Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis.

Label: Ace Records.

The ‘16th’ of June 1954 was a proud day for twenty-five year old singer-songwriter Shirley Ellis, when she registered her first songwriting copyrights with Library Of Congress. This she hoped would be the start of a successful songwriting career that would transform her fortunes and help her escape from the abject poverty of life in the Bronx. 

Although Shirley Ellis had embarked upon a career as a songwriter, she hadn’t given up hope of making a career as a singer, and every weekend left her home in the Bronx, and sang with the jazz and calypso band The Metronomes. Sometimes, Shirley Ellis entered talent contests, and in 1954 followed in the footsteps of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald when she won the Amateur Night at the Harlem Apollo. This gave Shirley Ellis’ career a huge boost.

By late-1955, Shirley Ellis had already written songs for some of high-profile groups and artists, including The Sh-Booms, The Chords, Heartbreakers and Scott and Oakes. Just a year after registering her first song, Shirley Ellis’ star was already in the ascendancy, and she had just met and married her husband.

This was Alphonso Elliston, who was the lead singer of The Chords, who enjoyed a hit with Sh-Boom in April 1954. Eighteen months later, and The Chords were still trying to replicate the success of Sh-Boom. They released Could It Be in October 1955 which featured the Shirley Ellis composition Really Wild on the B-Side. By September 1957, the search for a second hit single continued when The Chords released I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire which featured Shirley Ellis’ composition Lu Lu on the B-Side. However, commercial success eluded The Chords, and that was the case right up until 1959.

That was when Alphonso Elliston’s cousin Alicia Carolyn Evelyn introduced Shirley Ellis to Lincoln Chase, who would become her songwriting partner and producer. However, it was another two years before Shirley Ellis released her debut single.

The song choses was A Beautiful Love, which was penned and produced by Lincoln Chase, and released on the Shell label in August 1961. Although it was a regional hit in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, A Beautiful Love failed to trouble the national charts. This was a disappointment for Shirley Ellis.

Just over two years later, and Shirley Ellis signed with deal with musical publisher Al Gallico, who secured her a recording contract with Kapp Records’ imprint Congress. Shirley Ellis’ time at Congress and Columbia is documented on Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis, which was recently released by Ace Records and covers the period between 1963 and 1967.  

Having signed to Congress, Shirley Ellis was paired with producer Hutch Davie and entered the studio on the ‘13th’ of September 1963 to record a novelty song penned by Lincoln Chase, The Real Nitty Gritty. By the time the single was released, The Real Nitty Gritty had been shortened to The Nitty Gritty.

When The Nitty Gritty was released by Congress in October 1963, Shirley Ellis’ sophomore single started climbing the charts and buoyed by an appearance on American Bandstand eventually reached number eight on the US Billboard 100 and four on the US R&B charts. Buoyed by the success of The Nitty Gritty, Lincoln Chase went away and penned the followup single.

This was (That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is, which was another novelty single that produced by Hutch Davie. Tucked away on the B-Side was the  Lincoln Chase composition Get Out, which is an underrated song that features a defiant, soulful vocal that is delivered against an arrangement that swings. However, when (That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is was released in February 1964, it stalled at seventy-two in the US Billboard 100 and fourteen in the US R&B charts. While (That’s) What The Nitty Gritty hadn’t replicated the success of The Nitty Gritty, it gave Shirley Ellis another hit single.

Buoyed by the success of two hit singles, Shirley Ellis entered the studio on the ‘25th’ February 1964 to record her debut album In Action. It featured The Nitty Gritty, (That’s) What The Nitty Gritty Is its B-Side Get Out and the song that became Shirley Ellis’ third single Shy One. They were joined by Jesse Stone’s Don’t Let Go, the oft-covered CC Rider and Leiber and Stoller’s Kansas which were the perfect showcase for Shirley Ellis’ vocal skills and welcome additions to Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis..

In April 1964, Shirley Ellis returned with her third single Shy One which stalled at forty-three in the US R&B charts. Although Shy One doesn’t feature on Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis, the B-Side Takin’ Care Of Business is a welcome addition. Again, it’s a Lincoln Chase composition that was produced by Hutch Davie. Shirley Ellis delivers an assured, soulful and urgent performance on this oft-overlooked hidden gem.

Two months later, in June 1964, Shirley Ellis released an impassioned cover of Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me as a single. It was arranged by Stan Green and produced by Hutch Davie. So was the B-Side Such A Night which was penned by Lincoln Chase, which features Shirley Ellis at her most soulful. However, just like Shy One, Bring It On Home To Me failed to find an audience and never came close to troubling the charts. This was a worrying time for Shirley Ellis. 

Fortunately, Shirley Ellis luck was about to change, as she had just written the novelty song The Name Game with her manager and songwriting partner Lincoln Chase. It was recorded on the ‘12th’ of November 1964 with Charles Calello who had replaced Hutch Davie. Charles Calello’s arranged and produced The Name Game which was released later in November 1964 and reached number three in the US Billboard 100 and four in the US R&B charts. The Name Game was the biggest single of Shirley Ellis’ career, but it was also her third novelty single. 

Novelty singles were fast becoming Shirley Ellis’ stock-in-trade, which meant that some critics failed to take her seriously as a singer and songwriter. That was a great shame as she was a talented and versatile vocalist who could breathe life and meaning into the lyrics. However, after the success of her latest novelty single, Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase began writing the followup Lincoln Chase.

The result was The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap) which was released four months later, in March 1965. Just like The Name Game, The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap) was another novelty song, which was arranged and produced by Charles Calello. When it was released, it reached number eight in the US Billboard 100 and six in the US R&B charts, and sold over a million copies. This resulted in Shirley Ellis receiving her first ever gold disc.

On the ‘29th’ of April 1965, Shirley Ellis returned to the recording studio to record two new  Lincoln Chase compositions with arranger and producer Charles Calello. The single was another novelty song The Puzzle Song (A Puzzle in Song), while the melodic and memorable I See It, I Like It, I Want It was relegated to the B-Side. That was a great shame, as it was the strongest of the two songs. When The Puzzle Song (A Puzzle in Song) was released in May 1965, the single stalled at a lowly seventy-eight on the US Billboard 100. After two consecutive top ten singles this was a disappointment for Shirley Ellis.

Especially as she was just about to release her sophomore album  The Name Game. It was arranged and produced by Charles Calello, and released in the summer of 1965. By then, Shirley Ellis was a familiar face on American television and regularly appeared on American Bandstand, Hullabaloo, The Mike Stone Show and Shindig. Shirley Ellis profile had never been higher, and she had come a long way since signing to Congress in 1963.

In July 1965, Shirley Ellis released Lincoln Chase’s ballad Told You So as a single. It was billed by Congress as: “Shirley Ellis as you have never heard her before.” It sounded as Congress with the help of arranger and producer Charles Calello were keen to reinvent the thirty-six year old singer. Sadly, Told You So doesn’t feature on Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis, but the explosive and energetic B-Side I Never Will Forget is included and also shows another side to Shirley Ellis. Sadly, Told You So failed to chart, and wasn’t the success that Shirley Ellis, her manager Lincoln Chase and executives at Congress had hoped.

For the followup to Told You So, Shirley Ellis recorded another Lincoln Chase composition, You Better Be Good, World which is a cerebral song full of social comment. It was co-produced by Neil Galligan, Hutch Davie and Lincoln Chase and is dramatic and moody song that shows another side to Shirley Ellis. Hidden away on B-Side was another Lincoln Chase composition One Sour Note, which is a memorable uptempo dance track. However, when You Better Be Good, World was released in October 1965, the single failed to find the audience it deserved. This meant that Shirley Ellis’ last three singles had failed to chart.

In January 1966, Shirley Ellis returned to the world of novelty singles which had served her so well in the past, and released Ever See A Diver Kiss His Wife While The Bubbles Bounce About Above The Water? This was a song she had penned with her songwriting partner Lincoln Chase, who co-produced it with Neil Galligan and Hutch Davis. However, when the single was released, it failed commercially and Shirley Ellis search for a hit single continued.

Despite commercial success eluding Shirley Ellis she was signed by Columbia Records, on the advice of Charlie Calello, was the company’s A&R Department producer. Columbia Records would become Shirley Ellis’ new home for the next two years.

The first single Shirley Ellis recorded with Charlie Calello at Columbia was the Lincoln Chase composition Birds, Bees, Cupids and Bows.  Charlie Calello was responsible for an urgent, driving arrangement,  where horns and harmonies accompany Shirley Ellis. However, when Birds, Bees, Cupids and Bows was released as a single in October 1966, commercial success eluded Shirley Ellis’ Columbia Records’ debut. This meant that Shirley Ellis’ last five singles had failed to chart, and many music industry insiders wondered if her recording career was at a crossroads?

For her next single, Shirley wrote two new songs Soul Time and Waitin’, which she recorded with Charlie Calello who arranged and produced them. Soul Time which was long on hooks and soulful  was chosen as the single, which was released in January 1967 and reached sixty-seven in the US Billboard 100 and thirty-one in the US R&B charts. Given the quality of Soul Time, the single deserved to fare better. Hidden away on the B-Side was the soulful dancer Waitin’ which was too good to languish on the B-Side. 

For the followup to Soul Time, Shirley Ellis recorded Sugar Let’s Shing-A-Ling, which she wrote in 1954. Thirteen years later, and it was produced by Charlie Calello and released by Columbia Records in May 1967. However, commercial success eluded Shirley Ellis’ latest single which also lent its name to her third album.

Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling/Soul Time With Shirley Ellis was recorded with arranger and producer Charlie Calello and released by Columbia Records during 1967. Among the highlights of the album were covers of Back Track and Barbara Mason’s Yes I’m Ready which closes Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis.

Having released Charlie Calello Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling/Soul Time With Shirley Ellis, thirty-eight year old Shirley Ellis left Columbia Records. She had spent less than two years with the label, and released three singles and one album. Apart from enjoying a minor hit with Soul Time, Shirley Ellis’ time at Columbia Records was largely unsuccessful and she failed to replicate the success she enjoyed at Congress.

Between 1963 and mid-1966, Shirley Ellis was signed to Congress, where she enjoyed the most successful period of her career. During that three-year period, she recorded The Nitty Gritty,  The Name Song and The Clapping Song, which were the triumvirate of novelty songs that made her famous. However, the success of these singles resulted in Shirley Ellis being asked to record further novelty singles. As a result, Shirley Ellis is remembered by many critics and record buyers as a singer who specialised in novelty singles. However, that is only part of the story, which is documented on Ace Records’ new compilation Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis.

It shows not just the novelty singles that Shirley Ellis released, but also singles and album tracks that show a very different side to this talented and versatile singer and songwriter. Sadly, though it’s the novelty singles that Shirley Ellis was always remembered for after she called time on her career in 1969. That is still the case nearly fifty years later, but the release of Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis goes a long way to dispelling the myth that Shirley Ellis only released novelty songs.

Three Six Nine! The Best Of Shirley Ellis.

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