Hey ! Over here ! Do you want to hear a song called “Ever See a Diver Kiss His Wife While the Bubbles Bounce About Above the Water?” ? Well of course you do, you’re not nuts ! Just one click & it will happen. Shirley Ellis was a Jill-of-all-trades, equally comfortable with Jazz, standards or R&B & eccentric, energetic versions of nursery rhymes/skipping songs. It was the latter of these which gave her 3 US Top 10 hits in 18 months so those are the songs she is remembered for. I’m not about to make a case for Shirley being one of the greats. The hits were simple & were often novelties but they were fresh, smart & bold, she made an impression & I like them.
It’s January 1964, in just 2 weeks the Beatles are coming to rid the US Top 10 of Singing Nuns & Italian-American teen idols called Bobby or Fabien. The only keepers are the great garage anthems “Louie Louie” & “Surfing Bird” along with Shirley Ellis & her first hit “The Nitty Gritty”. I have checked for the etymology of this rhyming phrase. Some of it was rude, or racist or downright wrong. Whatever, Lincoln Chase’s song is often credited with taking it back & putting it out there. Lincoln Chase had written hit records in the 1950s & he became Shirley’s manager, producer & co-writer. He shortened her surname from Elliston & tailored the songs not only to suit her talent but make them stand out on the radio. There were follow ups to “Nitty Gritty” that failed but a year later she returned to a US Top 10 which had gotten better & included the Righteous Brothers, Joe Tex, Sam Cooke, the Kinks & the Temptations (Oh my !).
“The Name Game” is probably the best remembered of Shirley’s hits. It’s another witty ditty with a great percussive, insistent danceable arrangement. It’s fun, Tom Hanks plays it (“The Money Pit”), so does Jessica Lange (in “American Horror Story” & we still play it. “There isn’t any name that you can’t rhyme”. That’s true, just leave Chuck out of this !
The successor to “Name Game” gave Shirley an international hit. In the Summer of 1965 music was a big thing in the UK & I can remember kids in the street singing the rhythmic chant of “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap) ” which spent 6 weeks in our Top 10. The lyrics were borrowed from a 1930s song, you know it, everybody knows it…” Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line”. Lovely.
By 1966 the time was right for a brand new beat. The emergence of Motown in Detroit & Stax in Memphis meant that it was getting mighty crowded in the R&B market & it took more than a cute novelty lyric to get a hit. Shirley failed to match the success of “The Clapping Song” with more simple rhymes & an ill-judged Xmas single. She signed to Columbia & the second single for her new label was the wonderful “Soul Time”. Lincoln Chase was less evident by now & the self-penned “Soul Time” will have you on the dance floor before the vocal comes in then keep you there through the 2-4-6-8-10 refrain. In the Casinos & Twisted Wheels of the north of England they kept the faith with Shirley but her time in the charts had passed & “Soul Time” failed to register as did the almost as groovy “Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling”. The one LP released by Columbia is hardly “Lady Soul” but Shirley’s confident vocals matched to upbeat arrangements make for an interesting listen.
Then that was it for Shirley Ellis, she retired from the music business. She’s now 76 & there are no clips of her getting right down on any of the golden oldie shows. As I said at the top of the page she is not mentioned alongside the outstanding female voices of the 1960s but she made a lot of memorable music, all of it enjoyable & all of it fun. I ain’t ever had too much Fun !