Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HORN, Shirley

(b 1 May 1934, Washington DC; d 20 October 2005) Jazz singer and pianist. She studied classical music and could have had a scholarship to Juilliard but could not afford to live in New York City, so studied at Howard U. instead; she discovered she could make a living playing and singing, and later said, 'I loved Rachmaninoff, but then Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff. And Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy.' She led a trio from 1954.

 She backed Stuff Smith on six of eleven tracks on Cat On A Hot Fiddle '59 on Verve, but the sleeve note didn't even credit her. She sang with her own trio on Embers And Ashes '60 on Stere-O-Craft, an album noticed by Miles Davis; he helped land her a debut at the Village Vanguard (but when he first called her she didn't believe it was him and hung up). She signed to Mercury and was not allowed to accompany herself or even set her own tempos; 'They were great musicians, but they were playing their changes, and I kept wanting to hear mine.' Albums Loads Of Love and Shirley Horn With Horns were later combined on a Mercury CD (there was another big-band album that was never issued); she liked Jimmy Jones and Bobby Scott on piano on some tracks, but the attempt to shove her into the Nat Cole/Peggy Lee market was misconceived, despite all-star sidemen, arrangements by Jones on the first album, producer/conductor/contractor Quincy Jones on the second.

She had begun as a pianist, then sang to her own accompaniment; if singers of intimate quality were valued the way they ought to be she might have been a household name for decades. A project to record Live At The Village Vanguard c.'61 was cut short by the death of her mother, but an album apparently appeared on Can-Am International. She retired to Washington to look after her daughter, performing locally; Travelin' Light '65 with Joe Newman, Frank Wess and Kenny Burrell was later on GRP/Impulse.

Finally albums on Steeplechase presented her properly: All Night Long '81, A Lazy Afternoon, Violets For Your Furs and Garden Of The Blues '84, three of these with drummer Billy Hart (b 29 November 1940, Washington DC; also plays with Joanne Brackeen, many others; own albums Oshumare '86 on Gramavision, Amethyst '93 on Arabesque). Good as the Steeplechase albums were and are, it wasn't until she went back to a major label (Verve) that she began to find the audience she deserved, taping I Thought About You live at the Vine Street Bar and Grill, her first West Coast gig for 23 years. This was followed by Close Enough For Love '89, You Won't Forget Me '91 (with Hart on drums, Buster Williams on bass, guests Miles Davis, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Toots Thielemans), Here's To Life '92 (with Wynton), Light Out Of Darkness '93, I Love You Paris '94.

There was still a tendency to lose the atmosphere of her live gigs; The Main Ingredient was recorded at home in Washington, released '96, and caught her bluesy intimacy better than anything since the Steeplechase albums, but Loving You '97 was just as good: it is easy to see why Miles was one of her admirers, wrote Clive Davis in The Times (London): 'as with Davis, the silences are as eloquent as the notes themselves', though Davis himself teased her: 'You do 'em awful slow!' he once said. They were talking about doing a ballad album together when Davis died. Her album I Remember Miles '98 won a Grammy. Further albums: Softly on Audiophile has Charles Ables on bass and Steve Williams on drums, the same trio as on some of the Verve sets; two-CD Shirley Horn At Northsea on Steeplechase has Ables and Hart. She fought breast cancer, and lost her right foot to diabetes in 2002; the next year Jamal, one of her heroes, who had never accompanied a vocalist, did so on May The Music Never End. For a couple of years she performed with George Mesterhazy on piano, feeling lost at being unable to accompany herself, but at her final performances in New York late in 2004 she had a prosthetic device that enabled her to use the piano's sustaining pedal. She performed Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday', finding new meaning in the line 'I'm not half the girl I used to be'. In June 2005 she suffered a stroke.

The non-profit Resonance Records label, which specialises in finding rare unpublished stuff, released LIve at the 4 Queens in 2016: she was at her peak, well recorded at the Las Vegas club in 1988 with Ables and Williams. Her many fans must have been delighted.