George Shearing, the British piano virtuoso who overcame blindness to become a worldwide jazz star, and whose composition “Lullaby of Birdland” became an enduring jazz standard, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 91.
Shearing was born in 1919 in the Battersea area of London. Congenitally blind, he was the youngest of nine children. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night after caring for the children during the day. His only formal musical education consisted of four years of study at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. While his talent won him a number of university scholarships, he was forced to refuse them in favor of a more financially productive pursuit – playing piano in a neighborhood pub for the handsome salary of £5 a week! Shearing joined an all-blind band in the 1930’s. At that time he developed a friendship with the noted jazz critic and author, Leonard Feather. Through this contact, he made his first appearance on BBC radio.
In 1947, Shearing moved to America, where he spent two years establishing his fame on this side of the Atlantic. The Shearing Sound commanded national attention when, in 1949, he gathered a quintet to record “September in the Rain” for MGM. The record was an overnight success and sold 900,000 copies. His U.S. reputation was permanently established when he was booked into Birdland, the legendary jazz spot in New York. Since then, he has become one of the country’s most popular performing and recording artist. In 1982 and 1983 he won Grammy Awards with recordings he made with Mel Torme. Shearing was the subject of an hour-long television documentary entitled “The Shearing Touch” presented on the Southbank Show with Melvyn Bragg on ITV in the UK.
Three presidents have invited George Shearing to play at the White House: Ford, Carter and Reagan. He performed at the Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Shearing collaborated with numerous singers including Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Ernestine Anderson, Dakota Staton, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and, most notably, Mel Tormé, with whom he performed frequently in the late 1980s and early 1990s at festivals, on radio and for recordings.
In May of 1993, he was presented with the British equivalent of the Grammy – the Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement. In June of 1996, Mr. Shearing was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List and on November 26, 1996 he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his “service to music and Anglo-US relations.” He was presented the first American Music Award by the National Arts Club, New York City, in March of 1998.
In 1999, his 80th birthday was celebrated in England where he played to a sold-out house at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Also appearing with him were the BBC Big Band, the strings of the London Symphony, Dame Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. BBC Radio 2 presented a 2 1/2-hour “Salute to Shearing” in honor of his birthday.
The following year another sold-out house at Carnegie Hall was treated to his birthday celebration featuring the George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Dr. Billy Taylor, the John Pizzarelli Trio, Tito Puente and Peter Schickele who brought a special greeting from PDQ Bach!
In November 2006, a letter arrived from the Prime Minister’s office in London reading, in part, “The Prime Minister has asked me to inform you, in strict confidence, that he has it in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year Honours, to submit your name to The Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that the honour of Knighthood be conferred upon you.” When the letter was read to him, George simply said, “I don’t know why I’m getting this honour, I’ve just been doing what I love to do.” And, when asked by the press how he felt about receiving the highest honor the Queen can give, he replied, “My mind keeps flashing back on my beginnings as pianist playing in a pub for the equivalent of $5.00 a week. What a journey it has been from that pub to Buckingham Palace. Receiving such an honor as a Knighthood might also show young people what can be achieved in life if one learns his craft and follows his dreams.”
So, the poor, blind kid from Battersea named George Shearing, the youngest of nine, whose father once delivered coal to the Palace, with four years of formal musical training but with a tremendous will to make good, traveled with his wife, Ellie, to London to claim his honor. On June 13, 2007 George was presented to Queen Elizabeth II in the Ballroom of Buckingham Palace. The Queen first touched him on each shoulder with the sword her father had used, then stepped down off the dais to put the medal around his neck, adjusted it, shook hands with him and talked to him for several minutes. He became Sir George Shearing “for his contribution to music”, as the Lord Chamberlain put it. Now, that’s a fairy tale come true!