What Berkshire celebrity was a “peer of the realm”?
Photo Walter H. Scott
Life in the Berkshires often means casually rubbing elbows with celebrities. Politicians, actors, and musicians are standard fare, but a man who would become a “peer of the realm” tops them all. For ten summers in the ’80s and ’90s, the internationally acclaimed pianist and composer George Shearing made his home at Brookside Farm in Lee. Queen Elizabeth II later knighted him in 2007.
Sir George is well-remembered in the Berkshires for his sense of humor. At a 1996 Jazz Weekend performance at Ozawa Hall, Shearing said that the quintet had just sped out of Rhode Island, where a powerful hurricane was approaching. “We were in such a rush, they let me drive,” he jested. The joke, of course, was that Shearing was blind from birth in 1919 in Battersea (London). His favorite trick was demonstrating to friends that he could identify bills by sniffing. Nat King Cole was among those who never caught on that George was receiving cues from an accomplice. He couldn’t actually smell the money.
The first British jazz musician to come to America after World War II, Shearing played clubs for $5 a week before hitting it big with recordings of “September in the Rain,” “Autumn Leaves,” and his own, “Lullaby of Birdland.” He collaborated with the greatest performers, including Cole, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme and Tony Bennett. Comfortable with royalty or elected leaders, he performed at the White House three times, but he always came back to the “crickets and a glass of wine” at the farm in the Berkshires.