This article is written in memory and honor of Shirley Elliston († October 5, 2005, New York City)
Shirley Ellis is one of the most exciting performers in the world of popular music today. This excitement, which has consistently captivated audience in the nation’s leading night clubs and concert appearances is immediately apparent as you listen to her recordings which have swept into the best-selling lists time after time.As written in 1965 on the back of her album ‘The Name Game’ (Congress CGL-3003)
Shirley Ellis, born Shirley Marie O’Garra in 1929, was an American soul singer and songwriter who gained international fame during the 1960s. Although her active recording span was short, Shirley Ellis left us with many great songs before she retired from the music business in 1968. Songs such as ‘The Name Game’ and ‘The Nitty Gritty’ are an innovation for rhythm-and-blues and soul, while her hit ‘Soul Time’ became a true Northern Soul classic and filled the dance floor at many UK clubs during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Initially, Shirley Ellis aspired to become a songwriter. She started her career by writing several songs for the doo-wop group The Chords. A milestone in her singing career was her participation in The Amateur Night At The Harlem Apollo Theatre in 1954. She won first prize and so, her name would be listed amongst other winners such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald (who was only 15 years old when she won). Five years later, in 1959, Shirley Ellis met Lincoln Chase. Lincoln Chase was a songwriter, producer, and manager who shared the same West Indian heritage as Shirley Ellis. He was already working closely together with Lavern Baker (Jim Dandy) during the 1960s and would use his experience to elevate the solo career of Shirley Ellis.
Shirley Ellis recorded and released her solo debut single on the label Shell in 1961. For this release, she used her official married name, Shirley Elliston. The single (Shell 45-307-V) includes the songs ‘Love Can Make You Know’ on the A-side, and ‘A Beautiful Love’ on the B-side. Both tracks have a more 1950s and 1960s pop-feel and are less compared with the rhythm-and-blues and soul sound she would record in the following years.
Two years after her debut, Shirley Ellis would make a second solo debut on the label Congress (part of the Kapp Records-family). She would record the novelty classic ‘The (Real) Nitty Gritty’ with the track ‘Give Me a List’ on the B-side of the 7-inch 45rmp recording. For the first batch of singles that were released, Shirley Ellis would still use her married name Shirley Elliston, and the songs’ title was ‘The (Real) Nitty Gritty’. For commercial reasons, Congress changed the name to Shirley Ellis and would shorten the title to ‘The Nitty Gritty’. For the release of this song, she would work closely together with Lincoln chase who wrote the songs, and Robert Bunyan (Hutch) Davie who produced the release.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, nitty-gritty means the basic facts of a situation. And this is also the message Shirley Ellis (and songwriter Lincoln Chase) sent us in their song. She motivates us to get to the essentials, to be yourself, to be real, not to pretend but instead dance from the heart! You don’t need to be a performer when you’re getting’ on the dance floor. You dance for yourself and not for others. There is no competition in who has the better moves because everybody feels the music differently and moves to the rhythm in their own unique way. And even when you have perfection and your dance is advanced, there will always be a time you need to get back to the essentials. In her lyrics, she highlights that not everybody is aware of this and that even the most talented at some point need to learn how to get down to the fundamental elements. In the first part of the lyrics, she says that sooner or later there will be a short and simple song (a ditty) and that you’re going to have the get right down to the real nitty-gritty.
Some folks know about it, some don’t (some don’t)Lyrics to ‘The Nitty Gritty’
Some will learn to shout it, some won’t (some won’t)
But sooner or later baby, here’s a ditty
Say you’re gonna have to get, right down (to the real nitty gritty)
And if that message wasn’t clear, she released a sequel song the following year called ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is’. The record was first released as a promo in 1964 (KEV 13006) and was officially released in 1965 (CG-208). In this second version, Shirley Ellis would answer the question everybody was asking “What is the nitty-gritty?” and she replies with the simple answer that the nitty-gritty is anything you want it to be. She no longer limits her motivation to dance but explains it reflects also in the way you talk and sound. All your actions will at some point require you to revisit the essentials if you want to act from the heart.
Everybody’s asking what the nitty grittyLyrics to ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is‘
The nitty gritty’s anything you want it to be
Just stir it up from the soul
And when it starts to fizz
That’s what the nitty gritty is
There is no doubt that the release of ‘The Nitty Gritty’ added a more rhythm-and-blues sound to her music and this would continue in the following years. In 1964, she would release the hits ‘Taking Care Of Business’ and ‘The Name Game’. Both songs were originally released on single and shortly after on the albums In Action (1964) and The Name Game (1965).
What became a true signature for her music was her ability to step outside the boundaries of standard pop music by provoking humor and commentary. Shirley Ellis often performed songs for the comic effect. Lyrics and rhythms could be compared with what children would rhyme and sing to each other while playing hand-clapping games on the playground. A good example of this are the lyrics and rhythm from her hit song ‘The Clapping Song’: “Three six nine, the goose drank wine. The monkey chew tobacco on the streetcar line. The line broke, the monkey got choked. And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat.” Performing songs in this rhythm allows a great emphasis on syncopation and Juba dance or hambone, an African American style of dance that contains stomping your legs and clapping the hands, arms, chest, and cheeks.
In 1966, Shirley Ellis released the Northern Soul classic ‘Soul Time’. The record was originally printed by Columbia Records in the US as a promo (Columbia – 4-44021, white label) and was officially released shortly after (Columbia – 4-44021, red label). This change in record company also came with a small drift in style.
In 1967, Shirley Ellis released her third and final studio album called Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling / Soul Time with Shirley Ellis featuring many great soul tracks including the hit ‘Soul Time’. This album is in my opinion in contrast with her previous two studio albums. The song selection is more focused on the progressive soul and funk music that was surfacing in Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. At the same time, her sound cannot be compared to Motown because Shirley Ellis sounds and sings differently. Shirley Ellis has a unique way of bringing music that was innovative and her own.
Shirley Ellis retired from the music business in 1968 and although her active years as a singer where short, she had a major impact on the music of the 1960s. She appeared in several television shows, her songs were featured in movies, and many artists covered her work after her retirement (e.g. Gladys Knight and The Pipps’ 1969 version of The Nitty Gritty).