Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Sir George Shearing plaque unveiling

Sir George plaqueThe Battersea Society commemorative plaque to Sir George Shearing on Northcote Lodge School 26 Bolingbroke Grove London SW11, formerly Linden Lodge School for the Blind, which he attended for four years was unveiled by Alyn Shipton on Saturday 22nd April 2017. I enjoyed organising it. It is like what I do in my day job as a Humanist celebrant except I don’t usually have an autobiography to help me.

The programme began with a welcome from Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, Alyn unveiling interspersed with excerpts from George’s autobiography and with musical tributes from three of the boys and Charlotte Kirwan ex-pupil of Linden Lodge who played a duet with George in 1962 when he visited the school and was also taught by Mr George Newell. Tributes  were read that had been sent by Lady Ellie Shearing,  Brian Kay of the King Singers and friend, Lord David Blunkett , Roger Legate OBE Principal of Linden Lodge and James Pearson resident pianist and musical director of Ronnie Scotts.

Alyn Shipton, jazz presenter, critic, author and bassist was editor of George’s autobiography Lullaby of Birdland. 

Alyn and george

The programme for the unveiling began when Sir Malcolm Colquhoun the Principal of Northcote Lodge School made a welcome speech. Sir Malcolm is the 9th Baronet of Luss.

Malcolm Coquhoun

Then Alyn spoke and unveiled the plaque by pulling the red cord! His daughter and grandaughter were in the audience.

Alyn Jane and I

Jane Ellison MP, Jeanne Rathbone and Alyn Shipton in front of the plaque on the music department

The following is an extract from Alyn Shipton’s speech at the unveiling, reproduced by by kind permission of the author:
George Shearing – a pianist, jazz musician, bandleader, composer, and as all who knew him will testify, a great wit as well – is being commemorated today, not least because he was the first British instrumentalist to become a household name in the United States – the birthplace of jazz. That’s an achievement in itself, but particularly so as George was blind from birth, and learned many of his skills as a pianist here in this very building in the 1920s and early ‘30s, when it was the Linden Lodge School for the Blind.

It was a privilege to know George and to work with him on his autobiography, but it all began when we met in 1998 in the now long-vanished BBC music studio at Pebble Mill. The piano tuner had had a good lunch – so much so that it had somewhat affected his work. George said, “We’ll begin when the tuner has been to sort out this piano.” A sleepy voice from the corner said, “I have done!” George was by no means happy, and borrowed the tuner’s toolkit to get the central octaves properly in tune. And then we began. The idea was for George to play pieces from across his long career, but as he began with “Mighty Like the Blues”, the first piece he had ever played on the BBC 60 years earlier, it quickly became apparent that he was going to tell me his life story in music. And so he did, with pieces from his days with Claude Bampton’s All-Blind Orchestra, and from the time in World War 2 when George was playing alongside Stephane Grappelli. One piece I particularly remember was George’s solo “Delayed Action”, a musical portrait of the terrifying time-delay bombs that had fallen on London during the blitz, with a seemingly impossibly endless pause leading to a furious explosion of stride. I suggested it was a reworking of Fats Waller’s “Alligator Crawl”, and George laughed, eased into “Keeping out of Mischief Now” and then said, “Fats! I met him in London in 1938. He had hands like a bunch of bananas. When I shook hands with him I felt his fingers and they just kept going on and on…He could stretch a 13th!”

The programme was recorded, and afterwards George and his wife Ellie took me aside and said, this has been so much fun, how would you like to come over and turn these conversations into a book? And so for the next three summers, when George was at his UK home in Stow on the Wold, I’d pop over between his beloved radio broadcasts of test matches (which could not be interrupted) or his occasional concert dates in Britain, to carry on working on the book.

I learned of his life with Stephane Grappelli’s quintet during the war, and his subsequent move to the USA. Of the clubs of 52nd Street, of the particular kindness and generosity of Charlie Parker, the encouragement of Lennie Tristano and the harmonic adventures of Monk and Powell. And of the formation of his famous quintet, whose record of “September in the Rain”, George told me, had sold “upwards of 900,000 copies”. Of course by the time we met, it had passed the million, but he was always too modest to say so directly.The band was a landmark in so many ways, not just for its popular success, but for featuring a female instrumentalist, Marjorie Hyams, and a racially integrated line-up with John Levy and Denzil Best, both African-American, joining the rhythm section. George always said he was colour and gender blind when it came to jazz – and as his line-ups over the years suggest, he always just chose the finest players, including Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans, Al McKibbon, Louis Stewart, and a host more. And in his long and dazzling recording career, there were some great highlights, including work with Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, the Montgomery Brothers, the Kings’ Singers (remembering George’s abiding love of classical music) and – above all Mel Tormé, whom George always said was the other half of his musical brain.

It is great to see so many people here today, including members of the Shearing family, and his many friends from the music world, including the most wonderful singer Ian Partridge, who, like George has given so many of us so much pleasure through the power of music. And so now it is my most pleasant duty to unveil this blue plaque to remember one of the most distinguished musicians this country has ever produced.”

lullaby-of-birdland-autobiography-of-georege-shearingHere is the excerpt I read from the chapter headed Linden Lodge from George’s autobiography.

The greatest boon to, as far as learning to be blind and to live with blindness, was the 4 years I spent at Linden Lodge residential school between the ages of 12 and 16. I always got the feeling that the place was an old house, with balconies and things on the outside and there seemed to be a lot of glass in the internal decorations.

There was a big garden which seemed to us to cover a lot of ground. There was a gardener who was there on a Friday when we had our weekly bath and I can recall his voice saying ‘Come on shearing Scrub those knees’. When we went to church on Sundays we had to put our ties on. Each of us kept our ties in a tin that we kept in our lockers our bedrooms. There were 17 boys in one dormitory.

He talks of handball which was devised for blind lads using a football in the gym but all done with hands and the cricket adapted with a rubbery ball with a bell on it and stumps with a different sound to the ball of the bat.

George was a picky eater. No fish, cheese, few sauces, mainly roast meats and omelettes and was indulged by his parents who would bring him jam tarts, sponge cakes and pots of jam to the school.

 He mentions roller skating being popular at school and recalled visiting the school in the fifties and being impressed at their whizzing around on the asphalt at top speed and to know how far they could go when they need to turn a corner.

He said; ‘The whole experience of Linden Lodge was good for me. It was at school that I really mastered the art of typing. I started really serious piano lessens getting an hours practise a day often played for an hour or two to play piano in the sitting room during the evening. I went through a period of learning classical pieces, or diligently practising scales and exercises which I continued to do at home.

I was already experimenting with playing jazz things I’d heard on disc or the radio. What touched me most about it was the spirit of the music. It wasn’t the sweetest sound this side of heaven but I loved the American sound of jazz bands with no smooth vibrato, whose brass and reeds cut right through the ensemble.

By the time I was 16 the music teacher George Newell had said to my parents ‘It is obvious this boy is going to become a jazz pianist and any further  study of classical music would be a waste of time’.

When George visited the school in 1962 he told Mr Newell that he had learned some classical music in the interim to play full length concertos by Bach and Mozart with symphony orchestras across the United States. And asked if he would have given the same advise he said ‘I suspect your main dollar still comes from playing jazz.’ He was a very wise man that Mr Newell and a very accomplished musician

The Survey of London Battersea tells us

Appleby sold a large plot on Bolingbroke Grove of 100ft frontage to Marjory Jane Peddie, a wealthy spinster and retired headmistress, for whom Robson designed the biggest of all his houses here (now No. 26). Appleby offset the £900 purchase price against his mortgage debts of £10,000, and Robson had a perspective view and a puff published in the Building News, which the two men must have hoped would excite interest. Miss Peddie’s house was described as the ‘first of a series of houses in the old English Style, somewhat incorrectly called “Queen Anne”’.

Named  Linden Lodge by Miss Peddie, the house was set back elegantly some 120ft from the roadway behind a carriage drive, and enjoyed over an acre and a half of garden and grounds. Inside, her accommodation included, on the ground floor, a library, dining-room and large L-shaped drawing-room with a bay window; upstairs were four bedrooms, a dressing-room and bathroom, with further rooms on a smaller second floor. Kitchen facilities and servants’ quarters were provided by Robson in what was essentially a separate two-storey cottage attached to the west wall of the main three-storey house.

On Peddie’s death in 1879, the building was purchased by the School for the Indigent Blindf  then located at St George’s Fields Southwark, which opened a school for junior pupils. In 1902, the entire school moved to Leatherhead, Surrey and the house was put up for sale again. The building was subsequently taken over by the London School Board and Linden Lodge School (as it is still known today) opened on 10 December 1902. The school educated around fifty blind boys aged between 13 and 16, of whom around forty were boarders. A similar school for visually impaired girls was opened at Elm Court in  West Norwood the same year.

During the Second World War the children of both schools were evacuated away from London. The boys returned to Bolingbroke Grove in 1945. Elm Court School had suffered considerable bomb damage during the Blitz and after several years at temporary locations the girls were moved to North House in Wimbledon which was designed by Luteyns in 1934 now the main school site and from 1949 onwards Linden Lodge operated as a single coed school split between two locations, under the control of one headmaster.

Linden Lodge School Lutyens In 2006 Sprunt Architects extensively refurbished the original Lutyens House, designed a new residential building for the students and restored the original Gertrude Jekyll garden. The senior girls were transported by bus each morning to join the older boys for lessons on the Bolingbroke Grove site. The Bolingbroke Grove site was closed in 1964, when the senior boys moved to a purpose built school in the grounds of North House. Today, 26 Bolingbroke Grove is Northcote Lodge School.

From Lady Ellie Shearing:   First of all, I would like to extend my personal thanks to both the Battersea Society and to Jeanne Rathbone for their diligence in having the Battersea Society commemorative plaque placed on the Music Department building of Northcote Lodge, formerly The Linden Lodge School for the Blind.  This honor ranks among the highest of the many honors that have been bestowed upon my late husband, Sir George Shearing.

Sir George spoke often of the early education he received at Linden Lodge for the Blind.  He especially felt that it was a member of the music faculty, Mr. Newell, who gave him his start.  Though talented, George could be exasperating!  For instance, the word, PRACTICE, was never in George’s vocabulary……not at Linden Lodge nor even when he became world-famous!  He told me that Mr. Newell would assign him 12 bars of music to memorize for his next piano lesson in a week’s time.  George would agree.  But, when it came time for George to play those 12 bars at his next lesson, he made a complete hash of it.  Mr. Newell, in total frustration, would scold George saying, “You foolish boy, it goes like this” and then would play it for him again.  George would listen.  And, then he would sit down at the piano and, immediately, play it back perfectly.  What could Mr. Newell say?

I witnessed a rather extraordinary afternoon many years later during a Master Class that George was giving at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the City of London.  Three or four students were assigned to play for George, who would then critique them and offer helpful suggestions on how to improve their performances.  The first student, this particular day, was a young pianist.  He announced that he would play one of his own compositions.  He then sat down and tore into it with amazing agility.  It was loud.  It was fast.  His hands flew over the keys from top to bottom…never missing a note.  When he finished, the room erupted in applause.

While this impressive performance was going on, George stood at the bass end of the keyboard, listening.  When the applause ended, George asked the young man, “Why do you hate the piano?”  I must admit that I gasped along with the rest of the audience.  It was a shocking question.  George continued, saying, “You attacked that piano.”  He then asked the student to move off the bench and George sat down to play.  He astonished the entire room by playing this young man’s entire composition back to him but in a style totally opposite from what we had just heard.  George played it softly, slowly and brought out melodies that we hadn’t heard because of the young man’s bravado.  George used that same ability that Mr. Newell had witnessed at Linden Lodge.  And, he showed that he still didn’t need to practice!  However, I can testify that George did practice once in a while.  He practiced a little bit before a recording session.  He practiced a bit more if he were going to play a concert with an extraordinary American jazz pianist by the name of Dick Hyman.  George referred to him as “Mr. Perfect” because he warmed up every day with finger exercises……which George thought was just too much work!

Mr. Newell, at Linden Lodge, gave George the encouragement that George did not receive at home.  In fact, Mr. Newell got George his first audition at the BBC. However, when George appeared for his next piano lesson, Mr. Newell asked him why he hadn’t shown up for the audition he had arranged for him.   It was then that George found out that his father and brother had turned down the audition.  When George confronted them, he learned that because his father and brother both had to work and his mother had an ulcerated leg, there was no one to take him to the audition.  Mr. Newell managed to set up another audition and this time George appeared, played, and was given a weekly 15-minute BBC music program.

Now you know why this blind kid from Battersea, who became so well-known, never forgot his early days at Linden Lodge for the Blind.  If he were with you today, he would thank you from the bottom of his heart for providing him with a teacher who believed in him.  He would also tell you how proud he was in receiving this wonderful honor that you all have given him today.   Because of his absence, please allow me to give you his heartfelt thanks in his stead.

With my warmest regards, Eleanor, Lady Shearing
george_and ellie

Roger Legate OBE Principal Linden Lodge School 

It is with regret that I cannot be with you this morning to join you in the celebration and appreciation of George Shearing as a renowned musician and champion of disability and visual impairment.

We are so very proud of George who is a former Linden Lodger and who has been such an example of someone who overcame his sensory disability and made such an amazing contribution to the world of music ; bringing so much joy and appreciation as a pianist.

Linden Lodge has a long standing reputation and history as a specialist school for visual impairment.  I am so very fortunate in that I have been the Principal at Linden for the last 22 years.  It has been a privilege and honour to work with the children and families to maximise opportunity and enable the children to be as independent as possible.

George was such a great role model for demonstrating total independence as well as excellence and talent in the field of music and performing arts.  George was such a rare talent, however his legacy will live long at Linden Lodge.  The school has a reputation for music and performing arts.  We are an Artsmark Gold Award winner on 3 occasions over 8 years and we are currently striving for a Platinum award.

We have a wide sensory programme of individual music teachers which is part of the specialism for complex needs children.   As George did so very well we champion all of our children.  However now at Linden Lodge the profile of Special Educational Needs is very different to when George was a pupil at the school.

Linden Lodge now has 141 children, of which 38 board.  They come to us from 33 local authorities across London & the South East, mainly living within the M25 ring.  Our profile now is for children who are multi disabled visually impaired, (MDYI) children with more profound learning needs (PHLD) and a high proportion of children with life limiting conditions.

Pupils such as George would now be supported in mainstream Primary and Secondary Schools.  We support a further 700 children through our outreach services and our Hearing Support Team provide the Auditory Implant programme at St Georges Hospital.

We continue with our regional and national specialist reputation and we are very highly regarded.  I could say so much about how proud I am of children at Linden Lodge and that parents and carers strive very hard to gain a place at the school.   We have a fantastic campus in Southfields, but the school’s roots stem from Battersea, where the school started its journey.

I hope the marking of George’s contribution in Battersea and the local area goes well.  George is much respected as a former Linden Lodger and I am sure those gathering today will share many experiences and very fond memories.  George is embedded in the history of the school and his music legacy live on with the current and future generations of children coming to Linden.

We have a remarkable Performing Arts Centre, a water therapy centre and we are now building a new £1.5m Family Centre which will be the hub of our organisation.  I have said too much, but in many ways can only pay a small tribute to a remarkable and talented Linden Lodger ,who has given so much too so many.

I hope you have a wonderful day.

Roger Legate

Roger Legate OBE Principal of Linden Lodge School



I was intrigued and pleased to read about George’s visit to Ireland and finding the aeroplane safety notices in Braille. This 2nd excerpt is about this visit to Ireland for the Cork jazz festival and how, on the plane over for the first time, he found the safety notices in Braille and then when he got there he was taken to a convention for blind people where the hotel handed clients a map of their bedroom. He was very impressed and asked where the signs had come from and was told Arbour Hill prison had a Braille making rehabilitation programme in Dublin.

Apparently, prisoners had watched when George was by Michael Parkinson and had mentioned the lack of safety notices in Braille. They went to their governor and said ‘We don’t want Mr Shearing to say that about Ireland’ so they successfully lobbied Aer Lingus. George decided he would like to play for them which he did a few years later. He recalled the sinister sound of the outer gate slamming. He was given a tour of their library of Braille books. At the tea with the governor he spoke to one of the prisoners who specialised in Braille music. George said he would love to see more of his music next time and the chap replied that he was getting out in a fortnight and had a job as a music Brailler. George concluded that he and Ireland had a minor role in making the world safer for blind people.

Brian Kay

Brian Kay of the King Singers.

Brian Kay’s tribute was read by one of the Northcote pupils.

Now, sadly, I cannot be with you on the day, much as I would LOVE to have been. A dear friend and neighbour is getting married that day in Burford church and I have long since agreed to direct the music. As even I am not able to be in two places at once, I can be with you only in spirit.

‘I first met George back in the early 80s, when we King’s Singers were performing at the Metropolitan Museum, just round the corner from their apartment in New York. He and Ellie came to the concert and we were introduced afterwards. When I told them I lived in the Cotswolds, they told me the story of George’s agent, who kept being told to leave space in a European tour he was organising, for them to visit the Cotswolds. George and Ellie were so insistent that in the end, the agent said: “These Cotswolds must be really good friends of yours”!

The next year they did indeed visit the Cotswolds and loved them so much that they came every year for the next fifteen years, treating it as their second home and allowing us the constant joy of their incomparable company. George would lie on a lounger in the garden listening to Test Match Special (one of the great loves of his life) and would join us whenever possible for his favourite meal – roast lamb, with fresh garden peas, new potatoes and mint sauce! As Ellie always said: he was ‘British to the bone’! And all those outrageous puns and limericks … he was unstoppable! 

Of course he was a natural genius and it is with enormous pride that I now wear several of George’s jackets and sweaters, so generously bequeathed to me by Ellie after his death. The richly deserved Knighthood he was awarded was the icing on the considerable cake of his remarkable life and the sound of his playing will fortunately be with us for ever: a truly great man and a very dear friend. 

George and stephane

George, Stephane and Michael Aspel

Brian and the King Singers were amongst the contributors to the George Shearing edition of This is Your Life in 1992.

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book This Is Your Life: The Story of Television’s Famous Big Red Book…

One of the most unusual pick-ups in the history of the Life was at Ronnie Scott’s world famous Soho jazz club on 17 December 1991. Very unusual: the ‘This Is Your Life’ message on the Big Red Book was in braille.

This was so that blind jazz pianist George Shearing could trace the message when Ronnie Scott invited Michael Aspel on to the club’s stage.

Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Henry Mancini, the King’s Singers, John Dankworth and Stephane Grapelli  paid their tributes to this Battersea coalman’s son. Blind from birth, George had played his way from local pub pianist to international stardom.

George and birdland

James Pearson resident pianist and musical director of Ronnie Scott’s is big fan of George’s and has held a tribute concerts to him. f

James Pearson wrote: Alas, I will not be able to come in person as I am performing in Manchester with the Halle orchestra. Ironically I am the soloist in a concert called ‘Giants of Jazz’ and we are actually playing George’s original version of Lullaby of Birdland… which is quite apt.

I often perform a concert called a ‘portrait of George Shearing’ which honours the man and his music and I always mention the Linden Lodge School.

My best wishes to you and all on Saturday and it’s great that you have managed to honour George in this way.

Lord David Blunkett’s tribute was read by Giles in the school Library after we had to take refuge when an April shower arrived.

From Lord David Blunkett     “It was my pleasure and privilege to contribute along with so many, to the recognition of George, his life and his music, in obtaining a knighthood which properly acknowledged the pleasure he brought to so many.

I also had the privilege after the award of the knighthood in meeting and having tea with George and his immediate friends and talking a little about his remarkable life.

One of the twists of fate is that the site you are now on which used to be Linden Lodge, transferred to Southfields (Wimbledon) and for some considerable time I occupied a small house literally across the wall from the school!

Unfortunately, I am not a great musician although I love music and I’m so glad that George was able to develop and bring his talent to offer such a remarkable contribution of his lifetime.

From playing in the local pub to be knighted in the Palace, is something to be proud of.”



Armando Peraza London 1999

Peraza was introduced to British pianist George Shearing and joined George’s band for the next 12 years and was a collaboration that found Peraza at the forefront of a new wave of popularity for Afro-Cuban music. Shearing’s music is now regarded as “light” in jazz terms, but the rhythms and harmonic structures Peraza introduced to the pianist’s music were unerringly authentic. It was during his time with Shearing that Peraza emerged as a composer, writing and recording twenty-one songs for Shearing, such as “Mambo in Chimes”, “Mambo in Miami”,”Ritmo Africano”, “Armando’s Hideaway”, “This is Africa”, “Estampa Cubana” and many others.

I read this tribute that he wrote when George died.  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.”

The rain stopped and we went out for tea and cake in the front of the school. I took this photo of the thirteen relatives of George’s who attended through contact with Les Pethybridge via Battersea Memories Facebook website.

Shearing relatives

George’s relatives who attended the unveiling of the commemorative plaque.


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 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.


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.


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  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.


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.


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


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

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.


George with his sisters on This is your Life

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.”


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.


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.


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.