Thos Shipley celebrates life in upcoming concert
Promoting his upcoming concert at New York's Gay Community Center on July 9, award-winning jazz singer Thos Shipley trumpets, "Celebrating 26 years of the Center, 26 years of singing, and 26 years of living with HIV."
The news of his HIV status comes as a bit of shock to anyone who knows Shipley, who is amazingly fit at fifty, but he doesn't want anyone to be fooled.
"I've been very fortunate," he said in a wide-ranging interview with Edge. "But it's not like those ads that show happy people saying, 'I take my meds and I'm fine.' There is angst every time you go into your doctor's office to find out if it's working. There are side effects and costs involved, and a constant nagging in your subconscious."
Shipley paused, then sighed. "It upsets me that people are still dying from this. We have all the education, but nobody talks about it and nobody is listening. It's something you don't want to have and you don't have to."
Shipley recalled discovering his swollen lymph nodes at a time when the disease was still nameless and there was no test. At the time, his partner was also diagnosed with the disease; he died a year and a half later.
Only last year did it hit him how long it had been. "I turned 50, the doctor I had been seeing for over twenty years retired . . . I had a confrontation with my parents and told them I was no longer going to be half a person, it's all of me or nothing. I have claimed myself as being all right with God and okay with myself and I'm dealing with myself in a new way."
At around the same time he was probably infected, 1982, a sunnier outlook was in store. Shipley was singing at the Colony Square Hotel in Atlanta.
"It was a beautiful, open air restaurant and bar, but hardly anyone was there. Then in walks Leslie Uggams and her husband and they sit down and listen," he recalled with a laugh, still amazed at the story.
Uggams spoke with Shipley after his set, then called him a week later to tell him she wanted to do anything she could to help his career.
Good on her word, she brought him to Claridge's in Atlantic City, where he was booked for a month, and then he opened for Al Martino and his 14-piece orchestra. From there, he appeared on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and sang at Caroline's at South Street Seaport, where several agents from the William Morris Agency were in attendance.
Shipley then became a staple at Danny's Skylight Room. "I read my first review in Backstage on the train on my way to work and the reviewer said I was on my way to stardom. Then I showed it to a lawyer at the office and he said, 'Yeah, and you're working here as a file clerk.' I'll never forget that," Shipley said with a shrug.
While the going with agents was sometimes tough because, he says, "I was not a prepackaged success that they could easily market," Shipley went on to win five MAC Awards as Male Jazz Vocalist, performed on Broadway and in Asia in Miss Saigon, starred in the Off-Broadway one-man show, Broadway Goes Jazz, and toured all over America, Singapore and Japan, and performed at Carnegie Hall. In 2005, he released the CD My Favorite Things.
Originally from Maryland, Shipley is the son of a military father, who had a jazz band in the Army, and a schoolteacher mother.
Bridging the worlds of theater and jazz, Shipley describes what he does as 'scoring' a lyric. "It's all about phrasing. I pick tunes because of what they say. You have this story you are telling based on color of orchestration and you can tell another whole story to evoke emotion, color, texture."
As for the business of being a performer, Shipley doesn't sugarcoat: "You are your product. The training goes without saying, but there is also the health, the looks. It's not just what happens on stage, but the hours beforehand-exercise, what you eat, what you drink, how much rest you've had . . . it takes an enormous amount of energy to do it, and often I have to get up and go to work the next day."
Yet Shipley is still enthusiastic about the art and is excited about an upcoming CD. "Singing is like making love: touch, touch, wait, stop-it's very sensual."
Steven Santoro, a longtime friend and jazz performer, commented, "When all is said and done, Thos is about people. He can't hide, nor does he want to hide anything that can be shared or expressed."
Santoro recalled asking Shipley about his first name. "It's just Thomas abbreviated," Santoro chuckled. "Brilliant-turning the ordinary into something special and unusual right there under your nose."
TV personality Bobby Rivers will be joining him at the Center concert. He will host, do a little stand-up and just be part of the evening. "We are friends with an interesting bond," Shipley laughed. "We both grew up being told we were not black enough and not gay enough."
Shipley will perform songs from both his released and upcoming CDs, and perhaps a song by Lou Rawls, to whom his sound is often compared.
As a final thought, Shipley said, "I'm a whole person and I want to celebrate that. My two wishes for people are for them not to be HIV-positive and not to be ashamed of themselves."