In 1962, casually racist Italian-American bouncer Tony "Lip" Vallelonga and Don Shirley, a gifted Jamaican-American musician, had very little in common — yet a road trip through the South led to these two becoming friends. The movie Green Book, which was co-written by Lip's son, Nick Vallelonga, is about this life-changing journey. The movie draws on recordings of Lip, as well as conversations Nick had with his father and Shirley. However, the filmmakers did not consult with members of Shirley's family; his brother, Maurice, told the radio show 1A he won't see the film as he feels it's "full of lies." With this controversy and the fact that many movies make narrative choices that can leave facts behind, it may be hard to know what to believe about their relationship. To better understand it, here are some insights into the true story behind this friendship.
Shirley needed Lip's security while performing in Jim Crow South
In 1962, Shirley and Lip really did travel together so Shirley could perform south of the Mason-Dixon line. At the time, Lip's presence was a necessity. Six years earlier, Nat King Cole had been brutally assaulted on stage in Alabama. An experienced bouncer like Lip offered some security to a Black man in the Jim Crow South.
The Negro Motorist Green Book, created by postal employee Victor Hugo Green, was another real-life necessity for Black travelers at the time. However, Lip and Shirley would have required its guidance long before reaching the southern stops on Shirley's tour. Jim Crow was alive and well in the North and Midwest, with numerous "sundown" towns that forbade Black people from staying overnight.
The film also compresses how long Shirley and Lip were on the road together. Instead of traveling for two months, the different legs of their trip added up to more than a year, giving their friendship additional time to develop.
Shirley was also friends with famous musicians
In the movie, Lip has Shirley listen to Black musicians like Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker. But Shirley didn't really need help connecting to Black performers. He was friends with Duke Ellington and admired by Sarah Vaughan. In a performance of George Gershwin's "Concerto in F" at the Metropolitan Opera, Shirley was accompanied by the Alvin Ailey dancers.
Shirley did dislike being called an entertainer or a jazz musician (he wasn't a fan of improvisation). A musical genius, he was reaching for the piano at two, playing the church organ at three (his father was an Episcopal priest) and studying musical theory at nine. In 1945, an 18-year-old Shirley made his concert debut with the Boston Pops.
After being told white audiences wouldn't accept a Black pianist, Shirley had shifted his career focus toward popular music. But his musical interests remained wide-ranging, covering everything from classical and spiritual to musical theater. And he always considered how music related to his background. As he told The New York Times in 1982, "The Black experience through music, with a sense of dignity, that’s all I have ever tried to do."
Lip and Shirley's families don't see eye to eye on some of the stories
Lip's son, Nick, a co-writer on Green Book, taped his father recounting numerous stories, including his road trip with Shirley. These recordings helped create the film— but they also put the focus on Lip and his interpretation of events.
In one scene in the film, Lip instructs Shirley on how to eat fried chicken. It's something Lip talked about on the tapes his son made, yet Shirley's brother, Maurice, told the radio show 1A that his brother wasn't introduced to the dish by Lip. Perhaps the vagaries of memory came into play when Lip was recorded years later, or maybe the racist stereotypes about the food and the Black community had made Shirley simply not want to eat it in front of Lip. With both Lip and Shirley gone, it's impossible to say with certainty what happened.
What's more certain is that his trip with Shirley affected Lip. As the movie depicts, Lip had been racist, using derogatory language and actions. But witnessing how Shirley was denied his rights and attacked made him change. "He didn’t like people being mistreated," Nick said about his father in an interview with Metro. "It changed his attitude. It changed the way he raised us, his attitude towards other people."
The pair remained friends until they died within months of each other
Since the 1950s, Shirley had been living in a stunning apartment above Carnegie Hall, filled with paintings, glassware and other gifts from his fans, as well as a throne. After their trip, Lip visited there, sometimes bringing his family as well. A psychologist, Shirley was apparently intrigued by Lip's psychological makeup and welcomed the visits.
Shirley and Lip were both in their 30s when they were traveling, so they each had years of life ahead of them. Lip became an actor, appearing in The Sopranos, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and other projects. Shirley remained devoted to music, making recordings and performing in venues that ranged from Milan's La Scala to New York City nightclubs. Through it all, the two kept in touch.
When Nick became interested in turning their story into a movie, Lip insisted his son needed Shirley's permission. And when Shirley requested the film not be made while he was alive, Lip directed his son to adhere to those wishes. Lip and Shirley died within a few months of each other in 2013.