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. 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.
Aside from a handful of singles, Shirley Ellis recorded and released three studio albums: In Action (1964, Congress), The Name Game (1965, Congress), and Sugar, Let’s Shing-a-Ling (1967, Columbia).
Her studio debut, In Action, features most of her classic single releases such as ‘The Nitty Gritty,’ ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’, ‘Shy One’, and ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty’. It’s a great collection of music created by Shirley Ellis and her songwriter Lincoln Chase.
What became a signature for Shirley Ellis 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. ‘The Clapping Song’ and ‘The Name Game’ are both great examples of this.
Performing songs in this “playground” rhythm allows a great emphasis on syncopation and Juba dance, an African-American style of dance that contains stomping your legs and clapping the hands, arms, chest, and cheeks.
In her second studio album titled The Name Game, the rhythm of most songs is defined by syncopated hand-clapping. She also adds clapping to her versions of Ma Rainey’s ‘C.C. Rider’ (a rendition of the blues song ‘See See Rider’) and Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’ (song credits to Ray Lopez) what changes the original intent of the songs.
Most of her songs sound like a game. For the title track ‘The Name Game’ the record sleeve even features game rules so the listener can create lyrics using their own name.
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’. The song selection is more focused on the progressive soul and funk music that was surfacing in Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.
The following article includes a complete biography of Shirley Ellis:
The Real Nitty Gritty – A Tribute to Shirley Ellis
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