The Writer: Brooke C Obie
Date first published: 16 December 2018
In August 2018, Edwin Shirley III sat in disbelief as he watched a screening of Peter Farrelly’s new movie Green Book, a simplistic racial harmony story set in the Jim Crow south. Viggo Mortenson stars as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a racist Italian American New Yorker. Mahershala Ali is the supporting actor who is tapped to play Dr. Donald Waldridge Shirley, a Black, queer, musical genius—and Edwin’s uncle—who died at 86 in 2013.
As is typical of a Hollywood White Savior Film, Green Book places Dr. Shirley in several dangerous circumstances with racist white men so that Vallelonga can swoop in and save the day. In the process, Vallelonga teaches the world-renowned Black pianist about Black music and how to eat fried chicken.
Though Dr. Shirley did hire Vallelonga as a driver and bodyguard during one of Dr. Shirley’s concert tours in the south, much of the rest of the movie’s plot (co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga) is disputed by more family members of Dr. Shirley than just Edwin—none of whom were consulted or even contacted at any point during the writing or production of this film.
“It was rather jarring,” Edwin shared with Shadow and Act of his first experience seeing this on-screen portrayal of his uncle as a Black man who is estranged from his family, estranged from the Black community and seemingly embarrassed by Blackness.
Never mind that Dr. Shirley was active in the civil rights movement, friends with Dr. King, present for the march in Selma, and close friends with Black musicians—from Nina Simone to Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn—Dr. Shirley was also very much a part of his family’s lives.
To see him portrayed otherwise, “That was very hurtful,” Edwin said. “That’s just 100% wrong.”
Dr. Shirley’s last living brother, Dr. Maurice Shirley, 82, was “furious” when he heard of the depiction of his brother in this film and had much harsher criticism of it, calling it “a symphony of lies.” As one example, Maurice mentioned the moment in the film where Ali’s character says he has a brother but didn’t know his whereabouts, as they hadn’t been in contact for some time.
“At that point [in 1962 when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” Maurice said, speaking of himself, and his and Dr. Shirley’s two older brothers, Dr. Edwin Shirley Jr. and Dr. Calvin Hilton Shirley.
“One of the things Donald used to remind me in his later years was he literally raised me,” Maurice said. Their mother died when Donald was 9 years old and Maurice was just two days old, so Dr. Shirley, as the closest brother in age to Maurice, took care of him growing up and remained close with him until Dr. Shirley’s death five years ago.
“There wasn’t a month where I didn’t have a phone call conversation with Donald,” Maurice said.
The Uncle Donald that Edwin knew comforted him in his grief in 1964 when Edwin was just 15 years old and Edwin’s little brother had been struck and killed by a car. Dr. Shirley was on tour at the time and stopped everything to come down to Miami to be with the family at the funeral. It was there that Edwin became enthralled with what his Uncle Donald did for a living and Dr. Shirley took a special interest in him too.
“He asked my mother if she would allow me to ride with him on tour for a week, and much to my amazement, she allowed me to skip school for that week and a couple of days to ride with him,” he said. Thus began Edwin’s first adventure with his uncle as they embarked on Dr. Shirley’s nine-day concert tour from Cincinnati to Chicago.
“He was always instructing,” Edwin remembered from that trip. When Edwin shared with Dr. Shirley that he wanted to be a writer, Dr. Shirley said, “‘If you want to be a writer, you need to read Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.’ I will never forget that. He said, ‘This will make you focus on attention to detail. It’ll make you neurotic but it will make you a better writer,’” Edwin said.
Dr. Shirley’s inclination to teach is one part of the film that Edwin doesn’t find “highly doubtful.”
“There was a scene in which he was correcting Tony and Tony asks, ‘Why are you busting my [balls]?’ And he said, ‘Because you can do better.’ That, to me, sounded just like him.”
Unfortunately, for the family, there is more wrong than there is right, including the crux of the film—that Green Book, as Universal’s marketing materials advertise, is “inspired by a true friendship.”
“No,” Maurice and his wife Patricia Shirley said in a uniformed scoff when asked if Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga were ever close friends. “Not at all,” Patricia said.
Donald Shirley as best man at the wedding of Patricia Shirley and Maurice Shirley | Credit: Maurice and Patricia Shirley
Maurice and Patricia Shirley had met Vallelonga in his capacity as a driver on some of their trips from their home in Milwaukee to New York City to visit with Dr. Shirley and hear him play at Carnegie Hall.
“It was an employer-employee relationship,” Patricia observed on those occasions that Vallelonga drove them around town. Neither during that time nor any time after did Dr. Shirley ever mention Tony as a “friend,” according to both Edwin and the couple. Instead, a professional relationship was “the only kind of relationship that [Dr. Shirley] ever had with any of the people he worked with,” she said.
“He insisted that be the case,” Maurice continued.
“Including the cellist and the bassist [he worked with in the Don Shirley Trio],” Patricia said. “It was always a professional employer-employee relationship.”
Beyond that, Maurice added with laugh, “You asked what kind of relationship he had with Tony? He fired Tony! Which is consistent with the many firings he did with all of his chauffeurs over time.”
And some of the reasons why Maurice said Dr. Shirley fired Tony were featured in the film.
“Tony would not open the door, he would not take any bags, he would take his [chauffeur’s] cap off when Donald got out of the car, and several times Donald would find him with the cap off, and confronted him,” Maurice recalled.
“So when you hear that Tony had been with him for 18 months, I can assure you, no chauffeur lasted with my brother for 18 months. Anybody who knew my brother’s temper and had any experience with any of his other chauffeurs—the maximum was the one from right here in Milwaukee from the Urban League that lasted at least two months.”
Not even members of the Trio were safe. “He would terminate them on the spot,” Patricia said. “He was a very meticulous individual. If they were late,” she said,
“Or played a note incorrectly,” Maurice said. “You can call it impulsivity, but he was a perfectionist.”
It was, perhaps, that level of perfectionism and his steadfast protection of his brand that made Dr. Shirley refuse Nick Vallelonga’s initial request for permission to make a movie about him.
“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.”
At first, Edwin tried to get Dr. Shirley to reconsider Nick’s offer. “I remember suggesting to him that it might be a good idea, ‘you can be involved [with the making of the film],’ and he just flatly said, ‘No, absolutely not. I don’t want to have any part of that.’” Edwin remembered.
“And so, I said to him at the time, ‘Well, perhaps you can set some conditions whereby you can be involved if they agree to certain things in terms of control for you,’ and what he said at the time was, ‘No matter what they say to me now, I will not have any control over how I am portrayed.’”
As the family’s insistence on the inaccuracies in Green Book shows, Dr. Shirley was right.
“God knows, this is the reason that he never wanted to have his life portrayed on screen,” Edwin said. “I now understand why, and I feel terrible that I was actually trying to urge him to do this in the 1980s, because everything that he objected to back then has come true now.”
At 18, Dr. Shirley made his debut as a professional pianist, in a concert with the Boston Pops, a symphony orchestra, in 1945.
“It was called ‘Colored Night with the Boston Pops,’ and he was the featured artist on this particular night,” Edwin recalled from an old announcement his uncle had kept.
“At that point, he must have been done with his formal education because, skip to 1948, I know he was in Washington, DC, at Catholic University. Before then, he had been at Virginia State University.”
Maurice also remembered Dr. Shirley studying at what was then Prairie View College, in Texas.
It was a Black woman professor at an HBCU that Dr. Shirley would say was his best instructor.
“I wish I could remember her name,” Edwin said. “He said she was the best teacher he had ever had with respect to that particular discipline.”
When Dr. Shirley began pursuing a professional career as a classical pianist, as he was trained, that’s when he began to understand the impact that being Black in a white supremacist America would have on his life and his livelihood.
“He said that when he first began with Cadence Records, Archie Bleyer, who was the owner of the label, had indicated to him that, ‘if you want a career in classical music, you’re going to need some kind of an exotic background.’”
Being a Black American man and a classical pianist from Pensacola wouldn’t ring true to a white audience, Bleyer believed.
“That’s where the idea of him being born in Kingston, Jamaica came from,” Edwin said.
His HBCU education was also erased.
“The idea that he studied in Europe as a child—of course, because of his ability to play, that was believed. So my understanding was, that was a contrivance of the label at the time, not his,” Edwin said. “That was part of what was put on the back of his album covers, basically to compartmentalize him and make him acceptable in areas where a Black man from a Black school wouldn’t have got any recognition at all.”
Bleyer also changed Dr. Shirley’s name from Donald to Don, another contrivance to make him more palatable in the jazz and popular music scene—which Dr. Shirley hated.
“He’d say, ‘Just because I’m Black, they assume I play jazz,’” Astor remembered. “For the rest of his life it just flipped him out. He couldn’t abide that that was an assumption that people made.”
But as a result of being restricted from the classical stages on which he wanted to play, he would play in nightclubs, which, in Let it Shine, Dr. Shirley called “toilets.”
“He invented a new form of playing the piano,” Astor said, melding popular music, gospel music, Negro Spirituals, and classical music.
“Classical music is a reference to a time period,” Edwin remembered Dr. Shirley telling him. “Serious music was a reference to quality. His whole intention was to raise popular music to the level of serious music through the application of musical principles. And I think he did that successfully.”
Here’s how Edwin said Dr. Shirley did it:
“He starts with the familiar melody, and then has the cello and bass expound in horizontal harmony (à la Baroque music) in Bach-like fashion. Then, like Bach’s Goldberg variations, he embarks on 15 different variations on the original theme, allowing his cellist, Marisol Espada, and his bassist, Bob Field, to take solos. Meanwhile, he plays with increasing fury as he approaches the end of the piece.”
Through his music, Dr. Shirley also expressed his cynical side. “He told me his ‘Blue Skies’ was meant to be an ironic twist to the original meaning of the song, i.e., ‘blue skies’, happiness, optimism,” Edwin said. “In his version, blue skies, relentless blue skies, meant monotony without any end in sight, perhaps dry land, longing for rain and there’s no sign of clouds anywhere that could bring desperately needed water.”
His cynicism was well-earned, considering the racism that forced him to create his own genre “because of necessity,” Astor said. “Survival, I suppose.”
He needed his survival mode because the music industry tried to reduce his dignity at every turn. When his famous album Water Boy was being released, instead of the formal wear he’d often don every day, let alone on his album covers, he was asked to dress far more casually for this cover.
“They wanted to make me look like a shoe shine boy,” Dr. Shirley told Astor in Let it Shine. “And I’m not going to do that. They’ve been trying to do that to me ever since I’ve been in this business.”
In the times when his career was stunted, he would retreat into academia, studying musicology, psychology and liturgical arts. He earned three doctorate degrees, spoke eight languages and was an accomplished painter.
“He painted the album cover on ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’; it was one of his originals,” Edwin recalled.
With his undeniable musical talent, he did get to grace the concert stages he so desired, performing first as a duo with a bassist and then adding a cellist to make the Don Shirley Trio. In 1965, he performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and became the first Black performer to play at the opera house La Scala in Milan.
As Astor recalled, “He said, in the film, ‘Well, eventually I did have the concert career I trained my whole life for, although I did have to go through the backdoor of the nightclubs first.”
Once he got through the doors, he insisted on playing his favorite piano, a Steinway, on stage. “If you didn’t have a Steinway, the contract was null and void,” Maurice recalled. “He would walk away.” Steinway was quite fond of Dr. Shirley, as well, and celebrated him as the artist of the year.
As his career escalated, Dr. Shirley chose his professional life over a personal one, and divorced Jean Hill, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago, where Dr. Shirley made his Illinois debut, playing at Orchestra Hall.
As he explained in Astor’s Let it Shine, Dr. Shirley’s divorce, “had nothing to do with love, it had nothing to do with lust. It had to do with the fact that here I had an opportunity to have a career,” he said. “I was dead set on being what I had been training all my life to be.”
As far as the family knows, there was never another long-term romantic partner in Dr. Shirley’s life after his ex-wife, “For the reasons he stated in the documentary,” Maurice said.
“The only romantic relationship was his piano, his organ, his family,” Maurice said.
Some have speculated about his sexuality. To that, Edwin said, “He was as open about his sexuality as he thought it was anybody else’s right to know.” Edwin offered as an example, “If you were to ask him, ‘Dr. Shirley, are you gay?’ He might answer, ‘Why? Are you interested?’ If the answer was, ‘No,’ then he’d say, ‘Well, it’s none of your business,’” he laughed.
As a young man, Dr. Shirley moved into the artists’ colony Carnegie Studios above Carnegie Hall and lived there for more than 50 years, in a lavish apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, a crystal chandelier, mountains of books, art and expensive trinkets and gifts he received from touring all over the world—and of course, his Steinway.
When Edwin lived in New York, he would visit with Dr. Shirley there often and they’d talk about books and music.
“He was always introducing me to composers that he was excited about,” Edwin remembered. “If he ran across a particular pianist who played a particular piece extremely well, then he would call me up and say, ‘You’ve got to come hear Egon Petri play the ‘Schafe Können.’ Come on over, you’ve got to hear this!’ I would traipse on over and we would drink some Scotch and we’d get carried away over the way Petri was playing this particular Bach piece.”
Music was Dr. Shirley’s true love.
“He could get passionate about Bach,” Edwin recalled. “The Russians, particularly Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. To hear him discuss them, he would discuss them the same way people get excited about rock stars.”
Dr. Shirley had such respect for some musicians that he wouldn’t even touch their music or create new arrangements for it.
“Ray Charles’ ‘Georgia,’ was so perfect, he would never play it in a concert,” Edwin explained. “Nothing he could do would do it justice, he said.”
Though he thought Sarah Vaughn was “an American institution,” and he loved Leontyne Price, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin, it was Marian Anderson who was “the performer he most respected in the world,” Edwin said. “That was his model as a performing artist.”
Beyond being a passionate musician and scholar, Dr. Shirley was “totally devoted to the uplifting of African American people,” Edwin said.
Just last year, Florida’s Sun Sentinel did a story on how Edwin’s father, Dr. Edwin Shirley Jr. provided his close friend Dr. King with a Miami respite whenever Dr. King was in Florida. It was through his brother’s friendship with Dr. King that Dr. Shirley’s friendship with the civil rights leader formed.
“During the height of the civil rights movement, the march on Selma, he was one of the artists who went and performed down in Selma,” Maurice recalled.
With his fiery personality, Dr. Shirley was not one who needed protection, but one who would often stand up for himself and others against racist oppression.
Edwin remembered a time when he first moved to New York and Dr. Shirley was trying to help him find a nicer place to stay. The desk clerk at a resident hotel across from Carnegie Hall blatantly lied about vacancies once the clerk saw two Black men coming in to take the room.
“The desk clerk says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry you were misinformed, there is no vacancy.’ And Uncle Donald says, ‘well I recognize your voice and you were the person I spoke with.’ The man began to say something like, ‘you people always think—’ and as far as he got was ‘you people,’ and Uncle Donald had grabbed him by his tie and yanked him across the counter. And I stepped between him and made him unloose the man’s clothes and we got out of there before the man could call the police.”
To be made to live in defense mode took a toll on Dr. Shirley.
By the time Astor moved into Carnegie Studios, Dr. Shirley was in his 70s and had become a bit of a recluse.
The answer to why that was, Astor said, “is one for the ages.”
“I suppose it would be the cumulative effect from a lifetime going against the grain, being thrust into categories where he didn’t belong, encountering racism in every form, a career thwarted or denied,” Astor said.
Though he did reach his goal of being a concert pianist, “I think that he felt the world just never completely accepted him. So that’s something he carried through his whole life,” Astor said.
That became evident in the hours of footage Astor amassed of Dr. Shirley, well before all of the tenants—most of them elderly, like Dr. Shirley—were served eviction notices by Carnegie Hall in 2007. Though the residents lost their battle with Carnegie Hall and Astor had to be out by 2008, Dr. Shirley was a rent-controlled tenant and finally had to leave the home he’d had for more than half a century in 2010.
“He’d say, ‘Oh, Josef, everybody’s telling me I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. The only thing I can say to them is, ‘Well you put it there!’”
Just as he would teach Edwin, Dr. Shirley would patiently teach Astor—and potentially the world, through the Let it Shine documentary Astor was making—the things he felt everyone should know, not just about his life, but about the world.
“He refers to me as this naïve white boy from the Midwest,” Astor recalled with a laugh. “He’d ask me, ‘Oh, well, do you know about Paul Robeson?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I know about Paul Robeson.’ He’d say, ‘But did you know about the man’s life?’ And there’s a silence, and he says,‘Well, Josef, your education system failed you if you don’t know about that man’s life.’ And he’d go on and school me.”
During the time of their friendship, Dr. Shirley discovered that a fan website had been created for him. “He assumed he was long forgotten and that was that. Then all of a sudden all of these emails poured in about people who wanted to know what had happened to him,” Astor recalled.
With emails starting in 1999, Dr. Shirley began keeping a notebook of the ones he received from fans around the world. “It is five inches thick,” Astor said. “Some of the subject lines read: ‘A Joy,’ ‘Glad to find you after all these years,’ ‘Happy Birthday!’ ‘You are a treasure’, ‘Thrilled to hear you are not dead!’” to name a few.
“I can’t read those without crying,” Dr. Shirley told Astor, touched by the acknowledgements of his contributions.
When Dr. Shirley died on April 6, 2013, Maurice fulfilled his brother’s final wish: to have his body donated to the Anatomical Donation Program at NYU School of Medicine, which specializes in brain-mapping people with special talents. The teacher kept teaching.
Dr. Shirley was not nearly as celebrated in life as his talent demanded, but his stalwart impact on music—and the people he loved and the ones who loved him—remains.
Perhaps now, the uncategorizable “misfit” will find the place in history he deserves. And in that history is the full, ugly truth of what racism has wrought in the life and now the legacy of Donald Shirley.
Though he spoke these words to Astor about Paul Robeson, they could easily apply to his own life:
“There’s no reason that the people should not know the contributions the man has made to America in general or to the world,” said Dr. Shirley. “What did they do [to him]? The nasty bastards…they wouldn’t let him work in this country,” he said.
“They broke him…confiscated his house. That’s America. That’s America.”
Still, Dr. Shirley’s light shines on.