George Shearing

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George Shearing
Shearing in 1959
Shearing in 1959
Background information
Born(1919-08-13)13 August 1919
Battersea, London, England
Died14 February 2011(2011-02-14) (aged 91)
New York City, U.S.
Years active1937–2011

Sir George Albert Shearing[1] OBE (13 August 1919 – 14 February 2011) was a British jazz pianist who for many years led a popular jazz group that recorded for Discovery Records, MGM Records and Capitol Records. Shearing was the composer of over 300 songs, including the jazz standards "Lullaby of Birdland" and "Conception", and had multiple albums on the Billboard charts during the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and 1990s.[2]

Early life[edit]

Born in Battersea, London, Shearing was the youngest of nine children. He was born blind to working-class parents: his father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains in the evening. He started to learn piano at the age of three and began formal training at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, where he spent four years.[3]

Though he was offered several scholarships, Shearing opted to perform at a local pub, the Mason's Arms in Lambeth, for "25 bob a week"[4] playing piano and accordion. He joined an all-blind band, Claude Bampton's Blind Orchestra, during that time, and was influenced by the records of Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller.[2] Shearing made his first BBC radio broadcast during this time, after being befriended by Leonard Feather, with whom he started recording in 1937.[3]

In 1940, Shearing joined Harry Parry's popular band. Around 1942 he was recruited by Stéphane Grappelli (domiciled in London during World War II) to join his band, which appeared at Hatchets Restaurant in Piccadilly in the early years of the war, and subsequently toured as "the Grappelly Swingtette" from 1943 onward.[5] Shearing won six consecutive Top Pianist Melody Maker polls from this time onward.[6] Around that time he was also a member of George Evans's Saxes 'n' Sevens band.[citation needed]

United States years[edit]

Shearing immigrated to the United States, where his harmonically complex style mixing swing, bop and modern classical influences gained popularity. One of his first performances was at the Hickory House. He performed with the Oscar Pettiford Trio and led a jazz quartet with Buddy DeFranco, which led to contractual problems, since Shearing was under contract to MGM and DeFranco to Capitol Records.[citation needed]

Shearing (centre) performing with the Quintet in Holland, 1962

In 1949, he formed the first George Shearing Quintet, a band with Margie Hyams (vibraphone), Chuck Wayne (guitar), later replaced by Toots Thielemans (listed as John Tillman), John Levy (bass), and Denzil Best (drums).[7] This line-up recorded for Discovery, Savoy, and MGM, including the popular single "September in the Rain" (MGM), which sold over 900,000 copies in the United States alone with global sales in excess of one million;[7] "my other hit" to accompany "Lullaby of Birdland". Shearing said of this hit that it was "as accidental as it could be."[4] At this time, the novelist Jack Kerouac heard him play in Birdland, and later described the performance in his 1957 novel On the Road as "his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial."[8][9]

Shearing's interest in classical music resulted in some performances with concert orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s, and his solos frequently drew upon the music of Satie, Delius, and Debussy for inspiration. He became known for a piano technique known as "The Shearing Sound", or "Shearing voicing", a type of double melody block chord, with an additional fifth part that doubles the melody an octave lower. With the piano playing these five voices, Shearing would double the top voice with the vibraphone and the bottom voice with the guitar to create his signature sound. This piano technique is also known as "locked hands" and the jazz organist Milt Buckner is generally credited with inventing it.[10] In Shearing's later career he played with a more conventional piano technique while maintaining his recognisable improvisational style.

In 1956, Shearing became a naturalised citizen of the United States.[4] He continued to play with his quintet, with augmented players through the years, and recorded with Capitol until 1969. He created his own label, Sheba, that lasted a few years. Along with dozens of musical stars of his day, Shearing appeared on ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom in 1959.[11][12] In 1953, he had appeared on the same network's reality show, The Comeback Story, in which he discussed how to cope with blindness.[13]

Later career[edit]

In 1970, he began to "phase out his by-now-predictable quintet"[2] and disbanded the group in 1978. One of his more notable albums during this period was The Reunion (1976), made in collaboration with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Rusty Jones, and featuring Stéphane Grappelli, the violinist with whom he had debuted as a sideman decades before.

Later, Shearing played in a trio, as a soloist, and increasingly in a duo. Among his collaborations were sets with the Montgomery Brothers, Marian McPartland, Brian Q. Torff, Jim Hall, Hank Jones, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Kenny Davern. In 1979, Shearing signed with Concord Records, and recorded for the label with Mel Tormé. This collaboration garnered Shearing and Tormé two Grammys, one in 1983 and another in 1984.

Shearing remained fit and active well into his later years and continued to perform, even after being honoured with an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He never forgot his native country and, in his last years, would split his year between living in New York and Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, where he bought a house with his second wife, singer Ellie Geffert. This gave him the opportunity to tour the UK, giving concerts, often with Tormé, backed by the BBC Big Band. He was appointed OBE in 1996. In 2007, he was knighted. "So", he noted later, "the poor, blind kid from Battersea became Sir George Shearing. Now that's a fairy tale come true."[14]

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1992 when he was surprised by Michael Aspel while performing at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club.[15]

In 2004, he released his memoirs, Lullaby of Birdland, which was accompanied by a double-album "musical autobiography", Lullabies of Birdland. Shortly afterwards, however, he had a fall at his home and retired from regular performing.[16]

On 14 February 2011, Shearing died from heart failure at 91.[16]

In October 2011, Derek Paravicini and jazz vocalist Frank Holder performed a tribute concert to the recordings of Shearing. Ann Odell transcribed the recordings and taught Paravicini the parts, as well as being the MD for the concerts. Lady Shearing also endorsed the show, sending a letter to be read out before the Watermill Jazz Club performance.[17]

Personal life[edit]

Shearing was married to Trixie Bayes, with whom he had his only child Wendy, from 1941 to 1973. Two years after his divorce he married his second wife, the singer Ellie Geffert.[18] He was a member of the Bohemian Club and often performed at the annual Bohemian Grove Encampments. He composed music for two of the Grove Plays.[19]

Awards and honours[edit]

Shearing performing for Gerald Ford and Urho Kekkonen, the president of Finland, on 3 August 1976


As leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Nat King Cole'

With Nancy Wilson

  • The Swingin's Mutual! (Capitol, 1961)
  • Hello Young Lovers (Capitol, 1962)
  • R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (MCG, 2004)
  • Guess Who I Saw Today (Capitol, 2005)

With others


  • 2003: George Shearing – Jazz Legend
  • 2004: George Shearing: Lullaby of Birdland[22]
  • 2004: Swing Era – George Shearing
  • 2004: Joe Williams with George Shearing: A Song is Born[23]
  • 2005: Duo Featuring Neil Swainson


  1. ^ Randel, Don Michael (1996). The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music. Belknap Press.
  2. ^ a b c Richard S. Ginell. "George Shearing". Retrieved 26 February 2007.
  3. ^ a b "George Shearing Biography". Retrieved 7 March 2016.
  4. ^ a b c "George Shearing (interview with Les Tomkins): "How I Found the Sound" from the National Jazz Archive". National Jazz Archive. 18 March 2020. Retrieved 26 March 2021.
  5. ^ Balmer, Paul (2003). Stéphane Grappelli: A Life in Jazz. Bobcat Books. pp. 130–134. ISBN 9781847725769.
  6. ^ Gelly, Dave (2014). An Unholy Row. Equinox Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-84553-712-8.
  7. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 48. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  8. ^ Fulford, Robert (6 July 2004). "Sitting in God's chair: Immortalized in On the Road, George Shearing bebops to own tune". National Post.
  9. ^ Kerouac, Jack (2000) [1957]. On the Road. Penguin modern classics. London: Penguin Books. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-14-118267-4.
  10. ^ "Locked Hands". https://mps-music/. MPS. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  11. ^ "CTVA US Music Variety - "Pat Boone Chevy Showroom" (ABC) Season 3 (1959-60)". Retrieved 15 May 2024.
  12. ^ "Pat Boone Chevy Showroom Television Footage Archive: Fabian Footage, Bobby Rydell Footage, Frankie Avalon Footage, Nat King Cole Footage, Danny & The Juniors Footage, Retro Video Inc". Retrieved 15 May 2024.
  13. ^ "Fri Dec 25". TV Guide - Chicago. 25 December 1953. p. 12.
  14. ^ "Sir George Shearing". 14 February 2011.
  15. ^ Bottomley, Roy (1993). This is your life: the story of television's famous big red book. London: Thames Methuen. pp. 127–128. ISBN 978-0-413-67200-1. OCLC 29847063.
  16. ^ a b Vacher, Peter (15 February 2011). "Sir George Shearing obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  17. ^ Gibson, Monica (13 October 2011). "'Musical genius' is the star of the show". Leatherhead Advertiser. Dorking, UK. p. 13. ISSN 1359-6926. ProQuest 903192562. Retrieved 15 May 2024.
  18. ^ "Jake Coyle, "Jazz Pianist George Shearing Dies at 91"". Retrieved 28 September 2014.
  19. ^ Magee, David; music by George Shearing (1970). The bonny cravat: a Grove play with book & lyrics. San Francisco: Bohemian Club.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  21. ^ "Jazz winners span generations". 30 July 2003. Retrieved 28 September 2014.
  22. ^ "George Shearing: Lullaby of Birdland". Retrieved 28 September 2014.
  23. ^ "Joe Williams with George Shearing: A Song is Born". Retrieved 28 September 2014.

External links[edit]