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Mark Smith

Professor of electrical and computer engineering and competitive fencer Mark J. T. Smith was born on May 17, 1956 in Jamaica, Queens, New York. After receiving his B.S. degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978, Smith enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology and went on to graduate from there with his M.S. degree in 1979 and his Ph.D. degree in 1984. While at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Smith helped found the coalition Empowering Minority Engineering Scientists to Reach for Graduate Education (EMERGE).

In 1984, Smith joined the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a professor of electrical and computer engineering. His research focused on communications, digital filters, and the processing of images and signals. In addition to teaching and research, Smith’s trained and competed in the sport of fencing. He was the National Champion of the United States in 1981 and 1983 and a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1980 and 1984. Smith was one of the final runners carrying the Olympic Torch to the Opening Ceremonies in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. In 2003, Smith was promoted to head Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and was the first African American to hold the position. In 2009, Smith was named the Michael J. & Katherine R. Birck Endowed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dean of the Purdue University Graduate School.

At Georgia Institute of Technology, Smith received two teaching awards including the Georgia Tech Outstanding Teacher Award. He also authored over forty journal articles and is the co-author of four textbooks. Smith is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He was also awarded its Processing Society Senior Award in 1992. Smith has also received the IEEE’s Distinguished Lecturer Award and has sat on their Signal Processing Society Board of Governors. In 2005, Smith received the International Society of Optical Engineers’ Wavelet Pioneer Award; and in 2007, he served as president of the National Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association.

Mark J. T. Smith was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 8, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.127

Sex

Male

Interview Date

4/8/2013

Last Name

Smith

Maker Category
Middle Name

J.T.

Schools

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology

First Name

Mark

Birth City, State, Country

New York

HM ID

SMI28

Favorite Season

Spring

State

New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

Fiji, Kauai, Hawaii

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Indiana

Birth Date

5/17/1956

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

West Lafayette

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lobster, Sea Bass (Chilean)

Short Description

Electrical engineer and competitive fencer Mark Smith (1956 - ) 1981 and 1983 U.S. National Fencing Champion and 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic fencing team member, is the Michael J. & Katherine R. Birck Endowed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Dean of the Purdue University Graduate School

Employment

General Electric Company

Atlantic Richfield R&D

Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology, Lorraine

Purdue University

Favorite Color

Blue, Brown

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Mark Smith's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Mark Smith lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Mark Smith describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Mark Smith talks about his mother's education in New York City, her love of travel, and her employment as a social worker

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Mark Smith describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Mark Smith talks about his father's experience in World War II

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Mark Smith talks about his father's high school education and his employment in the New York City Transit Authority

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Mark Smith talks about how his parents met, and their fifty years of marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Mark Smith describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Mark Smith talks about growing up in a close-knit household, and staying busy as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Mark Smith describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Mark Smith talks about the neighborhood where he spent his childhood in Queens, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Mark Smith describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in Queens, New York

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Mark Smith talks about spending time at the YMCA as a child, in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Mark Smith describes his childhood interests and activities, while growing up in New York

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Mark Smith talks about transferring from PS-123 to PS-90 in Queens, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Mark Smith talks about his early interest in science, and the influence of his cousin, Roy

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Mark Smith talks about his academic performance and mischievousness in elementary school

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Mark Smith describes his experience at The Henley School in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Mark Smith talks about his childhood interest in television and action films

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Mark Smith describes his early resolve to pursue engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Mark Smith describes his experience in high school at The Henley School

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Mark Smith talks about his decision to transfer to John Bowne High School

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Mark Smith describes his interest in swimming and fencing at John Bowne High School

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Mark Smith describes how fencing as a modern-day sport differs from the traditional fighting duel

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Mark Smith talks about strategies in fencing and the fencing community in New York City

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Mark Smith describes his academic performance and extracurricular activities in high school, and his interest in pursuing a career in engineering

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Mark Smith describes his experience at John Bowne High School

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Mark Smith describes his first visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Mark Smith describes the high quality of his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Mark Smith talks about being involved with fencing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Mark Smith describes his undergraduate thesis on the building of a stroboscope

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Mark Smith describes his decision to pursue graduate studies in digital signal processing, at the Georgia Institute of Technology

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Mark Smith describes his experience in competing for a place on the 1980 U.S. Olympic fencing team

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Mark Smith talks about the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Mark Smith talks about his doctoral research on 'filter banks', in the field of digital signal processing for applications in speech compression

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Mark Smith talks about the advancements in sound technology, in transitioning from analog to digital systems

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Mark Smith describes his Ph.D. dissertation on signal decomposition

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Mark Smith talks about winning the U.S. Fencing National Championships in the early 1980s

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Mark Smith describes his experience in the 1984 Olympics, and talks about the expenses involved in maintaining fencing equipment

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Mark Smith talks about his decision to retire from Olympic-level fencing

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Mark Smith talks about his experience as an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Mark Smith describes the development and applications of the 'Analysis by Synthesis Overlapping Ad' algorithm

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Mark Smith describes his work in the area of image enhancement

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Mark Smith describes the applications of his work on image morphing

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Mark Smith talks about the EMERGE program at Georgia Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Mark Smith describes his involvement with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF)

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Mark Smith talks about his most significant research in the area of digital signal processing

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Mark Smith describes his experience of carrying the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Mark Smith describes his experience at Georgia Tech's campus in France, and his service as the executive assistant to the university's president

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Mark Smith describes his decision to accept the position as head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Purdue University

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Mark Smith describes his early experience as the head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Purdue University

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Mark Smith describes his experience as the dean of the graduate school at Purdue University

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Mark Smith talks about his continuing involvement with research

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Mark Smith talks about his satisfaction with his current role in University administration

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Mark Smith talks about minority students pursuing the STEM fields at Purdue University

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Mark Smith describes the African American and minority community at Purdue University

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Mark Smith describes a social science experiment on cultural bias during employee hiring and selection

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Mark Smith reflects upon his life

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Mark Smith reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Mark Smith talks about his family

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Mark Smith talks about his parents attending his graduation, and watching fencing with him

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Mark Smith talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Mark Smith describes his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$3

DAStory

1$7

DATitle
Mark Smith talks about strategies in fencing and the fencing community in New York City
Mark Smith describes his undergraduate thesis on the building of a stroboscope
Transcript
Okay, so we were just talking about the difference between real fencing and theatrical fencing--$$Right.$$And so, but real fencing is a strategic, you know, is strategy more important than say, speed?$$Everything is important 'cause it all comes together, right. What you're trying to do is you recognize that if you do some action, you have to anticipate what your opponent is going to do to counter that action. And you also learn from past experience. You know, the last time you tried faint disengage, and you were parried. So now you're going to go to the other side or attack a different target. So it's all this, you know, strategy building, faking people out. There's a lot of similarity with boxing. You know, there're faints that you make to draw a reaction. The same thing with fencing. You also study people, off strip, to find out what their natural reactions might be and then try to exploit that.$$Okay, now, when you started fencing, did you know of any African American fencers?$$No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know that black people fenced. What I found out is that a lot of them fence. I mean there were a lot of black fencers in the New York City community. And many of them were very, very good fencers, national champions.$$All right. I think there's even a, historically, you know, the greatest swordsman in France at one time was Chevalier St. George [Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George] and, you know, Dumas' son was supposed to be really good, you know, yeah--his father, rather, yeah.$$So I had no idea, I mean starting out, right, I had no idea what the community looked like at all. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know that there was a community of fencers in New York City. But, you know, many of the good clubs, fencing clubs, were in New York City, and they produced the national champs. So it was a great place to learn fencing.$$Okay.$$Moreover, just in the high school system, all the high schools had fencing programs, had fencing teams. So there was lots of competition and lots of inter--what would you call it? Well, we had division championships and then borough championships and citywide championships so it was very well organized.$$There are a lot of fencing programs around the county on the high school level. I know even when I was in high school, all the schools in Dayton, Ohio had a fencing program.$$Yeah.$$But it's something that kind of flies under the radar. You don't hear a lot about who the champions of fencing are, overshadowed by, you know, basketball and football and track, and that sort of thing.$$And now soccer.$$Yeah, so how did you do as a fencer in high school?$$So in swimming, right, I was a big fish in a, the smallest, very, very small pond here. Fencing, there was only one pond. And so I did well in high school. When I went to college, I'm reminded by a buddy of mine, he tells me how terrible I was when I came in. But, you know, the level of high school fencing, all right, was not that high. But I did do well. I mean we had competitions. I remember the best, I took second in a citywide event. So I was, you know, very happy with that. More important is I just had a lot of fun fencing.$Did you have a undergraduate project that you worked on for graduation, like a capstone project or something?$$So I, at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts], you had to do an undergraduate thesis. And so that's what I had to do my thesis year. But one of the things that I did do, there's a period called IAP, Independent Activities Period, which is the month of January. And so they have hundreds of different activities that you can do, sky diving, you can do different types of projects. So I'd like doing an electronic, I tried to do some kind of an electronics project. And so the first project I did was to make a stroboscope. And I remember going to Doc Edgerton. He's this legendary professor, the one who invented and pioneered the stroboscope, strobe light, and he has some of these classic pictures that he's taken with a strobe light, that are in museums and on display and so forth, like a bullet going through an apple, where it's just frozen in motion, just crystal clear, captured through, with the stroboscope. So--$$Right, yeah, that's--$$And you probably have seen those kind--(simultaneous)--$$Yeah, I have, I have, and Edgerton, right, yeah. I remember the name now.$$So I remember going up to his lab and I met him, and I was just awestruck. Wow, this is Professor Edgerton, and he's talking to me. And he's nice. And so he was explaining about the strobes. So I said, gee, I would love to figure out how this worked and to build it. And so he gave me a schematic. Now, I didn't know what to do with the schematic. And I didn't have any of the equipment, but he helped me. And he gave me some of the parts and got me started, and I was able to work with another guy in the dormitory who was, I think, a senior. He may have been a first-year graduate student. And together we made this stroboscope. It was really quite a satisfying project. My soldering improved a whole lot since my Heathkit days.$$Okay, so how do you make a stroboscope? I mean what is the, what goes into making a stroboscope?$$Well, you need a transformer. You need to have the strobe light. Those are perhaps the two most important things. So this one used transistors. It wasn't a vacuum-tube based thing. But basically, there's an oscillator circuit that kicks the stroboscope on. And you have to generate sufficient voltage in order to, to kick the light. And so you wanna have that oscillating at a very fast frequency. The strobe light is one that can charge and discharge very quickly. So you can get that bright flash.$$Okay, so you need a bright enough, fast enough flash to catch that action with a camera, with a--$$So I, yeah, so the one that I did, I mean I wasn't trying to do photography with this. This one just blink and, so one of the demonstrations, for example, that he had, he had pulsating water that would just be dropping. And then you could shine the stroboscope on it at a certain frequency, and you would see the beads of water that appeared to stop, to just freeze. And then you could adjust the frequency and get them to go backwards, or you'd get them to go forward. You could create these kinds of effects with the strobe light.$$Okay.$$So what I had essentially was a frequency variable strobe light, that could be adjusted.$$So you'd pick up the action at a certain point and that's what you would see, even though the water is consistently dripping, you'd see the, you know--$$The little beads.$$Yeah, right, beads--$$Yeah, yeah.$$--at one point in time. Okay. All right, so this was your undergraduate thesis?$$Another one was a music synthesizer. That was another one that was fun to make.$$Okay.

George Shirley

Opera Singer George Shirley was born on April 18, 1934 in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Irving and Daisy Shirley. By age four, Shirley had begun performing, joining his mother and father as a musical trio within the Indianapolis church community. After moving to Detroit, Michigan with his parents at age six, Shirley continued to build his musical talents, playing the baritone horn in a community band, and studying voice while a student at Northern High School. His musical acumen earned Shirley a scholarship to Wayne State University, where he performed in his first musical drama, Oedipus Rex, with the Men’s Glee Club in 1955. He graduated that same year, receiving his B.S. in Music Education.

Also in 1955, Shirley became the first African American high school music teacher in the city of Detroit. A year later, after being drafted into the Army, he became the first African American to sing with the U.S. Army Chorus, where, influenced by fellow choir members, Shirley decided to pursue a career in opera. In 1959, he performed in his first staged production, Die Fledermaus, with a small company in Woodstock, New York. The following year, after winning the American Opera Auditions in New York, he was invited to play the role Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme in Milan, Italy. In 1961, Shirley won first prize in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, thus becoming the first African American tenor to be awarded a contract with that company, where he performed from 1961 through 1973. He played major roles in more than twenty operas, often performing with fellow African American opera pioneers Leontyne Price and Shirley Verrett. During and after his stint with the Metropolitan Opera, Shirley was a well sought tenor across the globe, appearing in productions in London, Italy, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston and a host of other cities. Shirley also won a Grammy Award for a recording of his performance in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.

In 1980, Shirley joined the staff of the University of Maryland as a professor of voice. In 1985, the University honored him with a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award. In 1987, he returned to the Detroit area, as a professor of voice at the University of Michigan, and five years later, he was named the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Professor of Voice. In 2007, Shirley was named the Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice upon his retirement.

George Shirley was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on June 10, 2010.

Accession Number

A2010.045

Sex

Male

Interview Date

6/10/2010 |and| 10/25/2012

Last Name

Shirley

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

Irving

Organizations
Schools

Wayne State University

Alger Elementary School

Balch Elementary School

Moore Elementary School

Sherrard Intermediate School

Northern High School

First Name

George

Birth City, State, Country

Indianapolis

HM ID

SHI01

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Indiana

Favorite Vacation Destination

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Michigan

Birth Date

4/18/1934

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Ann Arbor

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Fish

Short Description

Music instructor and opera singer George Shirley (1934 - ) is a professor of voice at the University of Michigan, and in 1961, he became the first African American tenor to earn a contract with the Metropolitan Opera.

Employment

Miller High School

United States Army

Metropolitan Opera

University of Maryland at College Park

University of Michigan

Favorite Color

Orange

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of George Shirley's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - George Shirley lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - George Shirley describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about his maternal family's migration north to Indianapolis, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - George Shirley describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - George Shirley talks about the family land in Summer Shade, Kentucky

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - George Shirley talks about his father's education and how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - George Shirley talks about his birth by caesarian section and his mother's fertility complications

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - George Shirley describes his parents' personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - George Shirley describes his father's near death experience in a Detroit, Michigan hospital

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about the establishment of People's Community Church and his father's work as an insurance agent in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - George Shirley describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - George Shirley describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - George Shirley describes Ebenezer A.M.E. Church and growing up in Detroit, Michigan's North End

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - George Shirley talks about music curriculum in the Detroit Public Schools

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about his exposure to classical music at Northern High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about his experiences at Northern High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - George Shirley recalls his decision to attend Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - George Shirley describes performing Igor Stravinsky's 'Oedipus Rex' at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - George Shirley talks about teaching at Miller High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - George Shirley describes joining the United States Army Chorus

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - George Shirley talks about segregation in Washington D.C. during the 1950s and his experience in the United States Army Chorus

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - George Shirley describes performing in the United States Army Chorus and seeing an opera for the first time

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about meeting Themy Georgi

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - George Shirley describes the beginning of his opera career

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Second slating of George Shirley's interview

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - George Shirley describes his first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about African American singers in the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - George Shirley details the history of black opera singers in the United States

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - George Shirley talks about the National Negro Opera Company

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - George Shirley talks about Caterina Jarboro, Jules Bledsoe, Paul Robeson, and Roland Hayes

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - George Shirley talks about meeting Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - George Shirley talks about changes in the musical tastes of black youth during the 1960s and 1970s

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - George Shirley talks about black opera singers recognized in 1960s popular culture and the challenges involved in composing operas

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - George Shirley explains why he pursued a career in classical music

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - George Shirley describes seeing his first opera, Verdi's 'Rigoletto,' in 1957

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about Scott Joplin's opera 'Treemonisha' and musicians' desire to be multi-dimensional

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - George Shirley talks about the differences between jazz and classical music

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - George Shirley talks about performing with Shirley Verrett and Leontyne Price

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - George Shirley talks about performing roles for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about the roles he performed throughout his operatic career

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about receiving criticism for using pale makeup in a performance of 'The Stag King'

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - George Shirley talks about the incorporation of race in critics' reviews of African American performers

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - George Shirley describes his first visit to Atlanta, Georgia in 1962

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - George Shirley talks about returning to Atlanta, Georgia in 1966

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about his performance of Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1969

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about the end of his career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - George Shirley talks about his operatic career after the Metropolitan Opera and singing in multiple languages

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - George Shirley describes the challenges involved in operatic performing and highlights from his career

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - George Shirley talks about teaching at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland and at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - George Shirley talks about teaching at the University of Maryland and joining the faculty at the University of Michigan

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - George Shirley explains the significance of the role of Porgy in George Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - George Shirley talks about performing in 'Porgy and Bess' and its international reception

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about twenty-first century American opera compositions

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - George Shirley talks about his students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - George Shirley describes his approach to instructing voice students

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - George Shirley talks about taking proper care of a voice and managing acid reflux disease

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - George Shirley addresses the misapprehension that weight corresponds to a singer's ability

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - George Shirley describes the significance of diet and vocal training for opera singers

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - George Shirley describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - George Shirley talks about his family

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - George Shirley reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - George Shirley describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - George Shirley sings an aria from 'Girl of the Golden West' in Italian

DASession

1$2

DATape

3$7

DAStory

2$2

DATitle
George Shirley talks about music curriculum in the Detroit Public Schools
George Shirley talks about performing roles for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City
Transcript
Now did you, now you were part of the, a little group you said your parents formed with you with just the family to sing in church and--$$And just, just my mother [Daisy Bell Shirley], my dad [Irving Shirley], and myself. That was in Indianapolis [Indiana]. And then, and then when we came to Detroit [Michigan], I, my mother sang in the senior choir. My dad would play for me, for teens, and so we didn't perform as a unit anymore. But I would give recitals at Ebenezer [A.M.E. Church, Detroit, Michigan] and sing for social functions. The music education curriculum in the public schools taught children to read music from the first grade. So by the time you got to the sixth grade, if you had any musical chops at all, you were musically literate. Then junior high school there were really good choral ensembles. In high school choral and instrumental ensembles were quite outstanding. When I began my teaching career at the old Miller High School [Detroit, Michigan] in 1956, my choir participated--I started in '55 [1955] and '56 [1956] my choir participated in the first annual choral, citywide choral festival. And all the high schools choir, high school choirs participated in that--high level of repertoire performed, excellent ensemble, singing in tune, singing with precision. It was quite spectacular. And unfortunately that's been reduced to almost nothing now (simultaneous)--$$But, but in the days that you were coming along, the music department, I mean the (simultaneous)--$$Music curriculum was fabulous.$$--Music program were strong, that's right.$$The whole Motown industry grew because of that, all of those singers that Berry Gordy hired to begin his enterprise were musically literate. They could read music. Two years ago I met [HM] Martha Reeves at an AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] meeting--after a meeting, sorry. And I started to introduce myself. She said, "Oh, I know who you are. You were my high school music teacher." (Laughter). She was in my, one of my girls' voice classes along with Kim Weston. But these schools produced all that great talent that came out of Detroit, jazz musicians, classical musicians. When I was at the Metropolitan Opera [New York, New York] there were five people on the roster from the Detroit area. And that's pretty good for one of the major opera houses, international opera houses, to have five performers from Motown. Joseph Silverstein was a longtime concert master of the Boston Symphony Orchestra [Boston, Massachusetts]. He came from Cass Tech [Cass Technical High School, Detroit, Michigan]. Isidor Saslav from the Baltimore Symphony [Maryland], concert master, Cass Tech. This town produced great talents, [HM] Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. Smokey, Smokey formed his group when he was a student at Northern High School, people like Tommy Flanagan [Thomas Lee Flanagan], Yusef Lateef, no, Ahmad Jamal, [HM] Della Reese, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Kirk Lightsey. The names go on and on and on and on and on. The cultural curriculum of Detroit Public Schools was second to none in the nation and now it's destroyed. It's almost, almost destroyed by people who are looking to save money.$$Are you--we'll talk about that later in more detail, but when you were a kid, now were you aware that you had musical talent, or were you considered to be talented in music?$$Well, yes, as I said, I mean I started singing when I was about four. So I knew that the singing was part of my life. When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I mean I had sung the solos. In 'Messiah,' [George Frideric Handel] high school I sang the tenor solo in the first course of the [Giuseppe] Verdi '[Messa da] Requiem' in one of our concerts. So I knew that my talent was considerable. I decided not to, to go into professional music as a singer. I mean I thought that was, that was a little far away, as, that's far, that was as far, that was as remote as New York City was from Detroit. But, I decided to become a music teacher. That was going to be my career, and I was indeed happy with that until Uncle Sam interrupted with the [U.S.] Military draft. And it was after the draft that I decided to pursue professional singing as an opera singer.$Okay. So, within a year's time it seems that you had developed quite a repertoire of, of roles in, in, in, in one year [at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, New York].$$Yes.$$Now this is--$$The interesting thing is my career got started, again, on this emergency jumping in. And that proved to the management that they had someone who could do that and not fall flat on his face. The result was that I was asked to do that probably more often than I should have. And young, initially there'd be nerves or less--the more I was asked to do that, the more of a problem it became. The roles that I did at the Met [Metropolitan Opera], I think I did twenty-seven roles altogether there. Of those roles, the ones that I had sung prior to performing them at the Met were very few. One that I had sung prior to that was Rodolfo [in 'La boheme' by Giacomo Puccini], 'cause I made my debut in Italy in, in that in 1960 before I went to the Met. Don Jose was another one that I had, had already sung. I think that was it.$$Okay.$$I think all the rest of them were for the first time anywhere. And that can really sort of begin--and some of those were with, at the last minute. The 'Cosi [fan tutte' by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart]--the Ferrando in 'Cosi' was the last minute. The des Grieux in [Jules] Massenet's 'Manon' was last minute because Nicolai Gedda's father died. He sang the first performance of a new production, and I was covering him, so I sang the next two and Nick went off to his father's funeral. des Grieux in [Giacomo] Puccini's 'Manon Lescaut' was at the last minute because a tenor canceled. Nemorino in 'L'elisir d'amore' [Gaetano Donizetti] was last minute, (laughter) actually. I had come to the end of my season this particular year, and I was getting ready to go off and do recitals in the South. And Rudolf Bing asked me, he said, "George," he said, "We have a performance, a performance of 'L'elisir d'amore' coming up." And he said, "We don't have a tenor. Would you, can you do this?" Well, that "L'elisir" wasn't on my list. And I said, "Mr. Bing, I don't know the opera." He said, "But you, you, you've got to help us," in his English accent, "You, you've got to help us. Good God, you've got to help us." I said, "Well, I'm, I'm going off to sing recitals in Tuscaloosa [Alabama] and Talladega, Alabama, next week," said, "Well, all right." So, he called me (laughter) on the telephone when I was either in Tuscaloosa or Talladega. He said, "George, you've got to do this." And I said, "Gee." I said, "Okay, I'll, I'll, I have to take a look at the score when I get back 'cause I don't know it." It wasn't on my list of covers. I got back and the opera, the score is about this thick. And I'm thinking heaven's sake. It's got recitative, and it's got arias and so forth. So I learned it. I had about two weeks to learn it. And I did the performance, and it was a success. A number of years later they offered me another performance (laughter), one. And that was in 1967 I think. It was the year that [Reverend Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated, and--$$In '68 [1968].$$--in '68 [1968]. And the performance was scheduled for the week in which he was assassinated, and I canceled it. I said I, I can't do this performance now. And so they had to get somebody to (laughter) replace me. And they eventually offered me another performance, and that was with Reri Grist. I took that one. But that was sort of the pattern that so much of what I did at the Met, except for I think those two roles that I mentioned, and maybe I've forgotten one. It was all for the first time, and on most of those roles for the last, at the last minute, because somebody canceled. The first, Gabriele Adorno in 'Simon Boccanegra' of [Giuseppe] Verdi was last minute because somebody had canceled. After a while, you know, that kind of thing really started getting to be a bit much for me to handle. And, but that's the way it went.$$Now is, the implication here, now if we were looking at sports, then we would know how to look at this. You, you always sit on the bench until the starter gets hurt, and then they put you in--$$Right$$--At the last minute, and you succeed, and then, you know. But they only put you in when somebody else is--$$Well, I, I, I did have also chances to do my first performances of things. The, the, the, the, the, it wasn't always just jumping at the last minute. My, my point is that jumping in at the last minute was, happened a lot during my eleven years there. And it began to sort of be something that I really didn't look forward to doing. But, again, American singers who have contracts there are expected because the Met is not like an opera house in Europe. When somebody cancels in Paris [France], they can call Germany, or they can call the UK [United Kingdom], or they can call Italy and say, "Can you, you have somebody you can send over to do the performance tomorrow night because so and so is ill?" And that happens. Well, that doesn't happen in the United States because the Met is a year-round, I mean it's the one opera house that has really a full season. The other opera houses have people come in to do specific shows. And once they have done their show they're gone. They're doing something else. They don't have a roster of artists that's available for the Met to call on if they need some assistance. So they have to have all of their singers in-house. Today there are singers who are under contracts I understand and make very good money, but they're, they're just basically as covers. So that, you know, they may go through a whole season without ever getting on stage to perform. And that's not something that I would really like to, I wouldn't want to deal with that, but I understand that that is the case with a number of artists. But that's the way the Met protects, protects itself, so that what I did was what other singers do. But I, I got the feeling that I did it (laughter) maybe a little bit more often for big roles than some of the other singers did, but that was the way it worked out.$$Okay. So for eleven years, what percentage do you think of, of your roles were, were where you were pushed into service and had to, you know, perform this great feat again?$$I'm terrible at trying to figure percentages, (laughter) but I would say less than, I'd say maybe forty percent.$$That's almost half the time, yeah, yeah.