Shirley Horn

An excerpt from “Men, Women, and Girl Singers”

When I first heard her, I did not know the full extent of her musical genius. But I did know that she was special. Actually I didn’t even know whose voice I was listening to on the radio in my office. And I was even more intrigued by the sound of the piano accompaniment.

“Hey Chuck,” I called into the next room. “Do you know who this is on the radio?”

“No, can’t say that I do.”

“Sounds like Jimmy Jones. Is he working with a new singer?”

“Only Sarah that I know of,” he replied, confirming my own thoughts.

So I called Jimmy.

“Hey man, who’s the new lady singer I heard you playing for just now on the radio?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just heard a cut on the radio, some singer I’ve never heard before. She sounded good and the pianist sounded just like you. I don’t know anybody else that plays like you do.”

“Well it wasn’t me, and when you find out who it was you’d better tell me. I want to know my competition.”

I asked my secretary Joan to check it out. When she reported back that it was someone named Shirley Horn and that she was accompanying herself on piano, I knew that I had to find her. As usual, Joan was already one step ahead of me. She had called the record company and gotten Shirley’s telephone number. I reached for the phone.

“Hello. Is this Shirley Horn?”

“Yes it is.”

“This is John Levy.”


“John Levy.”

There was a pause and I realized that she didn’t know who I was. It’s not that I’m conceited and think that everyone should know me, but back then everybody in the music business, especially in the jazz world, did know who I was. But not Shirley. So I explained to her that I was a manager and I told her the names of some of the artists I represented. Then I asked her if she would be interested in having me manage her career.

She said, “Yes,” but she sounded a little strange and I chalked it up to shock. I arranged for her to play a one-nighter at the Belmont Hotel in New York as an audition of sorts. That was the first time I saw her perform in person. She was even better than I imagined. Not only did her voice have a unique quality, but she also has the ability to accompany herself on piano as if the singer and the pianist were two separate people. Her piano playing was even more amazing; her sense and use of harmonic structure was as subtle as Jimmy Jones’ sound. And once I got to see and speak with her in person I found that what sounded strange to me on the phone was just a part of Shirley’s natural self—her ethereal other-worldly quality that is part of her personality. The audience response was tremendous, and everywhere she played, people loved her. The jazz grapevine is faster than lightning, and the word began to spread. I didn’t have any trouble getting bookings for her.

I told Miles Davis about her, and when they first met it was an immediate musical love affair. Miles told Max Gordon that he should book her to play at his club, the Village Vanguard, but Max hadn’t heard her yet and was reluctant. So Miles and I made a deal with Max; Miles agreed to play there on a double bill with Shirley as the other act.

I invited many people, including Quincy Jones, to hear Shirley at the Vanguard. At that time Quincy was a producer and arranger for Mercury Records. He knew about Shirley, but hadn’t heard her perform yet. He promised to come and he kept his word. I don’t remember if it was opening night, but one night I saw Quincy, Thad Jones, Charlie Mingus and Miles all crowded around one little table and looking completely mesmerized during Shirley’s set. When she came off stage, they all wanted to meet her. Then just before Miles began his show, I introduced Shirley to Carmen McRae and Barbara McNair and she sat with them while listening to Miles.
The heyday of 52nd Street had long since passed, but New York was still the center of the musical universe for jazz and popular music. Shirley had made the big time, and with Miles and Quincy to champion her, there was no place to go but up; or so I thought.

Starting in 1960 for a period of four or five years, we recorded four albums. The first one, Embers and Ashes was a trio album for a company called Stereo-Craft. Shirley wanted to use her regular players, but I insisted on hiring bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Herb Lovelle for the sessions. Shirley wasn’t too happy with me over that, but I redeemed myself when I brought songwriter Curtis Lewis to the first session. Shirley and I were both suckers for a pretty song with a great lyric, and Curtis brought two new songs with him. Shirley loved “He Never Mentioned Love” and “Blue City” so much that we decided to record them both the very next day. The second project was another trio recording titled Live at the Village Vanguard and released by CAN-AM International, another label that no longer exists.

Finally Quincy and I were able to work out a two-record deal with Mercury that allowed for strings, horns and the best arrangers we knew. Loads of Love featured an all-star trio of Hank Jones on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums, plus Kenny Burrell on guitar, four saxophones (Jerome Richardson, Frank Wess, Al Cohn and Gerry Mulligan), two trumpets (Ernie Royal and I think Clark Terry, though some notes indicate Joe Newman), and a string section. Jimmy Jones wrote all of the arrangements, and Shirley loved the music; but again she was not entirely happy with me because this time she wasn’t accompanying herself and that made her uncomfortable. On the second record, Shirley Horn with Horns, Shirley was back at the piano and we got two arrangements apiece from four of the world’s best arrangers: Quincy, Billy Byers, Thad Jones, and Don Sebesky.

The last album that Shirley recorded while I was managing her was done for ABC-Paramount. Shirley finally got her way, and Travelin’ Light featured her regular rhythm section with arrangements by Johnny Pate. While all of these recordings received critical acclaim, we got little if any promotional support from the record companies. Record companies—and book publishers and art galleries—seldom recognize true genius. If they do, it’s of little interest to them unless the public wants to pay big bucks. But even without a real promotional push, it was easy to get bookings for Shirley. She played in clubs, did a television commercial, and recorded two movie soundtracks for Quincy, “For Love of Ivy” and “Dandy in Aspic.”

Still, Shirley was not really happy. Part of her unhappiness resulted from the clubs’ being not as intimate as she would have liked, and the audiences were not completely attentive. Shirley and Carmen McRae are a lot alike. Neither one of them will perform if the audience isn’t listening. The only difference is that Carmen would cuss out the talkers while Shirley simply stops playing, mid-song, and if it doesn’t get quiet in a minute or two she will get up and leave the stage.

But even more than the lack of record company enthusiasm or audience attention, what made Shirley most unhappy was that she was not at home taking care of her daughter. This is a serious problem, especially for female entertainers, so when Shirley said, “I’m going to quit for a minute to stay home and see about Rainey,” I had to respect her decision. But I was sad too. Of course she continued to work locally in and around Washington, D.C., but national awareness of her tremendous talent slowly faded from the general public consciousness. She remained in relative obscurity for the next 15 or 20 years, but when she made a comeback in the early 1980s, no one was happier than I was. I still believe that Shirley Horn is the world’s greatest interpreter of a lyric.

© 2000 Devra Hall