Posts Tagged ‘Don Shirley’

Another Discovery

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

So up pops the name of another artist whom I do not recognize but absolutely need to learn more about.

Glancing this morning at the Billboard Hot 100 for January 27, 1962 – forty-five years ago today – I recognized a title bubbling under at No. 103: “Drown In My Own Tears” by Don Shirley.

I know the song, certainly. In 1956, Ray Charles’ version went to No. 1 on a couple of the pop charts of the time and on the R&B chart. Written by Henry Glover and – according to Second Hand Songs – first recorded by the Sonny Thompson Orchestra in 1952, the song has been covered many, many times. My first hearing of the song was likely as part of the “Blue Medley” on Joe Cocker’s live Mad Dogs & Englishmen from 1970, and just by accident, I’ve gathered ten other versions of the song.

So who was Don Shirley? Well, we’ll start with the version of “Drown In My Own Tears” that he released as the title track to a 1961 album. (Is this the single version? I doubt it. A label I saw for the single shows a running time of 2:16. As I implied the other day, we all know how unreliable running times on single labels are, but still, that 2:16 is about forty seconds shorter than the album track, and that’s a big difference to hide.) The single peaked at No. 100, and on its B-side, “The Lonesome Road” bubbled under at No. 116.

It turns out that Shirley was a well-known and well–regarded composer and pianist, working in jazz but with influences from other forms as well. As Wikipedia notes, “Don Shirley’s music is hard to categorize. As an arranger-composer he treated each piece of music as a new composition, not just an arrangement. Shirley played standards in a non-standard way. He was a virtuoso, playing everything from show tunes, to ballads, to his personal arrangements of Negro spirituals, to jazz, and always with the overtone of a classically trained musician who has utmost respect for the music he is playing.”

His biography is – to use a word I likely have overused in this space – fascinating, from studying music theory in Leningrad at age nine, to playing with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops and performing at Milan’s La Scala, to becoming a psychologist and then falling back into a musical career and recording a series of jazz albums from the mid-1950s through the 1960s.

His chart presence was minimal: In 1955, his album Tonal Expressions went to No. 14 on the Billboard chart, and in mid-1961, a cover of the traditional work song “Water Boy” by the Don Shirley Trio went to No. 40 on the Hot 100 and to No. 10 on the Easy Listening chart. Neither of the two singles – “Water Boy” or the earlier mentioned “Drown In My Own Tears/The Lonesome Road” – showed up in the R&B Top 40.

There’s plenty of Don Shirley’s stuff out there. I saw numerous CDs listed and there’s some stuff in the wilds of the ’Net, too, I imagine. What I’ve heard so far, I like, and I’m no doubt going to find more.