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Click below for the transcript
Today we’re going to take a look at someone who had two big hits, one of which has entered into American pop culture to a ludicrous extent — long before I ever heard the song I was familiar with references to it in everything from the Simpsons to Stephen King books — and the other of which is known all over the world, but about whom there’s almost no available information, outside the liner notes to one CD. We’re going to look at Shirley Ellis, and at “The Name Game”:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “The Name Game”]
When I say there’s almost no available information about Shirley Ellis, I mean it. Normally, with someone who had a couple of major hits in the mid-sixties, there’s at least a couple of fan pages out there, but other than a more-perfunctory-than-usual page on Spectropop, there’s basically nothing about Shirley Ellis, possibly because unlike most of her contemporaries, even though she lived until 2005 she never hit the nostalgia circuit.
The information that is out there is contradictory as well. Some sources have her being born in 1941, while others place her birth much further back, in 1929. I suspect the latter date is more accurate, and that she trimmed a few years off her age when she became a star.
Pretty much all the information I’m using here comes from the liner notes of the one CD currently in print from a legitimate source of Ellis’ work, and that CD also has a problem which will affect this episode. Ellis released two albums, “In Action” and “The Name Game”, which had nine tracks in common. On “In Action”, they were overdubbed with crowd noises, more or less at random, to make them sound like they were live recordings, while “The Name Game” had the unadorned studio recordings. Unfortunately, the CD I’m using, for some unfathomable reason, chose to use the fake-live versions, and so that’s what I’ve been forced to excerpt.
Ellis grew up in the Bronx, in a family with roots in the West Indies, and started out as many young singers did, winning the talent contest at the Harlem Apollo. But her initial success came as a songwriter, when she wrote a couple of songs for the Sh-Booms — the group who had formerly been known as the Chords before legal problems led them to rename themselves after their biggest hit:
[Excerpt: The Sh-Booms — “Pretty Wild”]
She also wrote “One Two, I Love You” for the Heartbreakers, which pointed the way to the kind of novelty song based around counting and clapping rhymes with which she would have her biggest hits:
[Excerpt: The Heartbreakers, “One Two, I Love You”]
But while she’d had these minor successes as a songwriter, it wasn’t until she teamed up with a more successful writer that she started to make the records for which she was remembered. Ellis was introduced by her husband’s cousin to Lincoln Chase, who became her manager, record producer, and writing partner.
Chase had already written a number of hits on his own, including “Such a Night” for Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters:
[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Such a Night”]
which had also been a hit for Johnnie Ray, and “Jim Dandy” for LaVern Baker:
[Excerpt: LaVern Baker, “Jim Dandy”]
As well as songs for Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown and others.
Chase and Ellis spent a couple of years releasing unsuccessful singles under Ellis’ full married name, Shirley Elliston, before releasing “The Real Nitty Gritty”. Both song and artist soon had their names shortened, and “The Nitty Gritty” by Shirley Ellis went to number eight on the pop charts:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “The Nitty Gritty”]
A couple of follow-ups, starting with “That’s What the Nitty-Gritty Is” were unsuccessful, and then Shirley got very unlucky. She recorded a version of Chase’s “Such a Night”, which had been a hit twice before:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “Such a Night”]
That started rising up the charts — and then RCA released Elvis’ recording from four years earlier, which had just been an album track, as a single, and that went top twenty, and stopped Ellis’ single getting any traction:
[Excerpt: Elvis Presley, “Such a Night”]
But Ellis came back with “The Name Game”, which she co-wrote with Chase, based on a game she used to play as a child:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “The Name Game”]
That made number three on the charts, and became an ongoing reference point for a whole generation of Americans. The follow-up, credited to Chase alone, was based on another children’s game, and made the US top ten, and also made the top ten in the UK:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “The Clapping Song”]
For a while in early 1965, Ellis was a big star, big enough that her songs were getting novelty cover versions by people like Soupy Sales:
[Excerpt: Soupy Sales, “The Name Game”]
But unfortunately, her next couple of singles flopped, and people seemed to only want one kind of record from Shirley Ellis. She and Chase came up with some unsuccessful experiments, like “You Better Be Good World”, an attempt at getting on the protest song bandwagon by singing about nuclear war, while also recording a Christmas song — the two didn’t really mix:
[Excerpt: Shirley Ellis, “You Better Be Good World”]
After that, more attempts at songs along the lines of her hits followed, like “The Puzzle Song”, and “Ever See a Diver Kiss His Wife While The Bubbles Bounce About Above the Water?”, but there were no more hits, and Ellis retired in 1968. Chase went on to record a solo album under his own name, which has sadly never been reissued on CD, but I found a vinyl rip on a dodgy MP3 site a while back, and it’s fascinating stuff, somewhere between Frank Zappa and George Clinton at points, and quite politically pointed:
[Excerpt: Lincoln Chase, “Amos X, Andy Lumumba, and Aunt Jemima No More”]
Chase would die in the early eighties, but he and Ellis would go on to get credit for a hit song written almost twenty years after his death. In 1981, the disco artist Stacy Lattislaw would record “Attack of the Name Game”, which was inspired by Ellis’ hit, and so Chase and Ellis got co-writing credit for it:
[Excerpt: Stacy Lattislaw, “Attack of the Name Game”]
That wasn’t a hit, but in 1999 Mariah Carey and Jay-Z built the number one hit “Heartbreaker” around a sample of that record, meaning that Ellis and Chase got credit for that, too:
[Excerpt: Mariah Carey, Heartbreaker]
That’s not the only influence Ellis had in more recent times — several people have pointed out the similarity in style between some of Amy Winehouse’s records, like “Rehab”, and Ellis’ big hits.
Shirley Ellis, unlike many of her contemporaries, never came out of retirement, and she died in 2005, probably aged seventy-six.