Frankie Lymon & The Early Success of Rock-and-roll

One of the most famous and influential bands in doo-wop music history is The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon as the lead singer. The five kids from Washington Heights are most celebrated for their contribution to the early success of rock-and-roll music. They introduced the world to a new brand of doo-wop music by speeding up the tempo.

The Teenagers got formed at a high school in Manhattan under the name The Coup De Villes. The group changed its name a couple of times (The Ermines and later The Premiers) before changing it to The Teenagers. In 1954 a 12-year-old boy, Frankie Lymon, joined the group. Together they wrote and composed the song “Why Do Fools Fall In Love“. The song became an instant success and turned singer Frankie Lymon into a pop star. 

Thanks to Frankie’s success, the group got renamed Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers in 1957. This name change was not well received by some band members what, amongst other reasons, caused Frankie to leave and start recording solo. The Teenagers continued under their original name but with new lead singers what was not an easy task. The band even hired female singers to replicate the unique high boy voice of Frankie Lymon. 

Frankie Lymon (left) – The Teenagers (right)

Frankie Lymon became the first black teenage pop star in America. But the truth about America’s music industry in the 1950s was well disguised. Editor-at-large Jeff MacGregor wrote in an article for the Smithsonian Magazine that “Frankie Lymon grew up too fast in every way imaginable.” Frankie Lymon himself told in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1967 that he had no time to be a child: “I never was a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star.”

Frankie Lymon got hooked on heroin and, his relationship with the drug was recurring. He would go into rehab, partially recover, but because of events like the death of his mother, he would relapse. On February 27, 1968, the singer was found dead with a syringe by his side. He died from a heroin overdose on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. He was 25.

Frankie Lymon’s life was short but, his legacy still lives today. He shaped rock-and-roll music as a genre and influenced the many performers who made an appearance in the decades after his death. Frankie and The Teenagers introduced the audience to a new doo-wop sound. A sound that got picked up by the American teenagers and therefore became mainstream. By speeding up the tempo and singing with more intonation, Frankie Lymon became one of the founding fathers of rock-and-roll music.

Doo-wop music would eventually evolve into various genres, among them rhythm-and-blues and rock-an-roll. It peaked in the early 1960s before it became dominated by rock-and-roll music and a phenomenon known as “The British Invasion“. Bands as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals became very popular with the American youth but, there is no doubt that doo-wop music had a great deal of influence on their music style and way of performing.

Not only did Frankie Lymon signal the emergence of rock-and-roll music by introducing it to America’s mainstream culture. He also influenced various other genres such as pop and Motown soul. Michael Jackson mentioned he got inspiration by Frankie Lymon and that The Jackson 5 derived from The Teenagers. Motown founder Berry Gordy based much of The Jackson 5‘s sounds on recordings from Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. The Teenagers stood as a model for many Motown groups like The Temptations and The Supremes.

References and recommended reads:

Teen Idol Frankie Lymon’s Tragic Rise and Fall Tells the Truth About 1950s America (Jeff MacGregor for the Smithsonian Magazine, 2018)

Buddy Bolden, The First Jazz Musician

Who played a key role in the birth of New Orleans jazz, and is considered the first jazz musician, is Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden). Buddy Bolden was an American cornetist who learned to play music at school and in church. Unique is that, unlike many other musicians, Bolden didn’t start his career by joining a brass band what was usual for musicians in New Orleans. Instead, he joined a string ensemble and earned money by playing at dancehalls.

Buddy Bolden (second row, third from the left)

Buddy Bolden

At the turn of the twentieth century, his band got noticed thanks to Bolden’s use of syncopation, his ability to improvise, and his use of blues structures. I like to think that Bolden’s focus on blues was the biggest contribution to jazz until Louis Armstrong changed the course of the genre. Bolden was an example for many other musicians and one by one all of them start experimenting with syncopation and improvisation. The growing pool of musicians doing this is described as the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Using syncopation in melodies from different music genres caused styles to blur and blend. The music would get more similarities in rhythm and structure what was another important milestone in the creation of jazz.

Buddy Bolden was known for playing loud. He played so loud that he was not allowed to practice inside the house so instead, he practiced on his porch. Neighborhood children would gather around them to listen and start calling him “The King“. Hence the nickname Buddy ‘King’ Bolden. He would often play at a concert hall in New Orleans called Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall (or Eagle Saloon). Before the concert, Bolden would stick out his cornet and do what he called “calling his children home”. He played so loud and, his reach was so far that people from the surrounding streets gather at the building to listen. This became his trademark and, the habit got also described in the lyrics of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (also called Funky Butt):

“Thought I heard, buddy bolden shout, Open up that window, and let that bad air out, Open up that window, and let that stinky air out. Thought I heard buddy bolden say”

Lyrics to Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Buddy Bolden’s career was short. He had a drinking problem and struggled with his mental health. He was arrested multiple times and was placed in an asylum after he was declared mentally insane. Unfortunately, there are no recordings in existence. There are some rumors that Bolden made some phonograph cylinder recordings. So far, none surfaced. Thirty years after his death, his music appeared in print and, musicians started to record his work. However, the sound of jazz evolved and, the question is if these later recordings correctly represent how Buddy Bolden’s music originally sounded.

If Buddy Bolden was the inventor or creator of jazz music is up for discussion but, we can conclude that he was an important and decisive figure in the transformation.

Hugh Laurie – Buddy Bolden Blues

More on New Orleans jazz:

Little Mummy – A Rarity on Federal Records

Little Mummy, whose real identity is unknown, was a rhythm-an-blues singer who recorded only two songs with Federal Records in New Orleans. The songs were officially released decades after being recorded and, both tracks are true rhythm-and-blues dance floor fillers.

The titles “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” were distributed by Federal Records as a 45rpm dee jay promo in 1960. Before recording a full album, record companies would first record a single. The single was sent to radio stations and, depending on the success, artists were offered a contract. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). This probably was the case for Little Mummy.

Federal Records has got a long list of artists and 45rpm recordings that never gained any success. What caused their vaults to be filled with various rhythm-and blues rarities from the fifties and sixties. Songs like “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” never gained the attention of the wider public but are now a treasure for dee jays and music collectors.

The competition in 1960 was top-level. So was there James Brown and His Famous Flames who recorded and released several singles on Federal Records, including the hit “Think!” which turned into a full-length album that same year. Their popularity most likely outshined Little Mummy.

Here you can explore the vaults of Federal Records yourself:

The Rhythm of Shirley Ellis – The Name Game

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.

The Name Game Rules as Printed on the Record Sleeve

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.

Shirley Ellis & Lincoln Chase Performing ‘The Name Game’

The following article includes a complete biography of Shirley Ellis:

The Composition That Established Boogie-woogie: The Fives

Boogie-woogie piano music would always remain a Texas tradition, but its music hub would become Chicago. In 1921, George Washington Jr. Thomas and Hersal Thomas moved to Chicago and, they introduced the north to the boogie-woogie piano. The two brothers were both acknowledged pianists and composers with a strong influence on other musicians. Their composition The Fives was an inspiration for many musicians who would further shape the genre.

Following the death of his father, George Thomas became the head of the Tomas family and, he decided to move to Chicago. He was joined by his sister Beulah Belle Thomas (who would later record under the name Sippie Wallace) and his younger brother Hersal Thomas. When George Thomas arrived in Chicago, he recorded his earlier compositions together with his sister, brother, and some local musicians.

The copyright of The Fives was registered in 1921 and both George and Hersal Thomas are credited as the composers. The song was officially published by George Thomas’ publishing company in 1922.

The lyrics, written by George, are about a train ride between Chicago and San Francisco. According to Peter Silvester’s research for his book A Study Of Boogie-Woogie, the number refers to the arrival time in San Francisco. Although, it could also refer to the walking baseline for which the first and fifth fingers are used predominantly.

Publication of The Fives (1922)

The cover, upon publication, features a picture of the blues singer Lizzie Miles assuming she would feature on the recording. However, no recordings with her were discovered. A possible explanation could be that these recordings were never released and got lost. The photo was kept solely for marketing and sales purposes. In those days, pianists were rarely displayed on the cover.

Hersal Thomas (piano roll) – The Fives

The song is considered the first published representation of boogie-woogie piano music. Although it was written as a ragtime dance rhythm, it contains pronounced boogie-woogie interactions. It features various boogie-woogie base patterns, including walking baselines or walking octave chords. Also, the quivers used in the composition are typical for boogie-woogie.

The Fives established the genre thanks to the effect it had on many Chicago-based musicians. Boogie-woogie pioneers Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis both credit the songs as their source of inspiration while learning to play piano and further shaping the genre. Still today, musicians are using the many boogie-woogie base patterns from this song.

Hersal Thomas (left) & George Thomas (right)

Have a look at our previous articles about boogie-woogie:

The Pioneers of Boogie-woogie: Lewis, Ammons, & Johnson

When looking back at the development of boogie-woogie piano music, three pianists stand out. Their names are Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. They are responsible for getting the attention of the public and consequently increasing the music’s popularity.

The first one on the list, Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, was born in 1905. His birthplace is not confirmed, and some sources claim he was born in Louisville, Kentucky. However, most literature about his life states Chicago, Illinois, to be his birthplace. His father played the guitar and originally introduced Lewis to the violin. At the age of 16, Lewis traded the violin for the piano. His piano work got strongly influenced by the Thomas brothers – whose composition The Five’s established boogie-woogie as a genre – and pianist Jimmy Yancey. Lewis already had a close friendship with Albert Ammons during his childhood and, they would practice the piano together. 

Lewis had the habit to imitate characters from the comic strip Alphonse and Gaston, a duo of Frenchmen with a tendency of good manners and etiquette. For that reason, his friends, among them Albert Ammons, would start calling him The Duke of Luxembourg. And so, the nickname “Lux” was born. 

During his adolescent years, Lewis would combine performances at bars with different jobs such as driving a cab and washing cars. In 1929, he published his debut ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’, one of the most exciting boogie-woogie piano compositions ever recorded. The work was recorded in 1927 and would only become known in mid-1935. As a result, many other artists would play the song during the second half of the 1930s. In 1938, Lewis got invited to play at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ festival at Carnegie Hall where he was joined by Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Joe Turner, and many more. The festival was a real game-changer for him personally and for the craze of boogie-woogie. 

Most of Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis’ work and recordings got unfortunately destroyed in The 2008 Universal Studio Disaster. An event described by The New York Times as “The day the Music burned”. It was one of the biggest disasters in music history as many original recordings, from which all subsequent copies are obtained, got destroyed.

Albert Ammons was also born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). Both Ammons’ parents were pianists and, he learned to play at the age of ten. He became interested in boogie-woogie piano thanks to his friendship with Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. It doesn’t come as a surprise that also Ammons was influenced by the same group of people. Like Lewis, Ammons would combine his performances in bars with regular day jobs such as driving a cab. 

Albert Ammons and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis would often perform together during the early days. At the start of 1936, Ammons would record with a supporting band under the name, Albert Ammons and The Rhythm Kings. Their songs, Swanee River Boogie and ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ had success and got played by many other jazz bands during the late-1930s. Following this success, Ammons moved to New York City, where he teamed up with Pete Johnson. They performed and got often joined by Benny Goodman and his clarinet. Just as Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Ammons was selected to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. What set his success because weeks after the concert, he got approached by Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records. He got signed for a couple of recordings where he got the support of Lewis.

Finally, we have Pete Johnson (born in 1904 as Kermit H. Johnson). Johnson was born in Missouri, Kansas City. He came from a poor background. His father deserted him at a very young age. Because of financial issues, his mother placed him in an orphanage when he was only three. He, however, ran away and started living back home. To contribute financially, he sought out work at a very young age. 

Johnson started his musical career as a drummer in 1922. He simultaneously learned to play the piano and, from 1926, he became a full-time pianist. His known work is mostly in cooperation with Big Joe Turner. His most-celebrated contribution is ‘Roll ‘em Pete’ (1938), with Johnson on the piano and Turner on the vocals. The song is credited to be one of the first rock-and-roll recordings made. Pete Johnson got also invited to perform at the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. Also for him, this was a game-changer.

Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson would often perform boogie-woogie together. The setup would be three pianos, six hands – three right and three left. They caused the upswing of boogie-woogie during the swing era and elevated the genre.

Five Biographical Documentaries Of Jazz Titans

It’s not an easy task to capture the life of jazz titans like John Coltrane or Miles Davis into a ninety minutes cut. There is a lot of ground to cover before you’re able to give the audience a peek into their minds. Some directors and screenwriters managed to provide us with the best possible overview. They captured the essentials that contribute to their legacy.

Here are five biographical documentaries of true jazz titans where they successfully documented the story of the artists.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

2016 / John Scheinfeld (director & writer)

Chasing Trane is an epic portrait of the legendary forward-thinking saxophonist who innovated and influenced jazz music in many ways. This story explores the impact of Coltrane’s life on the music he made.

It’s a classic, well-made biographical movie built on personal interviews with his children and grandchildren, friends, and fellow musicians. It creates honest insights into the life of the jazz titan.

John Scheinfeld’s documentary includes footage of Coltrane’s performances and uses the musician’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. At times, it analysis Coltrane’s compositions and his unique way of playing.


Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

2019 / Stanley Nelson (director & writer)

This documentary is a reflection on the musical career of Miles Davis and the birth of cool jazz. It captures the story of the talented trumpet player who introduced the world to a new style of jazz by blending it with modern classical ideas. An approach that would shape bebop into something everybody can listen to, a sub-genre not limited to jazz fans alone.

It is not an easy task to capture the story of Miles Davis on film. Davis was actively shaping jazz music for six full decades. The documentary attempts this via interviews with family members, friends, and musicians such as Quincy Jones.

I Called Him Morgan

2016 / Kasper Collin (director & writer)

I called him Morgan” are the words of Helen Morgan in an interview she gave two decades after she shot and killed her common-law husband, Lee Morgan.

The documentary is not a study into the life of hard bob trumpeter Lee Morgan. Instead, It’s a drama narrating the relationship between him and Helen. Via interviews with former band members and friends, we get a picture of what caused the fatal shooting of this celebrated musician who featured in bands with Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey.

Lee Morgan’s story is spellbinding. A young talented musician who struggled with a drug addiction and got murdered. This is the story of a musician who obtained his place in history next to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, as one of the greatest trumpet players in history.


Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

1998 /  Don McGlynn (director & writer)

This project took nine years to complete and is the first comprehensive documentary about the life of jazz musician Charles Mingus.

Charles Mingus is known for being a great bass player, bandleader, and composer. The documentary highlights Mingus as a composer. A musical genius with many ideas and innovative ways to use music. Mingus created unusual complexity in writing by using different layers and combining multiple rhythms. His high-sounding music feels chaotic, and yet, its structure has many similarities with classical music.

The story is told from the perspective of people who were close to him and features many video recordings of Charles Mingus where he is talking about his music.


Quincy

2018 / Alan Hicks & Rashida Jones (directors & writers)

The documentary plays in two different worlds. One is the present-day world of Quincy Jones as a composer and producer who accomplished everything and is loved by everyone. It shows an intimate setting where he is surrounded by family and friends. The second revisits Mr. Jones’ career as a jazz arranger and multi-instrumentalist. We peek into the different stages of his life via flashbacks and discover details about his friendship with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

The documentary features people impacted by Mr. Jones. He was a mentor for Micheal Jackson, launched the career of Will Smith, and discovered Oprah Winfrey.

An Interview With Island Boy Ricky LA

Prague-based musician and songwriter Ricky LA is kicking off his music career with the release of his debut EP called Island Boy. I was eager to learn more about his music and creative process, so I invited him for a chat. We met at Naplavka, a popular hangout along the river in Prague.

It was a classic autumn day and, you could feel winter slowly taking over. The sun was shining bright, and this created the perfect setting for an outdoor interview. We grabbed a coffee, found a quiet spot, and started our conversation.

I can see that you are passionate about what you do. Also, your music reflects your positive view on life. I’m curious, what got you into music and who or what influenced and inspired you?

It was my parents who introduced me to music. My dad was playing bass guitar in a band. He taught me how to play the guitar when I was young, and everything started from there. My mum was really into listening to music, mainly American music, and that shaped my interest. When I was given the guitar, I tried to play some chords, and I didn’t like it to be honest. It was part of the education for me. But over the years, I became to love to play the guitar. I mainly enjoyed playing together with other people. Then I said, okay, let’s try to go a bit further and so I did. So yeah, it was my parents who had an important influence on me.

You grew up in quite an isolated place, Réunion Island. I trust there was an interesting local music scene. Were there any specific musicians you were listening to back then, or any music genres that stand out for you?

I listen to a lot of music, and weirdly, I rarely listened to famous or commercial artists. I investigate a lot in finding new artists, mainly music available on YouTube that was posted by the artists themselves. Most of them have around 100 views but, I can feel they have good vibes. The genre can include everything. My roots are connected with soul and jazz music, and with a focus on vocals. The music I listen to today is depending on the moment, like for example in this season, autumn, I’m listening to a lot of jazz music.

It’s important to know that I’m from Réunion Island which is a French department and there we listen a lot to reggae and dancehall. The music there is exotic, tropical, and dynamic. I am influenced by a lot of different music and I try to put all this in my sound and in my projects.

Are there still elements in your music that are directly related to your birthplace, Réunion Island?

I want the music I make to be different. Music in Réunion Island, for example jazz, is often combined with the traditional music called Maloya. A tradition that has been passed on for generations. The music is absolutely in my blood, but I want to be the guy doing something different. I want people to think “where is this guy from?” with the answer to be “he is from here, but singing in English and making a new kind of music”. Traditionally, I should be singing in French or in Creole but I don’t. I hope in one of my future projects I can use my native language but for the start of my music career, I just want to be different.

You said earlier you have a connection with soul music. In your song “You” I feel a bit the Motown sounds from the 1980s, especially in the background beat of the refrain. Does the soul music from Detroit inspire you?

What is interesting in the song “You” is this funky vibe. The best part of the song is the baseline. The baseline can be considered old fashion. If I have to describe my music, it is a new wave of soul. We took the basics in the old fashion way, and then we added something new to it which creates an interesting vibe.

You are now living and making music in Prague, Czech Republic. I’m curious about how the city has an impact on your music. What are the benefits of living in Prague, and what is holding you back?

I am new to singing, I started about 3 years ago, and Prague is a great place to start when you are new to the music scene.

Prague is also slightly cheaper to launch a music career compared to other capital cities in Europe. If I would compare this to cities such as Berlin or London, I can say that Prague offers more possibilities for musicians who finance their careers themselves. Just so you understand, the cost of making and producing one song is high and it’s an investment you must make if you aspire to be a musician. Once the song is ready to be recorded and released, you must hire a sound engineer, rent the recording studio, pay supporting musicians, and in my case cover the costs of a music video production. This all adds up and the total sum can be considered less here. I’m also investing a lot in developing my vocal skills, I’m taking lessons with a singing coach to better support the needs of my music and so, bring it to the next level.

For the future, especially when I’ll start performing again, I can see a challenge. Perhaps Prague can be challenging when looking for opportunities to promote my music and to perform it live. There is a great scene with open-minded people that will appreciate my music, however, the scene is not so big compared to for example London. Performing at a different club every week might not be possible here but nevertheless, I’m going to take every opportunity that comes my way.

Could you describe your creative process? How do you start writing a new song, and how long does the process take?

I mentioned, I’m new and still learning. I don’t know all the techniques of how to create a song. But this creates creativity and I learn while doing it.

I always start with finding the musical idea, or hook, because it is something repetitive and it can define the vibe of the songs. I do this by looking for chord progressions on the guitar. Once I have the basic idea, I keep repeating it, keep experimenting, and keep improvising until I find the catchy riff for the song. Then I continue working on the verse and bridge. I also work with producers and together we create the beats and right bpm for the songs.

For the song “Holidays” I spent at least a month to have the track fully done.

What’s next for you in 2021? Anything you are looking forward to or any goals you set for yourself?

I want to further develop and make the music I’ve already created even better. 2020 was not an easy year, we could not record the way we wanted, and a lot of live performances were canceled. We were in a hurry to record my songs because the reserved studio time was being canceled as a result of the restrictions around the coronavirus. Also, my vocal lessons were canceled what limits me. I was not fully satisfied with the result, I can be honest about this.

In 2021, I will take my time, I’m currently writing some new songs that will be released during the year, and hopefully, for these songs, we will not be restricted. I also hope for more opportunities to connect with my fans as they expect me to perform. They want to know how I am behaving on stage as well. Live concerts are important to me, not only for promotional reasons, but they will help me become a better musician as I don’t have a lot of experience in it. It even scares me to be in front of people and sing my lines.

I released 3 tracks, and personally, I am the most pleased with “Holidays” (video). I want to do something even better with my next songs.

All music by Ricky LA is available on Spotify and you can follow him on social media:

Are you a musician and are you interested in being interviewed? Contact me

Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon Swanee River)

One of my all-time favorite boogie-woogie piano songs is Swanee River Boogie performed by Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings. Ammons plays a steady and repeating boogie baseline with the left hand, accompanied by the adaptation of the melody from Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River) with the right hand.

Swanee River Boogie – Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings

Old Folks at Home was written by the American composer Stephen Collins Foster in 1851. The first publications of the work would credit Edwin P. Christy, who commissioned the work, but this was later corrected and Foster received full credit for his song.

Stephen Collins Foster, who was uneducated in music, learned to write music as a young boy using the singing of his sisters as the main source of creativity. The phrase ‘Swanee River‘ was added to the song out of a lack of inspiration. Foster wanted to name a river in his lyrics, and it was his brother who suggested the Suwannee River, a river that runs through south Georgia into Florida. To fit in the melody and dialect of the song, he used Swanee River instead. It’s interesting to know that Stephen Foster was born in Pennsylvania and he never set foot in Georgia or Florida, hence he never saw the Suwannee River.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink – Old Folks at Home recording from 1918

In 1935, the composition would become the official state song of Florida. However, the original lyrics were altered. The lyrics were written in an African American dialect and would contain references to slavery and plantations. The dialect was modified into “dictionary-English” and the song was renamed after the river’s official name, Suwannee river. Also, words such as “plantations” were removed to eliminate any reference to plantation work.

Part of the original lyrics versus the 2008 revision

Over time, many great versions of the song were recorded. The song survived all decades and was re-shaped each time a new genre emerged. The title would often be adjusted to have a better fit into the new genre it’s being played in (Swanee River boogie, Swanee River Hop, Swanee River Rock, etc.).

In the early years of the 20th century, the song was incorporated into the foxtrot, ragtime, and Dixieland scene of the south. Pianist Fletcher Henderson recorded his version called Swanee River Blues. The song is not played like a classic blues song but more in a march-like Dixieland rhythm.

The song gained a lot of popularity during the 1930s thanks to the swing era. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra recorded a popular big band version. Remarkable was the Swanee river-melody is no longer exclusively played on the piano but different instruments were used. Also, Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (although he is a Belgian musician) recorded his version on the guitar, he’s supported on the violin by Stéphane Grappelli.

Belgian jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt and le Quintette du Hot Club de France

Albert Ammons recorded his boogie-woogie piano version in 1946 together with His Rhythm Kings. He named the song Swanee River Boogie. The song was released at the peak of the genre. The success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. A concert that brought together the many forms of African American music that were developed over time, including boogie-woogie.

Boogie-woogie and blues music further evolved into jump-blues, rock-and-roll, and rhythm-and-blues and these genres would keep on covering Swanee River. Fats Domino released his version called Swanee River Hop, this version sounds a lot like Ammons’ boogie-woogie version. Even the legendary Ray Charles played the song and named it Swanee River Rock.

Even today musicians play their own interpretation of the song. Hugh Laurie released a very interesting modern version of the song in 2011. You can find it on the album Let Them Talk. Although the piano and vocal intro by Hugh Laurie gives you a boogie-woogie feel, the band is bringing an extra layer to the performance, the song now also has aspects of folk music and gypsy jazz.

Hugh Laurie’s performance of Swanee River in New Orleans

The Real Nitty Gritty – A Tribute to Shirley Ellis

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.

Portrait of Shirley Ellis

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)
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)

Lyrics to ‘The 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 gritty
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

Lyrics to ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is
The Nitty Gritty by Shirley Ellis – 45rpm Original Second US Release (Congress CG-202, 1963) From My Collection

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 Action (Congress CGL-3002, 1964) & The Name Game (Congress CGL-3003, 1965)
by Shirley Ellis – LP Studio Album Original US Release Mono

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.

Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling (Columbia CL 2679) LP Studio Album Original US Release Mono & 45rpm Promo of ‘Soul Time’ (CBS 7463) UK, 1971, by Shirley Ellis

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).

Performance of The Nitty Gritty dance routine by Chandrae & Stephen