More than an athlete: Ernie Shelby
By: Bryce Reedy
If someone had told Ernest “Ernie” Shelby before he arrived at the University of Kansas that he would become one of the most influential individuals to ever step foot on the KU campus, he probably would not have believed it. Just over 60 years later, however, that statement still holds true.
After transferring to KU in 1957, it only took the Los Angeles native two short years before he etched his name in Jayhawk history. Shelby helped KU men’s track and field win the program’s first National Championship in 1959, and became an All-American and conference champion in two straight seasons (1958-59).
While accomplishing all the accolades, Shelby continued to make history by becoming the track team’s first African-American captain. Despite being the first, it did not occur to Shelby how big of a moment this was for Kansas Athletics at the time.
“There was no impact then,” Shelby modestly asserted. “Except for a few rare mentions in various newspapers about my being captain in 1959, who cared? It wasn’t until we won KU’s first NCAA Championship that it became newsworthy.”
It was many years after the turn of the century that the public became aware of the protest against racial segregation that Shelby, Wilt Chamberlain (KU basketball), Homer Floyd (KU football) and Charlie Tidwell (KU track and field) made to then-Chancellor Franklin Murphy. The four of them threatened to leave KU unless segregation was ended in the city of Lawrence.
“As far as our 1958 meeting with Chancellor Murphy was concerned,” Shelby said, “it wasn’t until 2015, when I made Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little aware of the letter I sent to Sports Illustrated that she publicized it and the incident then became notable.”
And yet, both events have become two of the most important and influential events in KU’s and Lawrence’s history.
However, while people within the Jayhawk community associate Shelby with his athletic career and these marks in history, he has always been more than an athlete. There are only a handful of individuals who are fully aware of all three of Shelby’s major backgrounds: track and field, art, and music.
“As a matter of fact, most people who know me as an artist are not aware of my music or track backgrounds,” Shelby said. “This is true of all three of my careers. Only my closest friends are aware of all aspects.”
While Shelby’s athletic and art careers were always prominent in his life, it was his career in music that always meant something more to him.
“Believe me, it was not a decision. It was more of an innate decree,” Shelby said. “I have said for years that I became an artist because I ‘could,’ but I became a musician because I ‘had to.'”
From an early age, Shelby was intrigued by music. Despite never formally studying music during his school years, he taught himself how to read and write music by reading books and experimenting with sounds in his free time.
“Once when I was about 13 years old, I was sitting at my mom’s piano trying to figure out—purely by sound—the chord structure of a popular song,” Shelby said. “My mother said, ‘See ya later’ and departed to go to her full-time job as a social worker. My plan was to stop about noon and take a break for lunch. I was so consumed with that song that I was shocked when the door suddenly opened, and my mom returned from work. I had not moved from that piano bench all day long.”
Following his time at KU, Shelby in the early 1960’s attempted to begin his career in the music industry. However, during that time in history, it was very difficult for African-American artists to get any major attention. Luckily for Shelby, his success in track and field, combined with his ability to sing, helped to garner him auditions for nightclubs, record companies, and television commercials.
It wasn’t long after that he began to receive recognition nationally for his musical talents. This included several appearances on Art Linkletter’s “House Party” television show. It was thanks to these appearances that Shelby was able to meet up with one of the biggest music stars of all time.
“My third appearance with Art Linkletter was when he was hosting ‘The Tonight Show,’ substituting for Jack Parr,” Shelby said. “Frank Sinatra was at the ‘Tonight Show’ to witness the show live. Sinatra pulled me aside and told me he was impressed with my performance.”
Sinatra was so impressed that he set up a meeting for Shelby with Ted Wick, who worked with Nancy Sinatra, singer Tommy Sands, and TV star Dwayne Hickman. Wick ended up signing Shelby, launching an appearance at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, and negotiating a recording contract with Capitol Records.
Thanks to this encounter, Shelby was able to gain traction nationally as a singer. After he spent some time singing, he decided to test the waters in another area of music: composition.
“After I started a career in music, I considered myself to be solely a performer, a singer,” Shelby said. “But early on I found myself increasingly discontented with the material that was available to sing. So, I began to toy around with composing my own songs.”
In the late 60’s, Shelby was signed by Venture records as a writer/producer and experienced considerable success there. This included writing the song “Nobody” (performed by Three Dog Night), which would go on to become a Gold Record three times on their three consecutive albums (“One,” “Captured Live at the Forum,” and “Golden Bisquits”) and reappeared as an R&B hit when it was sung by Kim Weston and many others.
His natural composing abilities were then immediately noticed by some of the big-time record labels and artists around the country. In the 70’s, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford of Wishbone Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama took notice.
“Though they didn’t usually pay much attention to the West Coast for writers, they said there was something about my compositions they liked,” Shelby said. “So, they decided to finance a trip for me to go down to Muscle Shoals expressly to team up and collaborate with well- known R&B soul singer and composer Prince Phillip Mitchell (who wrote ‘Star in the Ghetto’ and ‘Money, Money, Money’).”
In a one-week period, the duo met every day in a tiny hotel room with a small electric piano and an acoustic guitar. During that time, Shelby and Prince co-wrote eleven songs and cut demos with the Muscle Shoals rhythm group on each song.
Shelby’s work in the composition industry skyrocketed after that.
While Shelby did a lot of singing and writing of rhythm & blues tracks, that has never been Shelby’s favorite type of composition.
“I always wanted to write classic standard songs, but that avenue was open to very few African-American songwriters,” Shelby said. “Whenever I took one of my standard songs to a record company—challenging the established assumption that a black writer could never write a song for a white singer—I was told things like, ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have singers like Ella Fitzgerald.'”
Although R&B was what he was best known for, Shelby pressed on despite the roadblocks, creating the type of music he longed for. Some of his best classic standard songs genre include “This is America” (sung by Kim Weston) and “The Love I’ve Been Looking For” (sung by Madlyn Quebec). Both can be accessed on YouTube, along with many of his R&B songs. Shelby continues his love for both singing and composing music to this day, even completing and seeking to promote a recent single, “How Much I Love You” (which has yet to be released).
Shelby’s musical success, combined with his accomplishments in both athletics and art, illustrates why he is one of the most influential and versatile Jayhawks of all time.
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