Amidst life’s crescendos and diminuendos, legendary Portland singer Shirley Nanette’s passion for music endures with a helping hand from Meals on Wheels People. Photo by Debra Penk.
Shirley Nanette took the stage on a recent Saturday night at Artichoke Music. The gold sequins on her elegant peach dress sparkled in the spotlight as she closed her eyes and crooned “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to a full house.
“Any time I get a chance to sing, it helps to break the stress I’ve been under,” says the 75-year-old singer who, in the past year, had her car stolen and was hospitalized for mild congenital heart failure.
Singing has not just been an art for Shirley — a mainstay of Portland’s jazz scene and a celebrated guest of the Oregon Symphony, known for clinching the inaugural season of Star Search — but a steadfast method of coping with life’s myriad difficulties.
The Power of Song
Born in 1947, Shirley grew up in North Portland with her mother, father, and brother. “My mother had this big radio, and there used to be a classical show named The Voice of Firestone,” Shirley recalls. “They had an opera singer named Risë Stevens — I wanted to sing like her.”
Shirley got her start singing in church. Her elementary school teacher also encouraged her talent. “[My teacher] got permission from the school and my parents so I could stay after school and she could teach me songs,” Shirley says. “She taught me about breathing. She taught me how to think about a song like it’s a story.”
By her early teens, Shirley was performing in talent shows at the Elks Lodge and singing with small R&B bands around Portland. But her life was not without its hardships. Shirley faced personal tragedies and societal challenges. Despite these adversities, she found solace and strength in her music, using her voice not just for entertainment but as a means of healing and connection. “Music carried me through,” she says.
Her Ascent to Stardom
In her 20s, Shirley was a regular at the Jazz Quarry downtown, the Upstairs Lounge on what’s now NE MLK, and “the club where the Subway sandwich place is now, over by the Lloyd Center.” She sang backup in a group that opened for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. In 1973, she released a soul album called Never Coming Back. By the time she made her debut with the Oregon Symphony in 1981, she was a veteran of the West Coast jazz circuit. And in 1983, she won the first season of Star Search with “Where Am I Going?” by Barbra Streisand.
She went on to tour with the Oregon Symphony and sang with other orchestras around the country. She performed at many of Oregon’s musical events, including the Mt. Hood Festival of Jazz, Cascade Music Festival, and Sunriver Music Festival; was honored by the Portland Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade with her own float for two consecutive years; and was recognized as “Best Female Vocalist in Portland” from 1981 to 1991. In addition to singing, she appeared in the stage play The Colored Museum written by George C. Wolfe and Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. In 2013, she was inducted into the Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame for her dedication to jazz and her long career.
“I’ve done a lot of things I’m grateful to have been able to do,” she says. “I had people who believed in me and helped me to persevere.”
Resilience Amid Loss
In January 2023, Shirley’s car was stolen (thought it wasn’t the 1984 periwinkle blue Pontiac T1000 that she won as a result of her Star Search victory). “It blew me away when my car got stolen,” she says. “You didn’t use to be fearful about going anywhere. I lived in a neighborhood where we looked out for each other. Everybody felt protected. I love this city. I don’t want to see people hurting others.”
That’s one of the reasons why Shirley loves Meals on Wheels People so much. “I appreciate what you guys do to help others,” says Shirley, who started receiving meals in 2022. Although she values her independence and enjoys cooking for herself, the reality of living on a limited Social Security income and dealing with health issues made the assistance provided by Meals on Wheels People essential.
Amid these changes, Shirley’s spirit remains undiminished. She continues to perform when she can, sharing her gift with others and taking pride in her granddaughter’s success as a performer. Her story is one of enduring talent and resilience, a testament to the power of music and community in facing life’s challenges.
If Shirley’s story has inspired you, consider showing your support where it matters most. Your donation makes a tangible difference in the lives of many, just like Shirley, who rely on the essential services provided by Meals on Wheels People. Join us in creating a stronger, more compassionate community. Click to donate now and help keep the music playing in the hearts of those who need it most.