George Shearing, the jazz pianist who wrote the standard "Lullaby of Birdland" and amused audiences for decades on both sides of the Atlantic, died Monday. He was 91.
Shearing was born in London and was blind from birth. He began playing in pubs before he joined a group put together by the National Institute of the Blind. In the 1940s, he was one of England's most popular jazz musicians, playing in air-raid shelters during the war, but in 1947, he decided to move to New York — then the center of modern jazz.
In 1986, Shearing joined Fresh Air host Terry Gross for a conversation about his decades in the music industry and his 1952 song "Lullaby of Birdland." He famously composed his biggest commercial hit in just 10 minutes.
"The Birdland [club] needed a theme song for a six-hour disc-jockey show that they had in the early '50s," Shearing said. "So I wrote this thing. I heard it in my head. I wrote it in 10 minutes — I always say 10 minutes and 35 years in the business — over a steak in my dining room when I lived in New Jersey. I went back to that same butcher a thousand times trying to get that same steak again. So they liked it, and they played it every hour on the hour, which is, of course, why it became my best-known song, because that was my only well-known song."
Shearing often joked about the success of "Lullaby of Birdland." At his 80th-birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1999, he introduced the song by saying, "I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two hundred ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one."
Shearing is survived by his wife Geffert and his daughter Wendy.