who cited Shirley’s virtuosity as “worthy of the gods,” and Duke Ellington, who said he would “give up his bench” at the piano to let Shirley take the reins.
Popular Songs and the Don Shirley Trio
Starting with Tonal Expressions in 1955, Shirley began recording his unique versions of popular favorites like “Blue Moon,” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Love for Sale.” He soon embarked on a longtime collaboration with bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht, who frequently joined him in the studio and on stage as the Don Shirley Trio.
The trio enjoyed a highlight with their self-titled 1961 album, which included the Top 40 hit “Water Boy,” and continued recording together through 1972’s The Don Shirley Point of View.
Performances and Other Works
Also in 1955, Shirley made his Carnegie Hall debut with Ellington and the Symphony of the Air Orchestra. He went on to perform with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra over the years, along the way appearing in such prestigious venues as Milan’s La Scala Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Following the death of his good friend Ellington in 1974, Shirley composed “Divertimento for Duke by Don.” Other ambitious creations included his variations on the story of Orpheus in the Underworld, a tone poem based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and works for piano, cello and strings.
Family and Personal
Shirley, who married once and divorced, never had children. A scene in Green Book shows him handcuffed in a YMCA shower after relations with another man, prompting questions about his sexuality, though he kept this aspect of his life private.
Shirley wasn’t the only member of his family to achieve professional success; His brothers Calvin and Edward became doctors, while the latter also developed a close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr.
Academics and Other Interests
The musician was often called “Dr. Shirley,” which, according to a November 2018 New York Times article, may have been due to his honorary degrees, as he never attended graduate school. However, other sources state that Shirley received doctorates in music, liturgical arts and psychology, and briefly pursued a career as a psychologist in the early 1950s.
Shirley also reportedly spoke eight languages fluently and was a talented painter.
Forced to curtail his output after developing tendinitis in his right hand in the early 1970s, Shirley disappeared from the public eye by the end of the decade. A 1982 Times article reported that the musician was attempting a comeback and playing regularly alongside his longtime partners in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Shirley resurfaced with the occasional performance in the early 2000s. With help from a devoted student, he put together a new album, Home with Donald Shirley, on his Walbridge Music label in 2001.
Shirley died from complications of heart disease at his home in New York City, above Carnegie Hall, on April 6, 2013. He was 86 years old.
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