The black American tenor and teacher, George Irving Shirley, began music lessons at age 6, when his family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. He was active as a vocalist at churches in the area and as a baritone horn player in a local band. He 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 I Washington, D.C.; then he moved to New York, continuing his vocal training there with Cornelius Reid. In New York his professional career began.
George Shirley 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.
From the 1960ís to the present, George 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. Among his students there was the counter-tenor David Daniels.
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.