Photograph of
George Shirley

By: Carl Van Vechten
Photographic print, detail
Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection
Library of Congress
Washington, DC USA

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George Shirley (b. 1934)

George Shirley receives National Arts Award from President Barack Obama

by Randye Jones

George Irving Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on April 18, 1934. At age 6, his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he began music lessons. He was active as a vocalist at churches in the area and as a baritone horn player in a local band.

Shirley entered Wayne State University in Detroit as a music education major, receiving his bachelors degree in 1955. He was drafted into the military the following year and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus. After his discharge in 1959, he continued studying voice with Therny Georgi, then he moved to New York where his professional career began.

He made his debut with a small opera troupe at Woodstock, New York, as Eisenstein in their production of Die Fledermaus. He then journeyed to Italy and made his European debut as Rodolfo in the Puccini opera, La Boheme. In 1961, he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions by performing "Nessum dorma," beginning an eleven-year association with the house. While at the Met, he sang a 28 different roles from 26 operas, especially those of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner.

Shirley received a Grammy Award in 1968 for singing the role Ferrando in the RCA recording of Mozart's Così fan tutte.

From the 1960s to the present, Shirley has performed on the concert stage, singing recitals and oratorios. He has premiered several works during his career, on both the concert and operatic stages. In recent years, he again became involved with education. He taught at the University of Maryland from 1980 until he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1987. He currently serves there as Director of the Vocal Arts Division, Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Music.

In December, 2014, Shirley released a recording of Negro Spirituals entitled "George Shirley at 80: My Time Has Come!" In 2015, he received the National Medal of Arts Award, which is presented to individuals or organizations who have contributed significantly to the cultural life of the United States. Shirley stated, "I was stunned when informed by NEA Chairman Jane Chu that I had been selected to receive the National Medal of Arts Award. I had never seriously entertained the possibility of such official endorsement of my service to the arts by those tasked with making such decisions. I feel today as I felt some 54 years ago--dazed and incredulous--when I heard the chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions announce that I had just won first prize plus a performance contract with that esteemed company."1

George Shirley is a tenor whose voice has been known for its vibrancy and flexibility. His power and richness of sound easily filled a opera house or a concert hall.


1 "U-M's University Musical Society, George Shirley to receive National Medal of Arts" Michigan News, accessed September 11, 2015,

Musical excerpt: "Ah! lo veggio quell'anima bella" from Cosi fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Recorded by George Shirley, August-September 1967. RCA Red Seal/Sony BMG Masterworks, 2006.

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Afrocentric Voices

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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: September 10, 2015. Accessed: .

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