Don Shirley (January 29, 1927 - April 6, 2013) was a highly acclaimed piano virtuoso, composer, and arranger. He was a versatile musician whose extensive and eclectic repertoire ranged from classical music and ballads to his own interpretations of pop and jazz standards, show tunes, folk songs, and African American spirituals. His compositions included symphonies, piano and cello concertos, string quartets, and many other large-scale instrumental works, as well as an opera and numerous pieces for piano. Among oldies music fans, Shirley is best known for his 1961 hit, "Water Boy," an instrumental arrangement of an old prison folk song.
Born Donald Walbridge Shirley to Jamaican parents, he was a child prodigy who gave his first public performance on the piano at age 3. He began his classical musical studies at age 9 when he was invited to study theory with Mittolovski at the prestigious Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He then studied organ and advanced composition at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. In 1945, Shirley made his concert debut at 18 with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, and the following year, the London Philharmonic Orchestra premiered one of his first major compositions. Soon after, he began his long career as a concert pianist, performing with such top orchestras as the Boston Pops, the Detroit Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the NBC Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra Washington. In 1955, Shirley was the soloist for the world premiere at Carnegie Hall of a piano concerto by Duke Ellington. He also played with the Don Shirley Trio, an instrumental pop ensemble he founded whose members included Ken Fricker (bass) and Juri Taht (cello).
Shirley debuted on the Pop/Rock charts in 1961 with "Water Boy" (performed by the Don Shirley Trio), which became a Top 40 hit. He had three minor hits the following year with his instrumental interpretations of Ray Charles' "Drown In My Own Tears," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," and "Lonesome Road," an African American spiritual.
Over the years, Don Shirley recorded numerous albums, and a number of his symphonic works have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he held a doctorate from the University of Chicago in Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts. Dr. Shirley was also an accomplished painter and spoke eight languages fluently.
- The New York Times remembers Donald Shirley.
- These liner notes from the 1961 album, "Don Shirley Trio" provide further information about "Water Boy" and other works.
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The Don Shirley Trio
- Water Boy 1961
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