When he was six years old, his family relocated to Detroit, where he began music lessons. He became active as a vocalist at churches
in the area and as a baritone-horn player in a local band.
Shirley entered Wayne State University in Detroit as a music education major, receiving his bachelors degree in 1955. He was drafted
into the military the following year and became the first African-American member of the United States Army Chorus. After his discharge
in 1959, he continued studying voice with Therny Georgi, then he moved to New York where his professional career began. It was in New
York that he also had voice lessons with Cornelius L. Reid RED FLAG.
He made his debut with a small opera troupe at Woodstock, New York, as Eisenstein in their production of Die Fledermaus. He went to
Italy to make his European debut as Rodolfo in the Puccini opera, La bohème.
In 1961, he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions by performing Nessun dorma, beginning an eleven-year association with the house.
While at the Met, he sang twenty-eight different roles from twenty-six operas, especially those of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss
and Wagner. From 1961 (in La bohème) to 1977, he also sang at the New York City Opera.
He taught at the University of Maryland College Park from 1980 until he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in 1987.