Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

George Shearing, Battersea boy, jazz pianist composer

Posted in George Shearing, Jazz supremo- a Battersea boy., Uncategorized by sheelanagigcomedienne on November 8, 2016

George Shearing was a boy from Battersea who became an international giant of jazz. I am delighted that there is a proposal by the Battersea Society to commemorate  him with our next blue plaque on Northcote Lodge School Bolingbroke Grove which was previously Linden Lodge School for the Blind which he attended from when he was twelve till he left at sixteen. His autobiography Lullaby of Birdland was edited by Alyn Shipton.

lullaby-of-birdland-autobiography-of-georege-shearing

Lullaby of Birdland was one of his most famous compositions named after the eponymous club he played in early on in his career in America. He had a huge influence on jazz and the ‘George Shearing Sound’ became very familiar to jazz afficianados.

george-early

The youngest of nine children, George was born into a poor, working-class family. His father delivered coal for the same company Cockerell’s ( coal merchants to the Queen) for nearly fifty years and his mother cleaned trains by night at the nearby depot , having cared for her children during the day.George used to joke about how his Dad’s occupation got translated as a ‘coal miner’ An inveterate punster, he sometimes referred to his father as “Not the Cole Porter, but a coal porter’He also quipped about his brother Jim being a conductor  ‘Really?’ ‘Yes.on the 49 bus’

George mentions his four sisters and brother who still lived at home when he was born  Margaret, Dolly, Mary, Lily and Jim. They lived at 67 Arthur Street, later renamed Rawson Street now demolished. The railway ran at the back of their house near Latchmere Road. He described it as almost a cul de sac. His Dad bought him the piano for £5 and paid £3 for a few lessons with Mrs Dearsley when he was aged 5 but she said he was already too advanced for her.

george-and-mum

Blind from birth, George showed musical aptitude, memorising tunes he had heard on the radio and picking them out on the family’s piano, taking lessons from a local teacher. He attended Shillington  Street Primary School which had a department for blind children which was nearby and then continuing his studies for four years at the  Linden Lodge School for the Blind in Bolingbroke Grove, Sw12 facing Wandsworth Common. (This was erroneously described as in the countryside on an American website)

He talked about how he played cricket on the street and was given a bicycle and the toys and games played which included braking bottles. He described how from when he was about ten his father would enter the horse that he used for delivering the coal into the annual horse show in Regents Park and he would help him prepare the horse and livery and they would set of at six in the morning and George would play the harmonium. He won fifteen first prizes over the years.Although his mother worked hard bringing up nine children and cleaning trains she also became an alcoholic. He admits that he didn’t feel so close to his parents or family because of his education.

He wrote about his Linden Lodge School days and Mr Newell his music teacher and how he would practice for two hours in the piano in the school sitting room.It was Mr Newell who suggested to George’s parents that there wasn’t much point in him studying classical music as his  preference was already evident for jazz.

He was offered a university musical scholarships, he turned them down in favour of paid work as a solo pianist in a pub when 16 at the Mason’ s Arms, in Lambeth Walk later renamed the Lambeth Walk in 1951 and opened with fanfare by pearly Kings and Queens http://www.britishpathe.com/video/pearlies-open-lambethpub/query/Pearly  now residential flats.

George concentrated first on popular songs and then branching out into jazz. He tells how he used to go on to posh hotels like the Mayfair or the Hyde Park Hotel and started to wear tuxedo and tails till Lou Jaffa the pub governor said that he had to choose between the pub or the hotels.

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The Lambeth Walk formerly the Mason’s Arms where George had his first paid job

He achieved a degree of prominence with Claude Bampton’s newly formed, all-blind stage orchestra in 1937, joining as second pianist: press coverage of the time describing this as “a phenomenal venture”.

He made his first solo radio broadcast in 1938 and began to record regularly, either as a soloist or with groups led by Vic Lewis and the top players of the day.

During the war years he toured with the violinist Stephane Grappelli and worked in London throughout the Blitz. The trumpeter Tommy McQuater remembered playing and drinking with Shearing in London clubs and then coming out into the total blackout. Shearing would lead the sighted musicians through the pitch-black, rubble-strewn streets and set them on their respective routes home. A case of the blind leading the blind-drunk, as McQuater had it.

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George and Grappelli during This is your life with Aspel

George had met Trixie Bayes and thee got married in 1941. They had gone to live in Pinner. Their daughter Wendy was born in 1942 and they had a son David George who was born blind but sadly died before his first birthday.

He was encouraged to emigrate to the States by American visitors to Britain like Fats Waller, Mel Powell, Glenn Miller and Coleman Hawkins.In 1946 they went to the States without Wendy to see for themselves and emigrated in 1947.”I expected to slay everyone when I got here, because I could play in the style of Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Bob Zurke,” he said. Well, the people started to say ‘Oh, that’s nice. What else can you do?’ My wife at the time was kind of annoyed and she’d say, ‘What do you want him to do, stand on his head?

His recording of “September in the Rain” became an international hit. Its success established him as a hot property on the jazz nightclub and concert circuit. It established something else as well: the signature sound of the George Shearing Quintet sound which was not quite like anything listeners had heard before — or have heard since.“When the quintet came out on 1949, it was a very placid and peaceful sound, coming on the end of a very frantic and frenetic era known as bebop,”

In the 1950s, George  pursued an interest in Latin-inflected jazz. He had another hit record with Mambo Inn (1954) and appeared leading a Latin ensemble in the 1959 film Jazz On A Summer’s Day. In the same year he recorded the hugely popular album Beauty and the Beat with the singer Peggy Lee

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George and Neil Swainson in tandem

During the 1960s Shearing began giving concerts with symphony orchestras, usually playing a concerto in the first half and leading the quintet with orchestral backing in the second. He derived particular satisfaction from this demonstration of technical accomplishment.

Shearing’s musical partnership with the singer Mel Torme, which lasted almost a decade, had begun in the early 1980s, and brought out the best in both.george-and-mel

George and Trixie divorced and George met and fell in love with Ellie Giffert a singer he had met and they were married in 1984 by Ellie’s brother Melvin who was a minister in the Lutheran Church in Harvey Illinois.

George was the subject of the BBC programme broadcast in February 1992 of This is Your Life. He was performing at Ronnie Scott’s on the night.

georges-and-sisters

George with his sisters on This is your Life

http://www.bigredbook.info/george_shearing.html

George 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. In 2004   his memoir, Lullaby of Birdland, which was accompanied by a double album “musical autobiography”, Lullabies of Birdland. Shortly afterwards, however, he suffered a fall at his home and retired from regular performing.

George was invited by three Presidents to play at the White House –  Ford, Carter and Reagan. 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.”

sirgeorgejune2007

He was quite a prankster and had a punning sense of humpor I liked the Nat King Cole story about ‘smelling the money’ trick  and telling an audience,  if they had got held up getting to a gig to blame him as he was the driver.

One of the great loves in his life besides his family was his seeing eye dog, a Golden Retriever named Leland whom he called “Lee.” The two traveled together for well over ten years and after the dog’s death, Shearing devoted himself to the cause, by doing benefit appearances on behalf of Guide Dogs for the Blind,  the organization which had provided him with Lee originally.

alan-shiptonAlyn Shipton, who grew close to Shearing in his later years, said that Shearing was a uniquely warm, funny and straightforward man. “Being blind, he always said he had no knowledge of racial or color issues,” explained Shipton. “He listened to musicians and accepted them for how they played, not who they were. When we agreed to write the book together, we did it on a handshake, no contract, just mutual trust. And George was also extremely generous. When the book we wrote together was finished, and we’d just signed off the proofs, he treated me to an hour’s solo recital in his Manhattan apartment. Just me, George and his piano. I wondered if he recalled a particular Teddy Wilson solo, and he played it to me note for note from memory, even though it must have been years since he heard it. It was a privilege and pleasure beyond words.”

George and Ellie used to come to their home in the Cotswolds in the summer with visitors like neighbour Brian Kay whom he had played with in his King’s singers days, visiting and going to jam with the Dankworths in their Stables studio Wavendon Bucks.

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George and the King Singers rehearsing

One thing that that especially touched him was when the George Shearing Centre for people with learning and multiple disabilities in Este Road Battersea was named in his honour.

george-centre

I was impressed by his anti racist stance and found this reference .

A Final Word On Pianist George Shearing From A Former Bandmate …

During most of my time with George, touring the U.S. was always littered with racial land mines, not always in the South.

When we would travel by car, it didn’t matter what part of the country, we would constantly get stopped and ticketed by the cops because of the mix of colors inside the car.

It was against the law in a lot of States for race mixing and the Shearing band was one of the first integrated groups in the business. Many times we’d show up at a gig and the club owner, promoter or manager would freak out because they didn’t know we were a mixed race band and would refuse to let us enter the club. That’s when George would mess with these people. He would ask them what was the problem. The offender would say he can’t have Black people in his club and George would then ask “What is a color?”

Since George was blind from birth, technically it was true that he didn’t know what the hell a color was, but George wanted to make the person explain their own racism to a person who couldn’t see. The person would try and always fail to logically explain it and would eventually give in and let us play, especially when George would say “If my musicians can’t enter, then neither will I.”

I loved the section about his trips to Ireland. In the 70s Louis Stewart  began his lengthy association with George Shearing (with whom he has toured America, Brazil and all of Europe and recorded eight albums). George was invited over for the Cork International Jazz festival. On the way over , for the first time , he found the safety cards on the Aer Lingus aeroplane were in Braille.Then when he arrived he was met by a group of people who asked if he would join them at blind convention at a hotel which catered for blind people.On check in you were handed a map of your room telling where the furniture was etc. He enjoyed meeting the people there and played a little on the upright piano there. When he asked where they got all the Braille material he was told Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin and how it came about when prisoners were watching Parkinson interviewing George when he had mentioned the lack of Braille safety cards. They went to the eit Governor and said ‘They didn’t want Mr shearing to be able to say about Ireland and so with some lobbying  on their behalf Aer Lingus was persuaded to act on the sugestion.

George was so impressed that he said to Ellie ‘I’d like to go and play for them sometime’ He duly went to the prison to give a concert a few years later with his bass partner Neil Swainson, was given a guided tour, met the piano tuner who said it was ‘Like shooting ducks in a fog’ as the atrium was so echoey. He was presented with a Braille version of Irish folktales, met a prisoner at the tea party who specialised in Braille music. George said to him “Next time I come I’d love to see more of your handiwork” “Mr Shearing I won’t be here.I am getting out and I have a job as a music Brailler” which really heartened George. and he concluded that he may have played a minor role in making the world a safer place for the blind.

I do recommend his autobiography and I hope that we will be seeing a Battersea Society plaque honouring one of our international artists who hailed from Battersea and that I will be giving details of when.

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