Monday, February 14, 2011
RIP: GEORGE SHEARING
George Shearing, the prolific pianist and composer who penned 'Lullaby of Birdland,' died Monday at 91 in New York City. The case of death was heart failure, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Shearing was born in London in 1919 and was blind from birth. He began playing the piano almost as soon as he could stand, and when he entered a school for the blind as a teen, he studied everything from Mozart to Glenn Miller. He began playing professionally at 16 at a local bar and just four years later his career took off when he met the pianist and music writer Leonard Feather.
By the early '40s, Shearing was one of the most popular performers in the country, at one point winning seven consecutive awards from the influential Melody Maker newspaper. After World War II, Shearing came to New York City to try and replicate his fortune abroad.
Shearing formed a quintet in 1949 with whom he would largely perform with well into the '70s, and with it developed what became known as "the Shearing Sound": an (at that time) unorthodox instrumentation that included guitar and vibraphone combined with Shearing's method of using block chords to build a complex, orchestral-leaning sound. This sound endeared Shearing -- already known as a player who favored contemplative Debussy-and Satie-inspired melodies over more common lightning bebop lines -- to a broad new audience searching for accessibility among the complex and experimental classical and jazz sounds of the time.
Shearing quickly found fame with a string of hits, including 'September in the Rain' and 'Lullaby of Birdland.' In the '60s, at the height of his popularity, Shearing and his quintet often released multiple records in a single year. After launching an independent label that ultimately failed, he re-emerged in the late '70s through his new association with the Concord label and a series of collaborations with Mel Torme. That partnership led to other collaborations with Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and John Pizzarelli, among others, during the ensuing decades.
Shearing composed some 300 tunes over his career, and performed frequently as a classical recitalist with full orchestras. He continued recording and performing well into his 80s. His accolades included two Grammys, performances for Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Composer and Songwriters and being knighted by the Order of the British Empire.
Shearing is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and daughter, Wendy Ann.