Cadence Records found success with pianist’s blend of classical, jazz and pop styles

By Michael Kosser

Early in “Green Book,” two men from Dr. Don Shirley’s record label surprise his driver and bodyguard, Tony Lip, handing him a cash-stuffed envelope with half his pay for the next two months. They also deliver a warning: If Shirley misses a single show, Tony won’t be paid the rest.

Tony doesn’t realize what kind of hurdles he’ll be up against, but the label and the executives surely do.

In real life, Shirley’s label from 1955 through 1962 was Cadence Records, one of the best independent labels of the era.

Cadence was founded in 1952 by Archie Bleyer, a bandleader who was then the musical director for superstar radio and TV host Arthur Godfrey. In the fall of 1953, Godfrey made national headlines (and permanently damaged his image) by firing his most popular singer, Julius La Rosa, on live national radio, then firing Bleyer the same day.

Free to devote more time and energy to Cadence, Bleyer assembled an unusually eclectic roster. While Shirley’s recordings did not sell as well as the label’s headliners, they did find a significant audience.

Beginning with 1955’s “Tonal Expressions,” Cadence released at least 16 Don Shirley albums, mostly featuring his classically influenced renditions of pop standards.

In 1960, Shirley was especially prolific. That year, Cadence released a series of albums collectively named “Don Shirley Plays”: “… Love Songs,” “… Gershwin,” “… Standards,” “… Birdland Lullabies” and “… Showtunes.”

But his repertoire went far beyond the American songbook. Negro spiri­tuals and hymns also found their way onto his albums, and he created unique interpretations of ’50s and ’60s songs including “Stand by Me” and “Drown in My Own Tears.” In 1961, the old work song “Water Boy” was released as a single off his album “The Don Shirley Trio.” It stayed in the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks.

Bleyer sold Cadence in 1964. Over the next decade, Shirley had a couple of releases on the Columbia and Atlantic labels, but it was his time with Cadence that yielded the remarkable body of work that still sounds refreshing today because of his unique musical outlook.