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

Introduction To 45 rpm Record Collecting

As a deejay and music collector, I purchase as many 45’s as I buy LP’s. Columbia Records copyrighted the term LP (Long Playing) so, let’s use the word ‘album’ going forward. You can say that there is more sense in buying albums instead of a 45 rpm (revolutions per minute). You receive the completed studio work in the order the artist intends you to listen, you have more tracks on the medium, and you don’t have to change or turn the record after one song. However, I do not always agree that an album is always the better choice. 45’s have many advantages compared to albums.

45 rpm record from my collection

The first advantage of a 45 is the higher sound quality. Of course, this is my point of view what is open for discussion. The sound quality of a 45 can be explained by looking into the record surface, playing speed, and track times. On an album, played at 33 1/3 rpm, and with a surface dimension of 12 inches, you will have about 30 minutes of music. A 45 (when talking about a 7-inch single) has a surface dimension of 7 inches, is being played at 45 rpm, and contains about 3 minutes of music. When manufacturing an album, the grooves are very narrow and tightly curved because there should be room for 30 minutes of great music. For a 45, where you only need 3 minutes of music on one side, the grooves are spread out more widely what allows them to be pressed deeper. Like this, more information can be stored. And with more information stored, the audio level of a 45 doesn’t need to be toned down (this is done with some albums to avoid audio cross-over) what makes the sounds quality of a 45 superior.

It’s no surprise that audiophile companies are reissuing classic Jazz records at 45 rpm. Because of the tiny curves on the album’s surface, it is hard for the cartridge to track everything. Fine details, which are so important in Jazz music, can get blur. You can lose the feeling of the bass player sitting next to you because you no longer can hear the fingers sliding over the strings.

A good example of this is the famous Jazz Record label Blue Note. By using the original master tapes, Blue Note records are, in cooperation with Music Matters Jazz and Analogue Productions, reissuing albums on a 45 rpm double-12-inch vinyl. The so-called ‘Blue Note Sound’ was the creation of Rudy Van Gelder, a sound engineer who started to record Jazz musicians in the early 1950s. Van Gelder’s goal was to recreate live Jazz into his recordings. It was much later, in 1994, when the idea came to reissue Blue Note albums at 45 rpm. Mike Hobson and Michael Cuscuna started cutting 45 rpm test pressings and as expected, they sounded much better.

Rudy Van Gelder in the control room of his studio

Playing at 45 rpm is faster than playing at 33 1/3 and therefore, one original album of one disc (33 1/3 rpm) needs to be converted into 2 discs at 45 rpm. It went even further, Blue Note never stopped innovating and improving the sound experience. In some tests, they had better sound quality on a single-sided record. Meaning that grooves were pressed on one side, and the other side stayed blank. The result of this is that 1 original double-sided album was repressed on 4 single-sided 45 rpm discs of 12 inches. Although audiophiles agree that the sound is better, these albums were expensive to buy and it is not so common to find them in your local record store.

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue ‎(2xLP, Album, Ltd, RE, 45 rpm) released on Blue Note and Analogue Productions

Another great advantage of 45’s is that there is much more great music available on 45 rpm. For the genres I play during sets, mainly soul and rhythm-and-blues from the 1950s through the 1960s, there is more music out there on 45 rpm. The main reason for this is that the smaller independent labels were contracting artists to record one track. A 45 was pressed and released and depending on the success, artists were offered a contract to record an album. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release on a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). Just one example is the artist under the name Little Mummy. Little Mummy only recorded two tracks for Federal Records in New Orleans, Louisiana. The titles ‘Where You At Jack‘ and ‘Oh Baby Please’ were distributed in 1960 and repressed decades later because of the growing success. If his music would have been acknowledged during his life span, this artist may have recorded several albums that would find its place next to rhythm-and-blues greats such as The Drifters, The Coasters, and Jackie Wilson.

Little Mummy’s only release – white original label on the left, later repress on the right.

It is also more convenient for deejays to use 45 rpm singles during sets. You don’t have to carefully place the needle in between the grooves of an album as you only have one track on each side of a 45. The records are smaller in size what makes handling and transportation easier.

To conclude, as a deejay I prefer playing 45’s because of its superior quality, music assortment, and easy handling during sets. But don’t misunderstand me, I love albums equally! Full 12-inch albums offer better record sleeves with impressive cover art, you can listen from start to finish in the order the artists intends you to, and originals are often in better condition because they were handled with more care (45 were often used in radio stations and jukeboxes). For me, the choice of format is really subject to the purpose and music genre.

Some record collectors are more attracted to the original or first pressing of the 45. There is more to it than just the music it contains. A record can represent part of history. Owning part of this history can give more meaning to the music and its origin. As a listener it offers more value knowing its past. The reasons why we collect can be better explained in an anthropology study and I believe that each collector has its own motive. I collect vinyl records to better understand the music. By researching and educating myself, I came to understand its history, its development, its origin, and the influence it has on modern-day music. Listening to music became more valuable since the day I started to collect. Let’s say that, as an example, you watch the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a portrait of the life of Nina Simone by Liz Garbus. After understanding the life of Nina Simone, I listen to her songs in a completely different way. I’m now able to understand her reasons for making music what adds its value.

In some situations, owning the original or first pressing is a must. This is the case for collectors of Northern Soul records. To better understand this, we need to have a deeper look at the history and meaning of Northern Soul.

Northern Soul is a subculture that originated in North England during the late 1960s and through the 1970s. It is powered by uptempo American soul music from the mid-1960s. Many young modernists were not convinced of the development of soul music into disco and funk. They kept a preference for the uptempo American soul music. Today it’s common to stream any song you’d like to hear, but back in the days, you had to go to your local club to listen to the songs played by deejays. The success of a deejay had a lot to do with their collection of 45’s and their ability to locate and find them. The scene was based on non-commercial lost and forgotten soul records. Many songs that were popular in the Northern Soul scene, were recorded by smaller independent labels and because of that, there are not too many in circulation. A deejay owning a song that was loved by the crowd would make him unique. Northern Soul fans, mainly the young working middle-class, would go to clubs to dance to these unique soul records. There was also a lot of competition between deejays and clubs. Deejays would often scratch off the label to keep the title secret. The Northern Soul scene is also characterized by its own unique dance. People would fill the room individually and perform light and smooth footwork with the occasional turn, drop, or karate-kick.

The Northern Soul scene still exists today and one would say it is even bigger than before. Around the world people are organizing All-Nighters where Northern Soul deejays and collectors can share their rare music collection. It was already unique to own certain 45’s back in the 1970s and this has not changed. These days, rare Northern Soul 45’s are worth a couple of hundred dollars and in some cases, a couple of thousand.

The rarest original Northern Soul 45 rpm record is ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson (1965). It is said that only 6 copies of the record were printed and their purpose was to promote the song at radio stations. Out of those 6 copies, only 2 are still in existence and only 1, is in playable condition. this record was sold in auction for over $30,000.

The story behind this is not fully confirmed but many believe that it was Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown records label, who ordered the copies to be destroyed and who blocked the official release of the song. Frank Wilson was hired as a producer by Motown but in return, he had to renounce his musical career. However, he moved forward with the pressing of his promo single for ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. This was not appreciated by Berry Gordy and, he ordered the destruction of the pressed records. However, two records survived and in 1977 the song reappeared in the Northern Soul dance scene. The record’s rarity and its original soul sound is what made it one of the most popular songs in Northern Soul and in 1979, the record was officially released to the public by Tamla Motown.

On the left, you can see the promo records. It was signed by Frank Wilson himself with the words “to Kenny” referring to the previous owner. On the right, you can see the official release by Tamla Motown

‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson – promo on the left (1965), official release on the right (1979)