Remembering George Shearing
Remembering George Shearing
SIR GEORGE ALBERT SHEARING, OBE, jazz pianist and composer, born Battersea, London, August 13, 1919; died New York City, February 14, 2011, aged 91. Like Glenn Miller in the previous decade, who searched for and found 'his sound', in forming his now legendary quintet in 1949, George Shearing achieved at a stroke his own unique sound signature. This allowed the group to achieve astounding record sales and fame across the globe soon after the quintet's formation, fame that would continue throughout Shearing's long and successful career. The world which he would inhabit in his professional life was another planet away from his humble, not to say, poor childhood background in what was then (in early 1920s) a not so salubrious part of south-west London. His father delivered coal and his mother had a night job, cleaning trains, after spending all day looking after her nine children. Although born blind, Shearing at an early age had the facility not only able to memorize a tune, but also would attempt to play it on the family's piano. Recognizing the talent, he was given piano lessons by a local teacher followed by formal education at a school for the blind, the Linden Lodge School, based in Wandsworth, which still today educates dual-sensory impaired/deafblind children. Such were Shearing's abilities he could have been the recipient of university scholarships to study music but the family's financial constraints prompted him to earn his keep and he opted initially, aged 16, for playing in local public houses in the Battersea and Lambeth areas, first, popular songs of the day, followed by ever-increasing excursions into the field of jazz. In 1937 he joined a stage orchestra as a pianist, and it was through that exposure that Shearing's name started to become noticed. Encouraged by friends he made in the orchestra, he immersed himself in jazz, to the extent that his playing style bore the influence of prominent exponents of the genre, like Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. A year later he made his début on radio, following which he recorded regularly as a soloist or part of an ensemble or band, not least recording many times with the renowned jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. The next decade saw Shearing rise to fame with breathless speed, to illustrate which a poll in the 'Melody Maker' magazine, voted him 'the tops' as a British pianist for 7 successive years. Then happened one of those serendipitous encounters of musicians, that unbeknown to them at the time, are destined to change for ever the public perception of jazz and popular music - an invitation from emigré-pianist, composer, and critic, Leonard Feather to visit New York. Shearing stayed for three months of 1946, recording for the Savoy label as part of a trio, but had been so taken with his experiences that he emigrated permanently in late 1947. After serving his "apprenticeship in a heaven that money couldn't buy" as he put it, accompanying singers such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, he had an opportunity in 1949 to join a quartet at the Clique Club with clarinettist Buddy De Franco. Due to contractual reasons De Franco had to opt out of recordings, so Leonard Feather suggested that perhaps a quintet might fit the bill, and so it was that to the usual piano, bass, and drums, a guitar (Chuck Wayne) and vibraphone (Margie Hyams) was added - the George Shearing Quintet was born - and with it one of the most distinctive musical sounds ever created. The formation of the ensemble was not the only happenstance. The Quintet was born into a world of music dominated by energetic Bebop, so when the soothing timbres created by Shearing's piano technique ('parallel chords' pioneered by American pianist and organist Milt Buckner) and the close harmony of the rest of the group including melodies doubled a couple of octaves apart, it struck a chord then (literally in this case) in the hearts of music-loving public that was to last for decades. Nothing like this had been heard in the jazz field before but it fulfilled an obvious need, and fame came with startling rapidity, not least in the sales of a recording made for MGM - September in the Rain - which sold in excess of 900,000 copies. The 'Shearing sound' soon became the epitome of 'mood music' for the romantic, 'low lights' atmosphere. Other huge successes for the quintet came in 1950 with Kern's Pick Yourself Up, and two years later, the music which resonated with the public and overshadowed the rest of Shearing oeuvre (some 300 songs) - Lullaby of Birdland. Such was the impact of this song that in the late 1990s when introducing it at a concert, Shearing was heard to quip (perhaps with not a little chagrin): "I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two hundred and ninety-nine of them enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion - here is the other one!" A little later in the 50s, Shearing pursued an interest in what is now dubbed, Latin-inflected jazz, which resulted in another hit record, Mambo Inn, and in 1954 the issue of a very popular album with singer Peggy Lee, Beauty and the Beat. Departures from the received Shearing sound came in the 1960s in the form of leaner ensembles, duos and trios - or even the occasional solo concert - and in another direction his concerto performances with leading symphony orchestras. He had such facility that it was not unknown for him to improvise in styles as diverse as Bebop and Bach - sometimes in the same piece. Shearing formed a pivotal partnership with Mel Tormé that was to last for many years and was so successful that 'Grammies' were awarded in 1983 for An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Tormé, and in 1984, Top Drawer. In the 1970s, with some critics saying that the quintet had become predictable, Shearing gradually phased it out and disbanded it totally in 1978, although it was reformed for recordings made in 1994. A frequent visitor to his home country, he gave concerts with vocalists of no mean reputation in their own right, particularly Joe Williams (a Count Basie singer), and Carmen McRae. A duo that Shearing had formed with bassist Neil Swainson appeared with Mel Tormé and the BBC Big Band at a special eightieth birthday show in 1999. For many years Robert Farnon had been a close friend, and at the end of the 1970s they were finally able to realise a long held ambition to record together. The occasion was the album "On Target" for the German label MPS; the Shearing trio recorded their part on 18-21 September 1979 at the MPS studios in Villingen, with the orchestral backings added a year later at the CTS studios (then known as Music Centre Sound Studios) in Wembley, London, on 5 & 6 November. The liner notes were provided by the one and only Gene Lees, who finished: "Shearing with Farnon. What an inspired - and inspiring - combination". In 1992 the same artistic forces were reunited at CTS Wembley on 17-19 September for the Telarc CD "How Beautiful Is Night". For many years (especially the 1990s) the Shearings used to spend the summer months in the beautiful Cotswolds area of England, where they were visited by many special friends, including Alan Dell and Brian Kay. George was most touched, it is said, when in Battersea the 'George Shearing Centre' was opened to provide facilities for disabled people. He still performed into the early present century, and in 2003 was awarded the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his OBE awarded in 1996, he was knighted in 2007, noting later, "So the poor, blind kid from Battersea became Sir George Shearing - now that's a fairy tale come true." This was a 'fairy tale' that was followed by millions of fans throughout his long career, and will continue to attract admirers in generations yet to come through the portals of his recordings that are set to endure.
David Ades adds: I had the great pleasure of meeting George and his charming wife Eleanor at several Robert Farnon recording sessions. George loved to joke and tell tales. When he was honoured by the Queen he remarked that it was the second time that his family had visited Buckingham Palace; on the first occasion his father delivered the coal! At one time he was a member of an all-blind orchestra, and during a number one of the musicians shouted that one of his glass eyes had dropped out. The band immediately stopped playing, and all the musicians were on hands and knees trying to feel where the missing eye had gone. George also confessed that he wouldn't want to be able to see, if medical science made such a happening possible. He explained that it would be too difficult having to completely learn again how to live in a sighted world, after existing so happily as he was. This modest, charming and extremely talented man was one of the nicest people I have ever been fortunate to meet.
This tribute first appeared in 'Journal Into Melody', issue 188 dated June 2011