Shirley & Lee

TrackSingle
I'm GoneAladdin 45-3153
SweetheartsAladdin 45-3153
Why Did IAladdin 45-3222
You'd Be Thinking Of MeAladdin 45-3289
Feel So GoodAladdin 45-3289
That's What I'll DoAladdin 45-3313
Let The Good Times RollAladdin 45-3325
I Feel GoodAladdin 45-3338
Don't Leave Me Here to CryAladdin 45-3418
My Last LetterImperial 5854

Shirley & Lee photo 1

 

 

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Shirley & Lee playlist

 

 

DAVE STEPHENS’ NEW ORLEANS SCENES

#12 SHIRLEY & LEE

 

 

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Those words require some explanation. The previous artist under the spotlight in Scenes From New Orleans, was Professor Longhair – hence, sublime and I doubt whether that claim would find much disagreement. And the second adjective? Let’s pose the question: is there a better descriptor to use about Shirley Goodman’s voice? Writing under the Blackcat Rockabilly banner, Dik de Heer referred to it as shrieking, childlike and often tending to drift off key. I wouldn’t go quite that far. Let’s just say she pushes the concept of melisma a tad.

 

THE APPROACH

Shirley Goodman (born June 1936) and Leonard Lee (born June 1935) were 16 and 17 respectively when they cut their first record, so it was pretty well a given that they would be marketed as teenage sweethearts, almost regardless of what they sounded like. And to an extent, they and their label played up to this by cutting a series of records which related to this narrative: Shirley Come Back To Me, Shirley’s Back, So In Love, The Proposal, Two Happy People and more. The flip of their first single actually had the title Sweethearts, but guess what, soundwise it was a slow to medium tempo blues.

The opening clip gives a good idea of the Shirley & Lee sound; only the (relatively rare) overdubbing of the doo wop showaddy waddy singers is a minor addition to the usual mix. Elsewhere there’s an earthy New Orleans R&B band in full flow anchored by piano with the great Earl Palmer pounding the skins, oh, and yes, that’s Lee Allen’s tenor on the solo. Almost exactly the same band would turn up at the same studio – Cosimo Matassa’s in North Rampart St. – six months or so later to back Little Richard on Tutti Frutti.

The song Feel So Good was written by Leonard who provided most of the material for the pair. Lyrically, he was considerably more down to earth and, at times, even raunchier than typical teenage fair but his background was the Crescent City so none of this should have been surprising. Stanzas like “No pretty baby I’m no Lovin’ Dan / Neither am I a sixty minute man / Ooh, ooh, but I’ll thrill you” in a concoction from 1958 couldn’t have come from the Brill Building.

But Shirley & Lee differed in another way. For a teenage harmony duo they only very rarely sang harmony. One of the pair would open a song by singing the first verse, the other would then sing the second – often making the end product a conversation – and if there was a middle eight, they might take alternate lines. The formula wasn’t 100% rigid but it wasn’t far off. And it worked so why change, as the saying goes.

 

THE START

The pair got together at elementary school, did the church choir thing and, much like Presley with the Sun studio, paid for the privilege of recording a song that Len had written, I’m Gone, for their own use at Cosimo Matassa’s (later to be famous) studio. Some time later and circa early summer 1952, Eddie Mesner, one of the two brothers who owned the Aladdin label, was visiting the studio and accidentally heard the Goodman/Lee tape. According to Dik de Heer:

“Matassa wanted to re-use an old tape for an Aladdin session but played it first to verify it was junk. Mesner went crazy about Shirley’s voice and asked Matassa to find her.”

The man who did the locating was Dave Bartholomew, a name which seems to crop up with some frequency in these New Orleans stories. He not only found the pair, he applied some polish to the lyrics – the credits read “Bartholomew, Lee” – took S&L back to the Matassa studio, and, with his own band providing the support, rerecorded I’m Gone plus Sweethearts, another song penned by Leonard.

The title of the A-side was deceptive. I’m gone, didn’t mean that he’d left her, instead it was a metaphorical description of Leonard’s emotional state:

I’m gone
I’m gone completely out of my mind
Beg you to love me sometime
‘Cause your love is mine

… sung over a languid but bluesy two chord riff. So far, so good, until Shirley appears with a whole new view on the state of the relationship: she’s not impressed by his evil lies and is set on leaving him. Some kind of resolution was called for and this being a song that was targeted for chart action, you won’t be surprised to learn that two minutes or so later she’d decided to give him another chance. But what made the record different was the contrast between the voices: Lee, in agony but still smooth – not unlike an early sixties soul singer and remember this was back in ’52 – and Shirley, opening with an “Ooh baby” which packed a punch, far more inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve, and ‘shrill’ is the adjective which you just can’t get away from. And for anyone who says that the pair didn’t do the vocal harmony thing, listen out for the fade, symbolic I guess.

On the flip our Shirl is on the phone inviting Lee to come around – mommy and daddy are out and she’s “all alone”. The young gent is only too chuffed to receive the invite declaring they’d have themselves a ball. All this set to a medium tempo twelve bar blues but a blues with attitude- mighty horns blasting, Salvador Doucette hammering the keys and a stunning tenor sax solo from Herb Hardesty providing the icing on the cake.

Given the arrangements of both songs it won’t come as any surprise that Aladdin’s marketing department – did they have such a thing? – decided to push the envelope on their image and promote the duo as “Sweethearts Of The Blues”.

 

THE HITS

New Orleans stood up and took notice at the arrival of Shirley & Lee’s I’m Gone/Sweethearts and local sales triggered wider interest resulting in a #2 R&B National Chart hit. It didn’t unfortunately establish a pattern. Single number two, the marginally more pop inclined Baby – and that’s pop in a near doo wop progression sense – didn’t do anything, other than locally. Notwithstanding further well-crafted efforts including several components of the fictional romantic saga, the much delayed second hit didn’t arrive until nearly three years had elapsed.

Feel So Good which we’ve already heard seemed to signal something of a shift from the teen saga, but listen more carefully and you’ll note differences in the statements of the two participants, signalling that this wasn’t entirely a have-a-great-time-knees-up singalong. I’d add that these differences were airbrushed out of the very belated cover of the number by Johnny Preston in 1960 under the new title of Feel So Fine. The Shirley & Lee original also had the distinction of being one that got ‘flipped’ by disc jockeys resulting in a track which was intended as a B-side, becoming the hit. It gained them another #2 R&B Chart position at which stage one might have thought, was this as far as they were going to get?

No is the answer to that rhetorical question though it took another year before the next hit rolled along. The song was Let The Good Times Roll and you get the impression with this one that someone said, sod nuances, let’s just go for the jugular. The only nuance present was the good old double entendre thing attached to words like ‘rock’ and ‘roll’. Note the fourth verse which makes it pretty explicit.

Come on baby just close the door
Come on baby lets rock some more
Come on baby let the good times roll
Roll all night long

The record hit the numero uno spot on the R&B Chart and crossed over to #20 in the Pop Chart.

Perhaps picking up some goodwill from “Good Times”, the immediate follow-up also managed to hit both charts, #3 R&B and #38 Pop. I Feel Good which wasn’t directly related to S&L’s earlier Feel So Good or Junior Parker’s Feelin’ Good from ’53, did zero in on the joie de vivre theme of such songs. It also featured some clever arrangement/melody attributes. One was the very deliberate usage of the same two chord riff start as the previous song. Another was the modification of the doo wop chord progression such that the final chord was a return to the root rather than the seventh e.g. in the key of C, the final chord would be C not G or G7, which had the effect of giving the listener a surprise, particularly since it hammered home the title phrase. The middle eight was also unconventional suggesting that Leonard’s ability to create melodies was coming on apace.

The couple achieved one further low placing in the Hot 100 – a number 88 with a track called When I Saw You but it wasn’t one of their more notable outings, and in ’59, Aladdin let the duo go. They were picked up by New York based Warwick, a subsidiary of Canadian label United Telefilm Records. Warwick’s main success came with rock instrumental outfits including Johnny and the Hurricanes, the Fireballs and the String-A-Longs. They didn’t achieve success with the duo so there was another move, this time to Imperial, the label that had bought Aladdin and which in turn was to be swallowed up by Liberty in 1962. Four singles followed for Imperial plus a rerelease of Let The Good Times Roll (which had already had a touch up courtesy of Warwick) but again, no chart success ensued …

… and the pair (who were never a pair in the romantic sense) decided to call it a day.

 

THE SOLO DISCS

Both artists made a few solo records during their period as a duo. Dave Bartholomew, in particular, saw the possibility of a successful career for Mr Lee and I’d be inclined to agree with him, but whether by bad luck or lack of plugging it wasn’t to be. Take a listen to Leonard’s When The Sun Goes Down from 1954. We’d now call it a soul blues of the type sung by Little Willie John and James Brown in the second half of the fifties. Alternatively, try Hard To Believe from 1961; doo wop morphing into soul and if Leonard didn’t quite have the talent of a Clyde McPhatter or Sam Cooke, he wasn’t a million miles away:

There was only one single released from Shirley Goodman while the duo were still together (and it was credited to Shirley Gee). It coupled Behind The Make Up and Keep The Magic Working. They’re a tad more poppy and less New Orleansy than the duo’s records but the producer, who I would guess was Dave Bartholomew since he wrote both numbers, has made a determined effort to keep Ms Goodman’s voice on pitch and toned back the more piercing aspects of said voice.

 

THE LITTLE KNOWN MASTERPIECES

… well not really; that would be pushing it. But the overall quality of the duo’s output rarely dropped below “very good” and several tracks could have reached the charts with more determined plugging.

In melodic construction terms Leonard’s songs went through several phases. In the early days he conformed to the blues aspects of the image that Aladdin had wrapped around the pair, sometimes via basic blues like 1954’s Confessin’ or more blues ballad affairs like the near two chord, Lee Goofed (from the same year) which suited the dialogue style and was probably an attempt to emulate the low key approach of I’m Gone, their first semi-hit.

I’ve selected another track from ’54’: Why Did I. It’s considerably more brash with great big horns carrying all before them and Leonard raising his voice to compete. In terms of both melody and approach there’s a slight resemblance here to another record cut in the same studio, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy though the phrasing is different.

In contrast I’ve also gone for one of their most intimate sounding affairs. You’d Be Thinking Of Me was the original plug side of 1955’s Feel So Good, and it deserved sales in its own right. The low key piano intro could have come from one of the records of another Aladdin artist, West Coast based Charles Brown, and Leonard might well have been attempting to emulate him. The song also had an element of quirkiness about it: after the lengthy first verse Len delivers the title line and you think – or I do anyway – that he’s going into a chorus but he doesn’t. The title just sits there until his putative other half enters the scene. It’s one of their cuts which illustrates the sweethearts/blues image.

All four tracks which appeared on the singles between Feel So Good and Let The Good Times Roll showed much greater stylistic range then hitherto. Ranging from one of Leonard’s rare excursions into ballad land (with not one but two monologues from our Shirl – “You’ll be my king and I’ll be your queen”) in Lee’s Dream, through their fastest ever rocker, I’ll Do It to a rare (and very early) swamp pop ballad in A Little Word. The A-side of that final track, That’s What I’ll Do (not to be confused with the later and more extrovert That’s What I Wanna Do which is also good) was arguably the most teen pop like thing that they’d attempted to date (complete with dooby dooby backdrop for the first time) even if the upbeat and catchy tune complete with neatly placed hook was slightly at odds with lyrics about going off and jumping in a river. Still Buddy Holly made an all too brief career out of bouncy numbers that often belied their lyrical content.

The success of Let The Good Times Roll and I feel Good prompted the label and/or Mr Lee to make even more deliberate attempts to woo the white record buying audience with titles like I Want To Dance, Rock All Nite and even Rockin’ With The Clock. The last named was much better than you might have expected. It was also one of the rare performances which featured the couple singing in unison for much of the record, maybe to emphasise how close they were.

The better performances in the later years – roughly ’58 to ’62 and spanning all their labels – edged more into soul or soul ballad territory. Tracks like Don’t You Know I Love You, I’ve Been Loved Before and particularly, Keep Loving Me which was almost Bacharach land compared to the early records, all vied for my attention but were eventually discarded in favour of two final numbers.

1958’s Don’t Leave Me Here To Cry didn’t major quite so much on the clever stuff – or perhaps it did, I’ll let you judge. What it did do was offer a different form of the usual conversation: more in line with call and response than extended paragraphs. Roughly akin to Inez and Charlie Foxx but the Foxx’s never managed to close off verses in quite the delightful way that Len does on this record. And yes, I’d call this a little known masterpiece:

And my final selection? The A-side of their second Imperial single, released in summer ’62 with the title, My Last Letter. If you had no idea who these artists were you’d have assumed the song was a country weepie from the title, and you’d have been right. Leonard had shown no interest in such music before so where did this come from? I might have an idea but take a listen to the record first. Shirley gives her best ever Shirley & Lee performance here, and Leonard positively soars.

The S&L record preceding My Last Letter in Imperial’s release schedule was The Joker, written by Dave Bartholomew who was back at the label; the composer credits say also P.King but Pearl was his wife. It was even more country styled than My Last Letter. This is it. So, did Len reckon “I could do that just as well as Dave”?

 

THE PARTING SHOT

The final Imperial single from Shirley & Lee (if you ignore a rerelease of Let The Good Times Roll in ’66) had on the A-side, a number entitled Hey Little Boy. Play it – yup, give it a listen – and you might just identify a rebadged version of My Girl Josephine from the great Fats Domino. Was this a last desperate attempt at a hit, or what I’d rather prefer to see it as, a tribute to one of the greatest figures in New Orleans music?

 

… AND WHAT HAPPENED AFTERWARDS

After the split, the two erstwhile partners met with differing degrees of success. Dave Bartholomew still had belief in Leonard’s potential and was involved with him on releases from several labels. Most noteworthy of his solo output was the Chuck Jackson-ish Wouldn’t Be Here released in ’65. In the late sixties or thereabouts – reports are imprecise – Leonard decided to give up music and, apart from a brief resurrection of the S&L name for a Rock and Roll Revival Show in 1972 organised by Richard Nader, devoted the rest of his life to social work. He died of a heart attack in 1976.

Shirley Goodman moved to Los Angeles after the break-up, joining other New Orleans ex-pats, Jessie Hill, Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack/Dr. John. She made some records with Hill under the name of Shirley and Jessie – see footnotes – but mainly did session work as a back-up singer. In that role she was present on Dr. John’s Gris Gris and the Stones’ 1972 double LP Exile On Main Street.

In 1974, Shirley was contacted by a certain Mrs Robinson who had nothing to do with Dustin Hoffman or a male singing duo, but was Sylvia Robinson, co-owner of the All Platinum record label and who, years earlier had been “Sylvia” in the hit making duo, Mickey & Sylvia. After a little arm twisting, Shirley was persuaded to take the lead vocal role on a disco single entitled Shame, Shame, Shame written by Sylvia. It was attributed to Shirley And Company. You should know the rest. If not I can tell you that the record became a major hit in several countries and is rightly regarded as a disco classic. There were a few follow-ups but nothing anywhere near as big as “Shame”. Shirley retired from music in the late seventies and returned to New Orleans. After suffering a stroke in 1994, she moved to L.A. where she died in July 2005. According to Wiki “she was buried in New Orleans (a month and a half before Hurricane Katrina)”.

 

FINALLY

Unlike most of the major US cities, New Orleans didn’t really have a vocal group scene in the fifties and early sixties. The only other name that comes to mind other than Shirley & Lee is/are Huey Smith’s Clowns and they weren’t really known for their harmonies. It’s true that if you investigate some of the box sets which document the music scene like Crescent City Soul: The Sound Of New Orleans 1947-1974 or Proper’s The Cosimo Matassa Story, vocal group names do appear, but these generally aren’t names that have lasted, nor do the tracks particularly stand out amongst the Domino’s, Lewis’s and Price’s.

Shirley and Lee weren’t high art. Nor did they have a lot of local competition in the field in which they operated. None of that stopped them producing a series of records which were consistently interesting, which played up the musical characteristics of their home city and which rarely stooped to deploy the more common (or garden) hit parade tropes. Shirley’s voice might not have been to everyone’s taste but if you wanted a differentiator, she was it.

Let the good times roll.

 

Shirley & Lee photo 2

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Sixty Minute Man was the title of a 1951 single from Billy Ward and his Dominoes with lead vocal from Clyde McPhatter. It was one of the earliest rhythm and blues records to cross over into the US Pop Chart, reaching #17; it also held the number one spot in the US R&B Chart for 14 weeks.

2. Aladdin Records was founded by brothers Eddie and Leo Mesner in L.A. in 1945. In a similar manner to Imperial and Specialty, Aladdin sometimes worked with New Orleans artists using Cosimo Matassa’s studio for the sessions. Output from the label was split between jazz and R&B. In February 1962, the Mesners sold the Aladdin catalogue to Imperial.

3. Band leader, producer, A&R manager, composer, trumpeter (and probably a few other things) Dave Bartholomew shouldn’t really need any introduction. From the late forties right through the fifties, Dave ran the most popular band in New Orleans. Through much of that period and beyond, this was the band that supported Fats Domino, both live and in the studio. There’s much more that could be said about Dave and I’d point the reader at a fine Wiki article, but I included his name here to log the fact that, from some time in 1950 to 1952 he didn’t work at Imperial. He’d had a disagreement with Lew Chudd owner of the label and was freelancing prior to a return to said label in the second half of ’52.

4. I used the phrase in the main text, “Sweethearts, another song penned by Leonard”. I should state that it’s actually credited to “Lee, Goodman” and the following couple of singles have Shirley & Lee as composers. However from the next disc – The Proposal – onwards, Leonard’s name only appears. Whether or how much Ms Goodman was involved in the composing process I don’t know but felt I should flag the point. Further research also found, in Shirley’s obituary in the Independent, the statement “”I wrote just about every song I recorded with Leonard, but I’m not credited,” Goodman told the writer Bill Millar in 1975.” I also noted the following in that obit:

“Their first record, a remake of “I’m Gone”, reached No.2 on the American rhythm and blues charts. The public was entranced by Goodman’s high-pitched voice, and Matassa remarked, “When Shirley sang a solo, you had to feel yourself because you thought you were cut and didn’t know where the blood was.””

5. If the name Johnny Preston is familiar, it should be. Preston was the man who recorded the single Running Bear in 1960 and achieved a #1 hit with it, both in the US and the UK. Preston was born in Port Arthur, Texas and was of Cajun ancestry – his real name was John Preston Courville. The ‘Indian’ sounds on the record were made by the Big Bopper, George Jones and producer Bill Hall. It was cut before the Bopper’s death in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens but not released until June 1959.

6. Let The Good Times Roll as a title (or some subset or variant of) has appeared on numerous occasions over the years. Below please find the words I used about the 1960 ‘version’ by Earl King in the footnotes to his Toppermost; his title was “Come On” but that was followed in his song by “let the good times roll”.

“If one cuts off datewise at say, 1970, Wiki lists four version of Let The Good Times Roll, coming from Louis Jordan, Shirley & Lee, Earl King and Sam Cooke. And that’s without variants from Southern Louisiana, based on the French Creole wording of Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler. The most well known one of these is Bon Ton Roula recorded by Clarence Garlow in 1949 but there was also a Bon Ton Roulet from Clifton Chenier in 1967. While the relationship between the Jordan version which was written by a man called Sam Theard in 1946, and Earl King’s Come On is relatively clear: King uses Jordan’s lyrics but inserts his own instrumental passages, it’s not known whether there’s any overall wellspring behind all these versions.”

7. Charles Brown was a blues singer and pianist who was born in Texas but transplanted to L.A. where he entertained enraptured supper club audiences and dominated the US R&B Chart in the late forties and early fifties. His records included Driftin’ Blues, Black Night and Merry Christmas Baby.

8. There is a Toppermost on Jessie Hill in the New Orleans Scenes series. Within it are the following words on Shirley:

“In ’66 Jessie cut a couple of more than decent singles with Shirley Goodman, who was better known as one half of the Shirley & Lee duo (and also Crescent City born and bred). Rebennack had a hand in the records but the production was from Huey P. Meaux, also known as the Crazy Cajun. The first of the pair coupled You Can’t Fight Love and Ivory Tower. Both were strongly evocative of New Orleans and I’ve made the flip a selection.”

9. I have made something of a tradition of ending – particularly more recent Toppermosts in the Scenes from New Orleans series – with a live clip from the artist(s). The clip below from a Midnight Special TV show in 1974 purports to be just that. But a commentator states underneath the clip:

“That is Shirley, but that is not Lee. That is Ludie Washington. A good friend of Shirley’s and good singer. I am Shirley’s daughter-in-law to her only son and I know. It is still a good performance, but in all fairness to Lee’s family, that is not him.”

Which is a pity but one has to say that Ms Goodman steals the show anyway. (And was that Frankie Avalon doing the intro?)

 

Shirley & Lee poster

 

Shirley Goodman (1936–2005)

Leonard Lee (1935–1976)

 

Shirley & Lee discography

Shirley and Lee at 45cat

Shirley & Lee biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens’ New Orleans scenes
#1 Fats Domino, #2 Chris Kenner, #3 Jessie Hill, #4 Barbara Lynn, #5 Benny Spellman, #6 Ernie K-Doe, #7 Irma Thomas, #8 Barbara George, #9 Earl King, #10 Smiley Lewis, #11 Professor Longhair, #12 Shirley & Lee, #13 Lloyd Price

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
James Brown, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, Little Willie John, Little Richard, Mickey & Sylvia, Junior Parker

TopperPost #861

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Apr 30, 2020

    Maybe my favourite of your articles in this series. I was fascinated reading about these two. I wonder if there were other New Orleans vocal duos who just didn’t get anywhere because these two basically dominated. Certainly a case of right place, right time.

    • Dave Stephens
      May 1, 2020

      David, thanks for those kind words. I was overly conscious with this one that it was hardly going to attract the interest of the casual music fan but still felt the pair were part of the New Orleans scene so deserved attention. In doing the research I was actually surprised at the quality of music they produced so maybe tried harder than usual to explain what the merits of that music were. Aware that I could be getting a tad “heavy” with the music stuff I made every effort to keep the tone as light as possible. In terms of other NOLA duos, I don’t think there were any of note (though I keep telling myself I should invest in John Broven’s “Rhythm And Blues In New Orleans” in order to check out such things).

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 2, 2020

    Thanks for this great Toppermost. Some fabulous music in here and there is some great side insights into the broader New Orleans as well. Thanks again.

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