FEATURE: Remembering George Shearing on his 96th birthday

George Shearing

George Shearing would have been 96 today. The blind son of a poor family from Battersea, he was eventually recognised with a knighthood four years before his death in 2011, following an extraordinarily successful career. In "I’m in the Mood for Lunch," Jon Carvell pays him, his piano-playing and his humour this tribute: 

Shearing was one of the first British jazz musicians to make it in the US, he sold millions of records, and also had a terrific sense of humour. He was often found attempting to woo the ladies who attended his shows. When introduced, he would often ‘accidentally’ stumble into an embrace – most famously with Hollywood actress Jane Russell. He’d then go back to his band and ask their opinion “Is she hot? What do you think?”

When I was growing up, my father always used to talk about a George Shearing record he’d had back in the day where Shearing had substituted the word ‘love’ with ‘lunch’ in the name of famous standards. The results included I’m in the Mood for Lunch, Lunch is Always Better the Second Time Around, Portrait of My Lunch, Taking a Chance on Lunch, and I Can’t Give You Anything but Lunch. This became a running joke in the family, but the record itself had long been lost following the transition to tape and then CD which was the downfall of many a vinyl collection.

The album in question had been the second-ever LP my dad bought (Beethoven Violin Concerto was the first), from a mail order company called the World Record Club. It was a 1963 live recording of the George Shearing Quintet made at the Santa Monica Civic Centre, inventively named Jazz Concert. The album is also the first to feature the now legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton performing with Shearing. Burton had left Berklee College of Music after completing his first two years and then auditioned for Shearing on Labour Day 1962. After a delay whilst Shearing attended a course on how to work with a guide dog, Burton joined the group for a four month tour at the start of 1963. In February of that year came the gig in Santa Monica. Burton reminisced in a recent interview “I had been in the band just two weeks. I was surprised how intricate the charts were and how tight we sounded.”

Burton is right, the concert is fantastic. The classic Shearing sound of block chords with vibraphone on top and guitar underneath is infectious, and the group really swings on the opening number Walkin’. John Gray, who had worked with Shearing on the west coast in 1962 re-joined as the group’s special guest guitarist, and Burton’s vibraphone is complemented by Bill Yancey on bass, regular with Ella Fitzgerald, and Vernel Fournier, Ahmad Jamal’s go-to drummer. During the introduction to I Cover the Waterfront, Shearing recounts the story of a nervous singer who once auditioned with the piece, but spoonerised the lines, worst of all in the bridge “Here am I waitiently paiting, loping and honging…” The quality of the recording is also exceptional, with Love (or is that lunch) Walked In feeling like you are on stage with the band – you can hear everything down to the gentle rattle of the toms in the opening bars. Another highlight is Dick Garcia’s beautiful ballad There With You.

The only problem is that other than picking up a copy of the original LP second-hand (as I did), this album is pretty difficult to get hold of. It was included in a limited edition Capitol Records US box set of Shearing’s live concerts, but there’s only a few of these and they cost $149. It’s not on iTunes, Amazon or Spotify.

This album has a story, not just for me, but for those who want to know how hard the George Shearing Quintet could swing, Shearing’s sense of humour, and just how good Gary Burton was aged 20. So, happy birthday Sir George, and thank you for this great record. I hope it’ll get released again somehow. In the meantime I’ll keep trying to think of more lunch jokes. There is No Greater Lunch, Where is Lunch?, Save Your Lunch for Me

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