SHIRLEY ELLIS: she was funky yet classy, sophisticated
but sassy. Unjustly pigeonholed as a novelty act by many rock
historians, Shirley was a unique talent who could rock the joint
with the best of 'em, then spin on a dime and hold a packed house
of hip nightclubbers in the palm of her hand, spellbound by her
cool mastery of a jazzy ballad.
A clever songsmith of Caribbean ancestry, Shirley (if her reported birth
date of 1941 is accurate) was only 13 when the Chords (of "Sh-Boom" fame)
committed her composition "Pretty Wild" to wax. As a singer,
the Bronx-based teen won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem
while also performing as a member of the Metronomes and getting spliced
to group leader Alphonso Elliston.
Hubby managed the Heartbreakers whose
45 "One, Two, I Love You" was a further example of Shirley's
creative prowess. It was through a songwriting cousin of Alphonso's that
Shirley forged a partnership with Lincoln Chase. Spectacularly unsuccessful
as a record star, Chase was one of the biggest writers of the 1950s,
supplying stars like Chuck Willis, Big Maybelle and Ruth Brown with top
of the range songs and scoring hits for the Drifters and LaVern Baker
with "Such A Night" and "Jim Dandy", respectively.
In 1959, Chase became not only Shirley's songwriting partner
but also her manager and, later, her producer. The symbiosis was immediate;
he saw in her the raw stuff that stars are made of, while she sensed his
innate ability to mould her into one. The pair worked ceaselessly together
over the following years on perfecting every aspect of her talent. A tentative
release for the small Shell logo in 1961 marked the recording bow of Shirley
Elliston - nobody cared. False start.
It was not until the fall of 1963 that the years of preparation
paid off with the diminutive thrush's Congress label debut, the incredibly
exciting "The Nitty Gritty". Taking over where Trini Lopez had
left off a few months earlier with the loose, live, feel-good smash "If
I Had A Hammer", Chase fashioned the hippest slice of au-go-go, street-smart
madness of 1963 or any year since. Demo copies of this George Harrison favourite
read "The Real Nitty Gritty" by Shirley Elliston but the title
and the singer's surname were edited for commercial release. Shirley Ellis,
after years of grooming, became an overnight Top 10 hitmaking sensation.
Although she didn't quite explain the meaning of "The Nitty Gritty",
the listener instinctively sussed that it was the unadorned kernel of reality
at the heart of anything and everything. The phrase grabbed the imagination
of society's mainstream and is enshrined in the common vocabulary to this
"(That's) What The Nitty Gritty Is" was no more enlightening
and, let's face it, a tad opportunistic. This soundalike follow-up stalled
in the lower reaches of the chart and, after the no-show of the vastly
Care Of Business" and a "Nitty Gritty"-style revival of Chase's "Such
A Night", it seemed that the Ellis bandwagon had ground to a halt.
Forget it pal! As Christmas 1964 lurched ever nearer, Shirley bounced
the charts with a bullet. The convoluted craziness of "The Name
Game" was impossible to withstand and would become the singer's biggest
hit. She proved a sensation on Murray the K's Brooklyn Fox Holiday
Show that winter, taking "Name Game" requests from the crowd.
Let's hope that Shirley-Shirley-Bo-Birley had the sense to ignore
The fun kept coming as her wildly percussive follow-up began
an equally impressive chart run while breaking Shirley Ellis internationally.
Her third Top 10 smash finally brought the star recognition in Britain
and many other territories but "The Clapping Song" would prove
impossible to top. A lowly placing for the rubber-band rhythm of "The
Puzzle Song" was to be the lady's last chart showing for Congress.
Shirley's "I Never Will Forget" stiffed as did her
ominous Christmas 1965 single "You Better Be Good, World" on which
reindeer quaked under threat of atomic devastation. The overly-dopey,
yet curiously cherishable, "Ever See A Diver Kiss His Wife While The
Bubbles Bounce About Above The Water?" erm . . . bubbled under the
Hot 100 for five seconds in early 1966.
Shirley was then signed by Columbia. She registered her chart
swan song with the memorable "Soul Time", the second of a trio
of 45s for her new outlet. A June 1967 Columbia album, her third in all,
was the last we heard from Shirley. Although she was reported to have then
pacted with the Bell label, no records were forthcoming and she vanished
Three fondly remembered smashes is more than many more feted
artists achieve and, although Shirley Ellis is one of that dignified handful
who resisted the oldies circuit, her oft-revived classics continue to delight
listeners the world over. All together now . . . Three-six-nine, the goose
drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line; the line broke,
the monkey got choked and they all went to heaven in a little row-boat!