Yesterday I was in the movie “Green Book”, a story about piano player Don Shirley and his driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga:
In the film, Shirley hires Tony Lip to act as a driver and bodyguard as he embarks on a musical tour of the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s. During the road trip, the duo are guided by the Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a travel guide for black motorists that which was given to Tony Lip by Shirley’s record label. Shirley is portrayed as being estranged from his family and the black community and even seems embarrassed by his blackness. He’s well-educated and brilliant, but he drinks alone in his hotel room each night after gigs. Tony Lip is charming but rough and is overtly racist. The two bond after Tony Lip introduces Shirley to Little Richard and fried chicken, and he saves Shirley from multiple racist incidents. By the end of the film, Tony Lip is less racist and is said to have become lifelong friends with Shirley. (by huffingtopost.com)
Donald Walbridge Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013) was an American classical and jazz pianist and composer. He recorded many albums for Cadence during the 1950s and 1960s, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. He wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of “Variations” on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.
During the 1960s, Shirley went on a number of concert tours, some in Deep South states, hiring New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story is dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book.
Donald Walbridge Shirley was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola, Florida, to Jamaican immigrants, Stella Gertrude (1903–1936), a teacher, and Edwin S. Shirley (1885–1982), an Episcopal priest. His birthplace was sometimes given as Kingston, Jamaica, because promoters advertised him as being Jamaican-born.
Shirley started to learn piano when he was two years old. At the age of nine, he was invited to study theory with Mittolovski at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. He also studied with Conrad Bernier and Thaddeus Jones at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Shirley earned a doctorate of Music, Psychology, and Liturgical Arts after temporarily giving up the piano.
In 1945, at the age of 18, Shirley performed the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto with the Boston Pops. A year later, Shirley performed one of his compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1949, he received an invitation from the Haitian government to play at the Exposition Internationale du Bi-Centenaire de Port-au-Prince, followed by a request from President Estimé and Archbishop Le Goise for a repeat performance the next week.
Discouraged by the lack of opportunities for classical black musicians, Shirley abandoned the piano as a career while young. He studied psychology at the University of Chicago and began work in Chicago as a psychologist. There he returned to music. He was given a grant to study the relationship between music and juvenile crime, which had broken out in the postwar era of the early 1950s. Playing in a small club, he experimented with sound to determine how the audience responded. The audience was unaware of his experiments and that students had been planted to gauge their reactions.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Shirley recorded many albums for Cadence Records, experimenting with jazz with a classical influence. In 1961, his single “Water Boy” reached No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 14 weeks. He performed in New York City at Basin Street East, where Duke Ellington heard him and they started a friendship.
At Arthur Fiedler’s invitation, Shirley appeared with the Boston Pops in Chicago in June 1954. In 1955, he performed with the NBC Symphony at the premiere of Ellington’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall. He also appeared on TV on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.
The Negro Motorist Green-Book listed businesses that served black travelers in the segregated South.
During the 1960s, Shirley went on a number of concert tours, some in southern states, believing that he could change some minds with his performances. He hired New York nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard. Their story is dramatized in the 2018 film Green Book, the name of a travel guide for black motorists in the segregated southern states. In the fictionalized account, despite some early friction with their differing personalities, the two became good friends. However, Maurice Shirley, Don’s brother, said, “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend’; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation.”
The real Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley
In the fall of 1968, Shirley performed a Tchaikovsky concerto with the Detroit Symphony. He also worked with the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra. He wrote symphonies for the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. He played as soloist with the orchestra at Milan’s La Scala opera house in a program dedicated to George Gershwin’s music.
Shirley wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of “Variations” on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.
Shirley was married to Jean C. Hill in Cook County, Illinois on December 23, 1952, but they later divorced.
He died of heart disease April 6, 2013, at the age of 86. (by wikipedia)
And here´s a pretty good live album from 1968.
“His virtuosity is worthy of Gods.” (Igor Stravinsky)
Henry Gonzalez (bass)
Gilberto Munguia (cello)
Don Shirley (piano)
01. I Can’t Get Started (Duke) 7.59
02. I Feel Pretty (Bernstein/Sondheim) 1.37
03. My Funny Valentine (Hart/Rodgers) 4.17
04. Yesterday (Lennon/McCartney) 4.41
05. I Cover The Waterfront (Heyman/Green) 5..10
06. Georgia On My Mind (Carmichael/Gorrell) 4.49
07. Lullaby (Smith) 2.46
08. Water Boy (Robinson) 4.39
09. One Man’s Hand (Comfort/Seeger) 2.51
10. By Myself (Dietz/Schwartz) 4.26
11. Happy Talk (Hammerstein II/Rodgers) 1.50
12. From Eden To Canaan (singe A side, 1969) (Kessler/Scott) 3.03
13. Stiletto (singe B side, 1969) (Ramia) 2.25
Don Shirley (January 29, 1927 – April 6, 2013)
About the movie and the controversy about this movie:
The film was co-written by Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, who based the screenplay on his father’s recollections of the road trip. Vallelonga and director Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary”) have stressed the film’s accuracy in the press.
“Everything in the film is true,” Vallelonga said on “NBC Nightly News.” “The only creative license we took was combining some stories, time-wise, what happened in this state might have happened in another state. But everything was true, and that was really important to me and Pete the director, that we told the truth.”
Shirley’s family members disagree, however, and are furious about the portrayal of their relative in “Green Book.”
They told NPR that the film is “full of lies,” that Shirley was not estranged from his family or the black community, and that he “had definitely eaten fried chicken before.”
The family told Shadow and Act that there wasn’t a close friendship between Tony Lip and Shirley and that their dynamic “was an employer-employee relationship,” according to Patricia Shirley, Maurice’s wife.
The family also told Shadow and Act that the movie had been pitched to Shirley while he was alive and he didn’t want it made.
“I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it,” Edwin said. “He flatly refused.”
Shirley’s nephew called the film a “symphony of lies.”