Death and Music

Tom Terrell
Shirley Horn (photo by Tom Terrell)

As my eyes locked on that stark casket, my mind tripped out. The cognitive dissonance of it all shut me down until they played Aunt Shirley's 'Here's to Life'.

It was sometime between 12:30pm and 1:00pm. I was sitting next to my sister Bevie and Moms, fourth pew, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, Washington, DC. It's my aunt Shirley Horn Deering's funeral service. Rep. John Conyers in the pulpit. Just flew in on the redeye from Rosa Parks's funeral in Detroit. Conyers talked about Sister Rosa, about how she and Shirley were both quiet, humble women who did things way larger than they were; who each in her own way changed their worlds.

In the middle of the congressman's remembrance, shit went Dada. The church itself seemed to grow progressively bigger, wider, and higher, until it dwarfed everything except for the gunmetal gray casket down front and the hushed sobs floating in the still air. At that moment, I was enveloped in a heavy shroud of numb emptiness. Mind, body, heart, and soul Twilight Zoned out; a total disconnect from the reality of death. It's happened at every funeral of a beloved one — Popski, Uncles Frank and Alonzo, Grandpa Joe, Grandmas Eliza and Rose, Leslie, Russell — I've attended.

The service ended with Aunt Shirley's signature tune, "Here's to Life". "No complaints and no regrets / I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets / But I have learned that all you give is all you get, so give it all you got...." BAM! Cascades of big fat blue teardrops, waves of sickly sweet nausea, brain screaming over and over, "Shirley Horn is dead, Shirley Horn is DEAD!" I was shook. As Bevie and I drove in silence to the mausoleum, I asked myself over and over: why didn't I feel grief, pain, and loss over Aunt Shirley's death until the music played? Why did hearing "Here's to Life" in that church make her passing realer to me than Popski's and the others'?

Earlier this year when the news of Lou Rawls's and Wilson Pickett's deaths plunged me into depression, those questions came back to torment me. Why? I mean I never met them — the closest we ever got was when I was in the audience and they were on stage. Anyways, I put on Lou's Live! album. Soon as Lou and the band swung into "South Side Blues/Tobacco Road" the sun came out. As he rapped about "The Hawk, Mr. Wind" freezing anybody in its path, long-forgotten teenage memories of severe insecurity, hand jobs in my girlfriend's living room, Steve Reeves movies, hanging in Russell's basement, yadda-yadda flooded my brain. I started laughing and crying at the same time. Then it hit me: Lou Rawls is dead and I miss him terribly. Why?

It wasn't until Lou's tongue-twisting coda to "The Girl from Ipanema" ("I-was-looking-back-to-see-if-she-was-looking-back-to-see-if-I-was-looking-back-to-see-if-she-was-looking-back-to-see-if-I-was-looking-back-to-see-if-she-was-looking-back-at-me-but-she-wouldn't-look-back-at-me-as-she-walked-down-to-the-sea; she wouldn't look-at-me") that I finally admitted to myself that I've always known why.

See, all my life, vocalists have given me faith, hope, and charity, caressed me, comforted me, taught me, guided me, carried me, nurtured me, encouraged me, loved me, forgave me, sheltered me, touched me, influenced me, and reached me in the darkest hours far heavily than family, friends, and lovers ever have or could. When I was a baby, my Moms told me the only thing that would stop me bawling was Johnny Ace's "The Clock" and "Pledging My Love". David Ruffin proved to me that wearing thick black eyeglass frames was cool, not corny. Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and the Staple Singers taught me smart was the real hip, black was always beautiful, funk is spiritual, and to always love myself for myself.

Most importantly of all, Marvin Gaye showed me that a real man is not ashamed to cry, beg, repent, atone, and apologize. After he died, I was in so much pain that I couldn't listen to his music for months: if a song of his came on the radio, I turned it off; if they played him at a party, I ran outside. I grieved profoundly until I heard Paul Young sing "Wherever I Lay My Hat Is My Home" a year later at the Bayou. I cried and wailed my soul out of mourning that night. To Sir With Love: From then until right here right now, not a day's gone by that I don't play at least one of your records.

I now understand what happened at the funeral. I knew Aunt Shirley — the wife of Sheppard "Shep" Deering, mother of Rainy — long before I knew her as Shirley Horn the legendary jazz pianist/vocalist. Aunt Shirley had my back from the get-go. When I was a chubby, painfully introverted 12-year-old hiding from the world in a stack of Marvel comic books, Aunt Shirley told me, "Scooter, I know you're shy and think you don't fit in, but it's alright. I'm the same way. Who you are is good; you're special. Like me." That was the first time I liked me for being me. The day I graduated from Howard University, she advised, "People who say they like you and they love you, but never find the time to come over to the house and eat your food with you, aren't really your friends." And that's why I've been blessed with hella great, old friends.

As my eyes locked on that stark casket, my mind tripped out. Death had downgraded a lifetime of tangible reality to quicksilver slivers of vaporous memories. The cognitive dissonance of it all shut me down until they played "Here's to Life". Shirley's miraculous voice — a warmly bracing cascade of rapturous tenderness, wistful melancholy, and ferocious life-lust — lifted me from limbo and carried me home on a veil of tears as she'd done on record and onstage many times before. It may sound mad schizoid, but now I realize that I was really weeping and wailing for Aunt Shirley after all. She lived every syllable, word, verse, and silence of "Here's to Life" to the utmost. It was her lifelong sense of purpose and raison d'être. Aunt Shirley is Shirley Horn... forever one.

Over the decades, the reality of Marvin's, Curtis's, Lou's, the Wicked Pickett's, Tammi Terrell's, Donny Hathaway's, Minnie Riperton's, Jimi Hendrix's, Junior Wells's, Otis Redding's, Fela Kuti's, Dinah Washington's, Frank Sinatra's, Sammy Davis Jr.'s, Hector Lavoe's, Celia Cruz's, Luther Vandross's, Puma Jones's, and Bob Marley's deaths have fucked me up just as profoundly as Shirley Horn's. And I'm at peace with that. Finally.

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