Despite the controversy surrounding the Best Picture-winning film Green Book, the movie might actually be the best thing to ever happen to the legacy of pianist Don Shirley. Though Shirley’s relatives have objected to the way Shirley was portrayed in the film, before its release his life and music had been largely lost to history.
As of this writing, his biography on Allmusic.com is only one paragraph. Many of his albums don’t even have track listings on the site. The website AllAboutJazz.com lists him twice, both times in articles about the film. In the jazz and popular music encyclopedias at two local libraries, I only found one reference to him, a single small paragraph in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Further digging turned up the New York Times‘ extensive obituary about him when he passed away in 2013. He was a fixture of the New York City music scene for decades, and even lived for many years in an apartment above Carnegie Hall. “Mr. Shirley was a musical prodigy who played much of the standard concert repertory by age 10 and made his professional debut with the Boston Pops at 18, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor,” the Times wrote. “But when he was in his 20s, he told his family and friends, the impresario Sol Hurok advised him to pursue a career in popular music and jazz, warning him that American audiences were not willing to accept a ‘colored’ pianist on the concert stage.”
In a 1982 interview, Shirley told the Times that he did not like being labeled a jazz musician. “They wouldn’t let me play on the concert stage. They said I wasn’t supposed to be able to. I introduced the contrapuntal aspect of music into popular music, and this is something that no jazz musician could do or ever thought of doing.”
The pianist had an extensive recording career spanning from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He reduced his playing after developing tendinitis in his hands in the ‘70s. Many of his recordings were done with the Don Shirley Trio, an unusual combo as it featured piano, bass and cello. His style is bright and deeply melodic, as if he’s singing the words with his piano. “We attempt to utilize and exhaust as many of these already existing forms, that have at least proven longevity, and serious music and apply them to the existing American popular music,” Shirley said in a T.V. interview in the ‘50s.
His music cuts across many genres including, classical, jazz, R&B, pop, boogie-woogie and ragtime, all played with the ease and confidence of a virtuoso. His catalog includes covers of songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Ben E. King, as well as numerous tracks from the Great American Songbook. Listening to his music, it feels like he was deciding what pop tunes should be included in a new classical cannon.
Another artist Shirley has been compared to is Ray Charles. While Allmusic.com has not written much on Shirley, the site compares him to Charles in several ways. The site recommends Charles as a “related artist” whose music is similar. A review of the album The Gospel According to Don Shirley says that the “LP has the feel of an instrumental Ray Charles date, though with Shirley’s flowery style of caressing the keys substituted for the hard, earthy work of Brother Ray.” Shirley and Charles also covered several of the same songs. While Charles had bigger hits with these tracks, they serve as a good starting place for examining Shirley’s pop explorations.
Don Shirley – Drown in My Own Tears (Lula Reed cover)
“Drown in My Own Tears” was the title track to Shirley’s 1962 pop and jazz album of the same name. The song was first recorded by Lula Reed as “I’ll Drown in My Tears,” but Charles’ 1956 hit remains the definitive version. Just as Charles often put his gospel roots on display, Shirley included organ and a hard-pounding tambourine to emulate church music as well. In Shirley’s hands, the song becomes a celebration of sweet release. The listener is left to decide if it’s about the sacred or the profane side of life.
Don Shirley – Georgia On My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael cover)
Ray Charles’ soaring 1961 cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic about the Peach State was likely fresh on Shirley’s mind when he recorded this cover in 1962, also on the Drown in My Own Tears album. There are some similarities between his and Charles’ versions, especially in the chorus. When the strings come in, one almost expects Charles to start singing. But the beginning and the end are highly different from Charles’ take. Shirley opens the track with a quiet solo piano intro, playing it as a mournful elegy. For the closing, he builds up to two separate crescendos and adds a jolt of boogie-woogie to the finale.
Don Shirley – By The Time I Get To Phoenix (Jimmy Webb cover)
Shirley covered many songs now considered classics back when they were just contemporary pop tunes. On his 1972 album The Don Shirley Point of View, he took on songwriter Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The song has inspired covers across multiple genres, including versions by country star Glen Campbell and soul legend Isaac Hayes. With his cover, Shirley sent the song spiraling backwards in time by more than a century, invoking the spirit of Frédéric Chopin. The tune is almost unrecognizable at first listen in this sweeping classical piano reinterpretation. Yet, as one listens closer, you can hear the melody just underneath the flourishes of notes.
Don Shirley – Stand By Me (Ben E. King cover)
Ben E. King wrote “Stand By Me” with rock n’ roll tunesmiths Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1961. Since then, the soul classic has been covered more than 250 times. The song received the royal treatment at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018. It was still new when Shirley included it on Drown in My Own Tears. Shirley kept the song’s iconic bassline and clicking percussion in place, so that it’s immediately recognizable. He replaced King’s vocals with his own piano stylings and a bit of organ. He kept the melody largely intact, showing that it’s just as powerful in sound as in words.
Don Shirley – Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
This song is Shirley’s number one track on Spotify, earning more than 110,000 listens. Released on The Don Shirley Point of View, he incorporated multiple musical styles into this six-plus minute cover, often at the same time. He plays the piano melody as if he’s performing a standard in a late-night jazz club. He then mixes in strings with bits of gospel and classical-style organ. Somehow it all blends together with ease.
Don Shirley – Blowin’ In the Wind (Bob Dylan cover)
Shirley included this spirited cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” on his 1968 album The Gospel According to Don Shirley. The New York Times cited this track in Shirley’s obituary saying he played it as a “Rachmaninoff étude.” While that’s one interpretation, as we listened to the track, we also heard elements of early American folk music (predating Dylan), especially in the interplay between piano and cello. It could have been “Blowin’ in the Wind” at a dance on the western plains.
Don Shirley – Yesterday (The Beatles cover)
In several hundred years, listeners will likely refer to the Beatles as “classical composers” and say the names Lennon and McCartney with the same reverence we use to describe Mozart, Beethoven and J.S. Bach. When the Beatles were still together, Shirley recorded “Yesterday” for his 1968 live album In Concert. Shirley includes several pauses within the track as if giving the music a moment to seep in. At the end, the crowd goes wild; even then Beatlemania had already crossed over into jazz and classical music.
Don Shirley – Ol’ Man River (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II cover)
The musical Show Boat has been controversial since it premiered more than 90 years ago. Its vision of race in the South has drawn praise for including a diverse cast of characters, but has been criticized, even banned, for its depiction of black characters in a stereotypical manner. Sound familiar? Even with all the controversy, “Ol’ Man River” has endured. It has inspired classic renditions by Paul Robeson, who brought it to the silver screen in the 1936 film adaptation, and Michel Bell, who sung it in the ‘90s Broadway revival of the show. Shirley opens the track with the song’s more upbeat verse in a ragtime style. He then adds in strings and settles into a slow jazz groove for the “Ol’ Man River” section. Naturally, he ends the song on a high, building it up to a triumphant finish. Controversies aside, Shirley was a great pianist whose music, if given the chance to be heard, will live on.