Born In: Pensacola, Florida, United States
American classical and jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley is best remembered for his jazz albums for Cadence Records in the 1950s and 1960s. The Florida-born musician was a prodigy and was trained as a classical pianist. However, early in his career, he was advised to switch to jazz, as there was a chance that Americans would not accept a Black man as a concert pianist. He thus focused on jazz and pop but hated performing in nightclubs. He eventually blended various musical genres and created his unique style. During the 1960s, on one of his concert tours in Deep South, Shirley hired nightclub bouncer Frank Anthony “Tony Lip" Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. They apparently formed a bond that lasted till their final years. This relationship was the basis of the 2018 film Green Book. There were rumors that Shirley was gay. However, his family later stated that the filmmakers had misrepresented him in the movie.
Also Known As: Donald Walbridge Shirley
Died At Age: 86
father: Edwin S. Shirley
mother: Stella Gertrude
Born Country: United States
place of death: Manhattan, New York, United States
Notable Alumni: Prairie View A&M University, Catholic University Of America, Virginia State University
Cause of Death: Heart Disease
U.S. State: Florida
education: University Of Chicago, The Catholic University Of America, Prairie View A&M University
Donald Walbridge Shirley, better known as Don Shirley, was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida, US, to Jamaican immigrants Stella Gertrude and Edwin S. Shirley. While his mother was a teacher, his father was an Episcopal priest. Some references incorrectly mention his birthplace as Kingston, Jamaica, because his record label falsely advertised him as Jamaican-born.
A musical prodigy, Shirley was 2 when he learned to play the piano. By 3, he had learned to play the organ. He had already mastered the standard concert repertory by age 10.
For a while, he studied at the Virginia State University and the Prairie View College, and then joined the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In 1953, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in music from the university.
Some sources believe he had moved briefly to the Soviet Union to join the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music (or the Leningrad Conservatory of Music), where he studied piano and music theory. Shirley’s nephew, Edwin, later stated that Shirley’s record label had falsely claimed that he had studied music in Europe, to make him more acceptable, as a Black man educated in a Black school would not have made him popular.
Cellist Jüri Täht, who worked with Shirley, stated that Shirley had never studied in the Soviet Union. Much later, Shirley received honorary doctorates in the areas of music, psychology, and liturgical arts.
Shirley performed in his debut concert, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Pops Orchestra, at age 18. When he was in his 20s, he was instructed by American impresario Sol Hurok to shift his focus to popular music and jazz, as the American audience was not ready to accept a Black concert pianist. Shirley followed Hurok’s advice.
He soon mixed pop and jazz and created a signature hybrid sound. Shirley became friends with jazz icon Duke Ellington, while singer Sarah Vaughan praised him too. However, he did not like performing in nightclubs and bars. It is also believed that Shirley did not fit in and did not improvise in the genre. He was also deeply influenced by classical music throughout his career.
Between 1955 and 1972, he recorded 23 albums. Most of these were recorded for the New York City-based label Cadence Records. This included his debut album, Tonal Expressions. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard Best-Selling Pop Albums chart.
His works included a symphonic poem based on James Joyce’s 1939 novel Finnegans Wake and a set of Variations on the 19th-century opera Orpheus in the Underworld. He also wrote piano concerti, organ symphonies, a cello concerto, a 1-act opera, and 3 string quartets, among others.
In 1960, Shirley released a series of Don Shirley Plays... records, which included odes to Birdland Lullabies, Gershwin, and love songs. Back then, trios consisted of a pianist or a guitarist, along with a bassist or a drummer. However, the Don Shirley Trio consisted of an unusual combination: piano, bass, and cello.
Thus, while Don Shirley was the pianist, Ken Fricker was the bassist and Juri Taht was the cellist in the trio. Shirley often wrote the bass parts in the cello range.
In 1961, the Don Shirley Trio released its chartbusting single, Water Boy, which was also their most popular track. The song peaked at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and reigned on the chart for 14 weeks.
Shirley, however, did not completely stay away from classical music. He occasionally played in concerts, such as in 1954, when he was seen performing with the Boston Pops in Chicago. Similarly, the following year, Shirley played with the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall, at the premiere of Duke Ellington's Piano Concerto.
After Ellington’s death in 1974, Shirley penned a symphonic work named Divertimento for Duke by Don. He eventually managed to get the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra to play it.
The 2018 biographical comedy-drama Green Book showcased an important event from Shirley’s life. It was apparently based on a true story of Shirley going on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Shirley had reportedly hired an Italian-American driver and nightclub bouncer named Frank Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard on that tour. Tony Lip worked as a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana club.
The film focuses on Shirley’s relationship with Tony Lip and depicted how Shirley was estranged from his family and from other African Americans. However, Shirley’s family later stated they were not consulted by the filmmakers before or during the filming of the movie.
Shirley’s brother Maurice once stated Shirley had fired Tony Lip just like he had fired all his chauffeurs back then. He also stated that Tony Lip was just an employee and not a friend of Shirley’s.
It is also believed, that unlike what was shown in the movie, Shirley was associated with the Civil Rights Movement, was well-acquainted with African American artists and leaders, and attended the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, too. Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who co-wrote the movie, however, claimed his father would often meet Shirley at Carnegie Hall and have meals and conversations. Actor Mahershala Ali, who played Don Shirley in the movie earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, along with a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award, for his role.
*In 1952, Shirley married Jean C. Hill. However, the couple divorced later. They did not have any children. Shirley later revealed in an interview that he had consciously chosen his career over his marriage.
Rumors claimed that Shirley was gay. Though he never spoke about his sexual orientation publicly, a scene from the movie Green Book referred to his encounter with Tony Lip. It is believed Shirley and Lip had remained friends till their final years.
Reportedly, Shirley had been living in a luxurious apartment above Carnegie Hall since the 1950s. The place was adorned with paintings and gifts from his well-wishers, along with a throne. Lip apparently visited him there and brought his family along too.
Shirley stopped recording after 1972, as he suffered from tendinitis in a finger. He also avoided live performances and only recorded for an album in 2001, after the ailment struck him.
On April 6, 2013, Shirley died of heart disease. He was 86 back then.
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