‘A story about Queen Elizabeth’
It’s been a while since I wrote a piece that qualifies for my ‘Brushes with Fame’ category. I’ve got some pretty juicy stories parked there. About Steve Martin, Vladimir Horowitz, Karl Malden, Willem De Kooning, Malcolm Forbes and even Elvis.
This week the long-expected-but-still-shocking passing of HRH Queen Elizabeth reminds me that I have one about her, too. No, I never personally met the Queen, but I knew somebody who did — and here’s his story. (Oh, that person in the crown at the top of this story? That’s me with two regal pals — hi, T! hi E! — channeling queenhood on a recent birthday.)
The person I knew who met Elizabeth the Queen was, in fact, pretty famous himself. His name was George Shearing, and he was a celebrated jazz pianist. He not only played at Birdland, he wrote “Lullaby of Birdland,” a song I bet you know, even if you don’t think you do. But I bet you haven’t heard it played on a massive pipe organ in St. Thomas Church. (Which I did, at the funeral of Sir George.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself with that “Sir.”
George Shearing was a lot of things: fan of cricket, patron of steakhouses, reciter of dirty limericks. He was nice to children too; he brought a Braille kit to dinner for The Child when she was an actual child. Oh yes, George was blind, and had been blind since birth. He would consult an index card with Braille notes during shows so he’d remember his playlist — though audiences no doubt just thought he was super-cool standing casually up there on stage with one hand in his pocket.
George and his wife Ellie, who was a sought-after backup singer in her own right, used to take us to gigs all over Manhattan. We saw Tito Puente at the Blue Note, Dave Frishberg at the Algonquin, Blossom Dearie (her real name, incidentally) at Danny’s Skylight Room. When Tito or Dave or Blossom would acknowledge the Great George Shearing’s presence from the stage, the audience was understandably perplexed as to who the heck Dude Man and I were. Once it was snowing when we had one of these dates. George cancelled, saying it was too dangerous for him to go out because “snow is the fog of the blind man” — it absorbs the sounds he needed to navigate.
You might be asking how the heck did we know George Shearing? Well. As you may recall, Dude is really Dr. Dude. He’s an ophthalmologist. George was his patient, and, as it happens, we became friends. You may be wondering why a blind man needs an eye doctor. I don’t know the details either, but he did. On his frequent visits George liked to stand in the waiting room wearing his dark glasses, wielding his cane and making smart remarks like, “What kind of an eye doctor is this guy?!” And “I’m his patient, and just look at me!”
So okay. About the Queen.
George was knighted in 2007, becoming Sir George. (His wife became Eleanor, Lady Shearing.) When he was being briefed for his investiture, George (who was blind, remember) was told he should “wait for the Queen to extend her hand before approaching,” to which George replied, “Well, she’d better put a bell on it.”
Amagansett, New York. September 2022