Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Wayne State University in 1955 and then was drafted into the Army, where he became the first black member of the United States Army Chorus. He was also the first African American hired to teach music in Detroit high schools.
After continuing voice studies with Therny Georgi, he moved to New York and began his professional career as a singer. His debut was with a small opera group in Woodstock as Eisenstein in Strauss's Die Fledermaus in 1959, and his European debut in Italy as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème. In 1960, at 26, he won a National Arts Club scholarship competition, and the following April he was the first African American to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions scholarship competition. Shirley is the first African American tenor and the second African-American male to sing leading roles for the Met. He sang there for 11 seasons, and has also appeared at the Royal Opera, London, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, Opéra de Monte-Carlo, the New York City Opera, the Scottish Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Washington Opera, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the San Francisco Opera, and the Santa Fe Opera and Glyndebourne Festival summer seasons, as well as with numerous orchestras in the United States and Europe. He has sung more than 80 roles.
Shirley has three times been a master teacher in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program for Young NATS Teachers, and taught for ten years at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He was on the faculty of the University of Maryland from 1980 to 1987, when he moved to the University of Michigan, where he is Director of the Vocal Arts Division and Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music.
Shirley produced a series of programs for WQXR-FM radio in New York on Classical Music and the Afro-American and hosted a four-program series on WETA-FM radio in Washington, D.C. called Unheard, Unsung.
Shirley has been awarded honorary degrees by Wilberforce University, Montclair State College, Lake Forest College, and the University of Northern Iowa. He is a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
- Randye Jones, "George Shirley (b. 1934)", Afrocentric Voices, retrieved June 10, 2014.
- "George Shirley: Tenor and Narrator", Ann Summers International, archived at the Wayback Machine, July 16, 2011.
- "Surviving Odds to Become a Star: George Shirley", Baltimore Afro-American, March 3, 1981, p. 17.
- "Tenor Gets $500 Award; George Shirley Wins National Arts Club Competition", The New York Times, November 15, 1960.
- Allen Hughes, "George Shirley, Tenor, Wins 'Met' Auditions and a Contract", The New York Times, April 7, 1961.
- "George Shirley", Opera Music Theater International, retrieved June 10, 2014.
- George Shirley: Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice, University of Michigan, retrieved June 10, 2014.
- Delta Omicron
- George Shirley interview by Bruce Duffie