Gay accompanist who died Oct. 28 had been a fixture at clubs, church services, funerals and HIV/AIDS benefits in Dallas for 30 years
Buddy Shanahan, a pianist who’d performed for 30 years in Oak Lawn, was found dead at his home on Oct. 28. He was 50.
A sudden heart attack was suspected but the coroner ruled Shanahan’s death “unexplained.”
Tests to determine cause of death could take up to two months.
Shanahan was known for accompanying singers on the piano at Oak Lawn clubs, appearing at benefits and performing at churches.
As gifted as he was, he didn’t learn to play the piano until he was 18 and a student at the University of North Texas. Once he began performing, he never did anything else professionally.
“Without question, Buddy was one of the most talented pianists/accompanists I have ever had the privilege of knowing,” said Tim Seelig, former artistic director for the Turtle Creek Chorale.
Shanahan worked with the Chorale and its small ensembles on many projects for years. The first major project he did for the group was as arranger and keyboard player on the CD Personals. He collaborated with Seelig on the CD Two Worlds.
“He didn’t really need music. It just came pouring out of his soul. Give him a key and the tempo, and he was golden,” Seelig said.
Jerry Nicholson coordinated entertainment at Bill’s Hideaway on Buena Vista Street. He said he hired Shanahan in 1989, and he performed there three to four times a week until the bar closed in 2009. Before that, Shanahan was a regular for 10 years at John L’s, a show bar on Wycliff Avenue where The Brick is now.
Nicholson spoke to Shanahan the day he died and said he sounded fine.
Singer Gary Floyd met Shanahan in 1987 at John L’s. Along with Jim Caruso, they formed a group called Wise Guys. In about 1992, the trio performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.
“He was as remarkable a friend as he was a musician,” Floyd said.
Shanahan was scheduled to play for singer Denise Lee at Woody’s on Oct. 28. When he didn’t appear, Lee called Shanahan’s friend, Paul Allen. Singer Anton Shaw met Allen at Shanahan’s house.
Allen had a key and went into the apartment, where he found Shanahan in a chair clutching his cell phone.
Shanahan had tried to call Allen and another friend about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. Police believe that’s when he died. The coroner told Allen he had been dead almost 24 hours before he was found.
Allen said Shanahan had been hospitalized three times in the last year but seemed to have gotten his health under control.
Lee said she and others won’t be singing at the funeral because they would have no one to accompany them.
“Who wants the pressure of playing piano at Buddy Shanahan’s funeral?” Lee said.
Shanahan has been her principal accompanist since 2001 after she sang at an open mic night at The Hideaway. She said he had an opening in his schedule, asked her to perform one night and they’ve worked together ever since.
“Buddy was the only one who didn’t know how good he was,” she said.
Saxophonist Rusty Johnson, who played at Alexandre’s in Shanahan’s final show on Oct. 26, had a similar story. He first heard Shanahan at Cathedral of Hope. Afterward, they went out to eat, and Shanahan took him to The Hideaway for open mic night.
“I owe everything to him,” he said. “He was solely responsible for giving me my start.”
He called Shanahan’s death a blow to the community.
“Buddy took me under his wing,” Johnson said. “I never heard anyone play keyboards like that.”
Singer Sandra Kaye agreed.
“He outplayed anybody in town,” Kaye said by phone from Shanghai, where she has been appearing since April.
Kaye began performing with Shanahan in 1986 at John L’s. She said at the time he looked like Wally Cleaver.
“He was so cute and sweet,” she said.
She performed at one of the earliest AIDS fundraisers in Dallas with Shanahan at the home of Judge Jerry Birdwell. It raised about $60,000.
“Buddy and I agreed that we would not accept money for performing a service for anyone who died of AIDS,” Kaye said.
She called the number of funerals she and Shanahan performed at “astronomical” and said they did regular benefits for the AIDS Food Pantry.
Lee rattled off a list of benefits Shanahan performed with her for AIDS Arms, the Soupmobile, Genesis Women’s Shelter and the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk she did with Floyd. Their last was for Legacy Counseling Center at
The Brick, just a week before his death.
David Hearn, treasurer for the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund, said Shanahan performed a fundraiser for the organization with Mark Allen Smith.
The Rev. Jo Hudson said Shanahan worked with three different groups at Cathedral of Hope. Sundays he was the accompanist for Congregación Latina, Wednesday nights for the band for the gospel choir and for the Praise ensemble Voices of Hope. He first visited the church in 1993 and became part of staff in 2007.
“He was a phenomenal musician,” Hudson said. “We were great beneficiaries of his musical talent.”
He also performed at Metropolitan Community Church of Greater Dallas at the Sunday morning service before heading to Cathedral of Hope for the afternoon Spanish service.
Floyd said that the religious track in Shanahan’s career wasn’t always as successful. In the 80s, he played for a Pentecostal church in Dallas.
“They fired him because not enough people got healed when he played,” Floyd said.
Shanahan is survived by one sister. He was preceded in death by three partners. Two died of AIDS complications and one in a car accident.
Donations may be made to Cathedral of Hope to cover expenses. A funeral will be at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4, at Cathedral of Hope.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 2, 2012.