The Green Book Fact Check – Truth About Tony Lip And Don Shirley
In 1962, two vastly different people known as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga and Don Shirley. Tony Lip, an Italian-American was a casually racist bouncer that took the gifted Jamaican-American musician Shirley on a music tour of the south.
The Green Book film, featuring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershela Ali, was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Lip’s son. The story is inspired and based on conversations he had with both Shirley and his father, in addition to recordings of Lip.
One of the main problems, it seems, is that filmmakers did not speak to Shirley’s family beforehand. Shirley’s brother Maurice went on to the radio show 1A to voice his displeasure, saying the film is “full of lies.”
While the families may not see eye-to-eye on the information, here are a few things about Tony Lip and Don Shirley we know are facts:
1. Shirley needed Lip’s security while performing in Jim Crow South
Shirley and Lip traveled together in 1962 together so that the musician could perform south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Six years before Shirley arrived in the south to perform, Nat King Cole had been physically assaulted on a stage in Alabama. With Lip watching Don Shirley’s back, the experienced bouncer gave him a sense of security most did not have the luxury of feeling.
While they did indeed travel together, it was far longer than the two months portrayed in the movie. In fact, their total time traveling together amounted to more than a year.
2. Shirley was also friends with famous musicians
During the movie, viewers are presented with a scene where Lip suggest to Shirley listening to Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker, two fellow black musicians. It was no sweat for Don to connect to black musicians since he was already friends with Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan. Shirley was not one for monikers such as ‘entertainer’ or ‘jazz musician.’
The piano was Shirley first choice of instrument at age 2, while he played the church organ at three and studied music theory at age 9, something most of us can’t fathom doing on our best days.
Don Shirley first made his musical debut with the Boston Pops in 1945, at the age of 18.
“The black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tied to do,” the musician said to The New York Times in 1982.
3. Lip and Shirley’s Families don’t see eye to eye on some of the stories
While the movie is written about Lip and Shirley’s experiences together, being written co-written by Lip’s son put the focus on Lip’s experience and his point of view in everything.
One scene actually shows Lip demonstrating to Shirley the proper way to eat fried chicken. This is contradictory to the truth, Maurice said on 1A, noting that Lip was not the one who introduced to him the dish.
Some might argue that Lip’s attempt to instruct Shirley in how to eat fried chicken had racist undertones.
According to his son, Nick, viewing what Shirley experienced was the catalyst for completely changing his view. In an interview with Metro, Vallelonga’s son said “He didn’t like people being mistreated. It changed his attitude. It changed the way he raised us, his attitude towards other people.”
4. Did Don Shirley Really Live in An Apartment Above Carnegie Hall?
Just as the movie showed, musician Don Shirley did indeed live above Carnegie Hall. He lived in one of the elegant artists’ units for more than four decades. It is possible he sat above the hall, wishing he could perform in one of the symphonies.
In 1955, Don Shirley took the stage at Carnegie Hall to play the piano for Duke Ellington’s debut of “New Worlds a-Comin.
5. Where was musician Don Shirley born?
There are a handful of articles that cite Kingston, Jamaica as the birthplace of Shirley. The truth is that he was born on January 29, 1927, in Pensacola Florida. Both Jamaican immigrants, his father Edwin worked as a priest and his mother Stella, as a schoolteacher.
His mother died at the age of 9 when he began studying music theory.
The Green Book starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershela Ali is now in theaters. Check it out if you have not already. If you’ve already had the pleasure of viewing the film, what did you think of it?