Shirley Horn, 1934-2005: One of the Great Jazz Singers of '50s and '60s

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA IN VOA Special English. Today we tell about jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn.

Shirley Horn was considered one of the great jazz singers of the nineteen fifties and sixties. She was often compared to the famous singers Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. She performed for more than fifty years.

Shirley Horn's voice was smooth and expressive, but never hurried. She was one of the slowest singers in jazz. When she sang a song, she wanted the audience to feel it in the same way she did. She had a small voice. But her songs had a big effect.

Here, Shirley Horn sings her popular song "You're My Thrill."

Shirley Horn was born in Washington, D.C. in nineteen thirty-four. She lived all her life in and around Washington. Shirley began taking piano lessons when she was four years old. Her mother recognized her skill and love for the instrument.

Shirley Horn said most of the songs she performed were ones she grew up with. She said her family loved music and there was always music by the greatest singers and bands playing in her home. Horn said she lived for music. She said it was like food and water to her.

Shirley Horn studied classical music as a teenager. When she was seventeen, she had a chance to attend the famous Juilliard School in New York City. But financial difficulties prevented her from going. Instead, she studied classical music at Howard University in Washington.

Shirley Horn had planned to have a career playing classical music on the piano. But she said all that changed after she began going to jazz clubs in Washington. She said she was influenced by some of the greatest jazz artists, such as Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.

When asked about her change from classical music to jazz, she would later say: "I loved Rachmaninoff, but then Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff. And Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy."

Horn did not plan to be a singer. She said it happened by accident when she was seventeen and playing classical music on the piano at a restaurant. A man offered to give her a huge toy teddy bear if she would sing the song "Melancholy Baby." Although she had never sung in public before, she agreed. She later realized that she could make a living singing and playing jazz. Here she sings the famous song by Cole Porter, "Love for Sale."

In nineteen fifty-four, Shirley Horn began to sing jazz in clubs and started her own jazz group. In nineteen sixty, she recorded her first album, called "Embers and Ashes." The album did not get a lot of attention. But the famous jazz musician, Miles Davis, heard it. He liked it so much that he invited Horn to play music with him in New York City. She sang as the opening act before his performance at New York's Village Vanguard nightclub. Davis had refused to play unless the club owner let Horn sing. Shirley Horn and Miles Davis developed a close friendship over the years.  Here she sings and he plays the trumpet on the song "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying."

Shirley Horn's performance with Miles Davis in New York led to a record deal with Mercury Records. She was soon performing around the United States. She also recorded with Quincy Jones and other top musicians. But Horn soon left Mercury Records because of creative differences. She wanted to play the piano on all her recordings, but the record company did not agree.

Shirley Horn stopped performing around the country in the nineteen sixties so she could spend more time at home with her husband and daughter. She played at local nightclubs in the Washington area during the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Shirley Horn rebuilt her career in the nineteen eighties. She began performing more widely at jazz festivals and concerts around the world and received strong praise. In nineteen eighty- seven, she signed a record deal with Verve Records and remained with the record company for the rest of her career.

In nineteen ninety, Horn reunited with her good friend and teacher, Miles Davis, on the song, "You Won't Forget Me." She went on to record several successful albums and performed around the world.

She also worked on several soundtracks for movies. Here are Shirley Horn and Miles Davis with "You Won't Forget Me."

Shirley Horn was nominated for several Grammy Awards. In nineteen ninety-eight, she won the award for the album, "I Remember Miles," in memory of Miles Davis, who died in nineteen ninety-one. Horn received many honors during her career. But her last years were difficult. She had a series of health problems, including treatment for breast cancer. And in two thousand two, she had her foot removed because of problems caused by diabetes.

Shirley Horn continued to sing for audiences, but she did so in a chair, with someone else playing the piano. The loss of her foot made it difficult for her to work the pedals that control the way the piano sounds. However, during her last performances, she returned to playing the piano with the help of a device that took the place of her foot. In June of two thousand five, Horn suffered a stroke. She died four months later at the age of seventy-one.

Critics say Shirley Horn influenced many young jazz musicians of today, including Diana Krall and Norah Jones. Critics say she will be remembered as one of the best singers in a great period of American jazz. In two thousand five, Verve Records released a collection of her work, called "But Beautiful: The Best of Shirley Horn." We leave you now with a song from that album called "Here's to Life."

This program was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk. I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm
Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.