Don Shirley

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Donald Shirley
Birth name Donald Walbridge Shirley
Born (1927-01-29)January 29, 1927
Pensacola, Florida, U.S.
Died April 6, 2013(2013-04-06) (aged 86)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Genres Classical, jazz, gospel, pop
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Piano, organ
Years active 1945–2013
Labels Cadence Records, Columbia Records, Atlantic Records

Donald Walbridge Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) was an American jazz pianist and composer. Shirley's piano skills were recognized at an early age and he began his career as a composer and virtuoso performer at a young age.[1] Shirley's music is hard to categorize. As an arranger-composer he treated each piece of music as a new composition, not just an arrangement. Shirley played standards in a non-standard way. He was a virtuoso performer, playing everything from show tunes, to ballads, to his personal arrangements of Negro spirituals, to jazz, and always with the overtone of a classically trained musician who has utmost respect for the music he is playing.[1]

Early life[edit]

Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Kingston, Jamaica.[1] His first teacher was his mother. He began playing piano at age of 2½ and made his first public performance at the age of 3. At the age of nine he was invited to study theory with Mittolovski at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, and he later studied with organist Conrad Bernier and studied advanced composition with both Bernier and Dr. Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington D. C.

Later life and career[edit]

Shirley made his concert debut at the age of 18 with the Boston Pops June 25, 1945, with Dean Dixon as guest conductor playing the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto. In 1946 his first major composition was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.[1]

In 1949 he received an invitation from the Haitian government to play at the Exposition International du Bi-Centenaire De Port-au-Prince followed by a request from Archbishop Le Goise and President Estime for a repeat performance the following week.[1][2]

At Arthur Fiedler's invitation he appeared with the Boston Pops in Chicago in June 1954. He performed the Tchaikovsky concerto in the fall of 1968 with the Detroit Symphony. He has appeared as soloist with the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington to name only a few. Including his appearances with the trio, he averaged 95 concerts a year.

He wrote symphonies performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, and composed four organ symphonies, numerous pieces for piano, two string quartets, and a piano concerto. He played as soloist with the orchestra at Milan's La Scala opera house in a program dedicated to Gershwin's music. Only two other pianists have performed there as soloists, Arthur Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter.[citation needed]

He held a Doctorate of Music, Doctorate of Psychology (University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa), and Doctorate in Liturgical Arts. He spoke eight languages fluently, and was a talented painter as well.[citation needed]

He abandoned the piano as a career while quite young, and it was while in Chicago as a psychologist that Don "tripped" back into a musical career. He was given a grant to study the relationship, if any, between music and juvenile crime wave which had suddenly broken out in the early 1950s. Working in a small club there, he used his knowledge and skill to perform experiments in sound, whereby he proved that certain tonal combinations affected the audience's reactions. No one in the audience knew of his experiment, or that students had been planted among them to gauge their reactions. But Don Shirley the pianist became a sensation.

During the 1950s and 60s he cut 16 albums for Cadence Records. His single "Water Boy" reached #40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He then began to make appearances in New York followed, notably at "Basin Street East", where Duke Ellington first heard him. Here started their warm friendship which was highlighted by Don's performance in 1955 of the premiere of Duke's Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony of the Air. An appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show launched his career nationwide.

He composed 3 symphonies, two piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on Finnegans Wake and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.

He died of heart disease in 2013. He was 86.[3]


  • Improvisations
  • Famous Spirituals
  • Golden Classics
  • Pianist Extraordinaire 1 (Box Set)
  • Pianist Extraordinaire 2 (Box Set)
  • Improvisations by the Don Shirley Duo
  • Don Shirley Plays Shirley
  • Tonal Expressions Vol. 1
  • Tonal Expressions Vol. 2
  • Piano Perspective Vol. 1
  • Tonal Expressions Cadence Records CLP-1001 [M] (1955)
  • Piano Perspectives Cadence Records CLP-1004 [M] (1955)
  • Orpheus In Underworld Cadence Records CLP-1009 [M] (1956), CLP-3037 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Duo Cadence Records CLP-1015 [M] (1956)
  • Don Shirley Solos Cadence Records CLP-3007 [M] (1958)
  • Don Shirley with Two Basses Cadence Records CLP-3008 [M] (1958)
  • Don Shirley Audio Fidelity Records AFLP-1897 [M], AFSD-5897 [S] (1959)
  • Don Shirley Plays Gershwin Cadence Records CLP-3032 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Standards Cadence Records CLP-3033 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Love Songs Cadence Records CLP-3034 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Birdland Lullabies Cadence Records CLP-3035 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Plays Showtunes Cadence Records CLP-3036 [M] (1960)
  • Don Shirley Trio Cadence Records CLP-3046 [M], CLP-25046 [S] (1961)
  • Piano Arrangements of Spirituals Cadence Records CLP-3049 [M] (1962)
  • Pianist Extraordinary Cadence Records CLP-3048 [M] (1962)
  • Piano Spirituals (1962)
  • Don Shirley Presents Martha Flowers (1962)
  • Drown In My Own Tears Cadence Records CLP-3057 [M], CLP-25027 [S] (1962)
  • Water Boy Columbia Records CL-2396 [M], CS-9196 [S] (1965)
  • Don Shirley Trio in Concert Columbia Records CS-9684 [S] (1968)
  • Gospel According to Don Shirley Columbia Records CS-9723 [S] (1969)
  • The Don Shirley Point of View Atlantic Records SD-1605 (1971)
  • Home with Donald Shirley (2001)

See also[edit]

  • Don Shirley, a British deep sea and technical SCUBA diver; co-founder of the technical diving school franchise IANTd, and former electronics specialist in the British Army, during the Falklands and Persian Gulf Wars[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e allmusic Biography
  2. ^ "Don Shirly - biography". Retrieved 23 June 2012. 
  3. ^ Donald Shirley, a Pianist With His Own Genre, Dies at 86, The New York Times, April 28, 2013
  4. ^ Zimmermann, Tim (August 1, 2005). "Raising the Dead". Outside Magazine. 

External links[edit]