A tribute to the Delius Society member
and distinguished composer and performer
The son of a coalman father and railway carriage cleaner mum, George was the youngest of nine children. Blind from birth, he was born on 13th August 1919, in a rundown area of Battersea, south-west London, where life was tough for his parents and eight siblings.
Following formal schooling George attended a specialist school for the blind where he learned to play classical piano and read Braille music. It soon became evident that jazz was his preference and, although offered university grants it was more essential to earn for the family so leaving the school he initially played in a pub.
By the early 1930s, as a member of an all-blind orchestra, he became much in demand as a jazz exponent and ended the decade amongst the most famous bandleaders of the day.
In 1944 Glenn Miller suggested that America might offer him greater opportunities for his talent and, following an exploratory visit to a friend, Leonard Feather in New York, the decision to permanently leave our shores was made in 1947.
Fostering a ‘locked-hands’ style of playing, his fame spread internationally and, together with his quintet, remained firmly in the forefront of jazz circles for twenty-nine years before disbanding to pursue a solo and recording career.
Repeatedly bestowed with honours and awards, in the 1940s he won the British Best Jazz Pianist poll seven years in succession; played a Royal Command Performance; received two American college honorary doctorates; an Ivor Novello Award; played at the White House for three Presidents and has a Battersea facility for the disabled, The George Shearing Centre, named in his honour.
Although a naturalized American citizen his country of birth awarded him with an OBE and a knighthood for Services to Music and Anglo-British Relations. Sir George Shearing died at the age of 91 on February 14th 2011.
With thanks to Brian Willey for his permission to reproduce this obituary.
Brian Willey is a former Board member of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers & Authors, a songwriter, and BBC Radio 2 Producer.