Shirley Horn: 3 Records (1961-1988)

Shirley Horn is probably the greatest ballad singer of all, and certainly my favorite. She wasn’t just comfortable at slower tempos, she luxuriated in them.

VIDEO VAULT #1: I’ve spent years collecting music digitally, rummaging through old blogs, HiRes downloads, shady Russian Bit Torrent sites, and everything in between. For the last several years, I’ve used my old YouTube channel as a place to present music that I couldn't find anywhere else online. Some of these videos have broken through, and have been viewed many, many times. The most popular of my videos is a Jorge Ben TV show from 1972, has 3.4 million views. Others have received less attention—and I thought it would be interesting to pull some of these together and present them thematically.

Video Vault #1: Shirley Horn

Even as difficult as it is to make definitive statements like this: Shirley Horn is probably the greatest ballad singer of all, and certainly my favorite. She wasn’t just comfortable at slower tempos, she luxuriated in them. Her piano playing suited her perfectly as well. Her biography from Scott Yanow at AllMusic:

A superior ballad singer and a talented pianist, Shirley Horn put off potential success until finally becoming a major attraction while in her fifties. She studied piano from the age of four. After attending Howard University, Horn put together her first trio in 1954, and was encouraged in the early '60s by Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. She recorded three albums during 1963-1965 for Mercury and ABC/Paramount, but chose to stick around Washington, D.C., and raise a family instead of pursuing her career. In the early '80s, she began recording for SteepleChase, but Shirley Horn really had her breakthrough in 1987 when she started making records for Verve, an association that continued on records like 1998's I Remember Miles and 2001's You're My Thrill. In 2001 Horn's health began to fail (she had her left foot amputated due to diabetes) and while it affected her piano playing, she continued to perform sporadically and recorded one final album for Verve, 2003's May the Music Never End. Horn passed away on October 20, 2005, due to complications from diabetes.

These live recordings come from her pre-Verve period, when she was making a name for herself, mainly in concert.

Softly (1988) was recorded live in a house in suburban Maryland, and is one of the most intimate listening experiences you will ever have. The way she introduces and resolves tension is a thing of wonder. These performances—especially the opening three tracks, “Since I Fell for You,” “You’re My Thrill” and “How Long Has This Been Going On”—are definitive. It’s very hard to imagine someone bringing more passion, sexiness and intelligence to these readings.

Violets for Your Furs (1981) was issue on SteepleChase, and contains half of a performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Hague, the Netherlands. It contains a jaw-dropping “Georgia In My Mind” and a breathy and gorgeous “More Than You Know.”

Finally, Live at the Village Vanguard (1961) comes from the earliest part of her singing career. At the time, she was opening for Miles Davis—which, it turns out, is actually one of the most complimentary pairings in jazz. This was issued briefly, and then disappeared. It wasn’t even recorded in New York City at the Vanguard; rather, it was taped at Gaslight Square, St. Louis. Still, it’s a beautiful document of Horn in her earliest incarnation as a vocalist.

Enjoy the music.