Shirley McFatter, jazz singer, was born in Dallas, Texas, on November 1, 1947. She was the daughter of Conrad B. and Vaddie Mae (Bradley) Tennyson. She grew up on the south side of Dallas and learned to play piano. With interests in classical music and jazz, she had aspirations of becoming a concert pianist, but during her years at Lincoln High School, she also cultivated her singing voice and was an outstanding member of the school choir. She attended the University of Texas, where she was active in the Longhorn Singers as well as the university and concert choirs. She earned a degree in music education in 1969 and embarked on a career as a jazz singer.
On December 28, 1971, Shirley Tennyson married Joe H. McFatter. Back in Dallas, she gained a reputation as a smooth and versatile jazz singer who cooed audiences with a broad repertoire that included Cole Porter and George Gershwin numbers to jazz tunes to rhythm and blues. In the mid-1980s McFatter received praise for her performance in a one-woman show portraying the late great singer Billie Holiday. The play, titled Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, took place at Dallas’s West End Cabaret and was representative of McFatter’s talents as an actress in addition to singing. She initiated the Sunday Music Series, regular jazz programs at the South Dallas Cultural Center, that provided a forum to expose children to the nuances of jazz. McFatter started a similar series, Jazz Under the Dome, at the African American Museum in Dallas. During her career, she also collaborated with fellow Texan and Lincoln High School graduate, jazz saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, a longtime sideman with Ray Charles.
In 1989 McFatter was diagnosed with cancer but underwent successful treatment. Five years later the cancer returned, and she died on March 31, 1994, at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. She was buried at Restland Memorial Park. The African American Museum held an annual Shirley McFatter Jazz Festival in her honor, and Lincoln High School offered the Shirley McFatter Memorial Scholarship for prospective jazz, piano, and voice students.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.