Soul Serenade: Shirley Ellis, “The Nitty Gritty”

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

Shirley Ellis emerged as a three-hit wonder at a dark time in the nation’s history

Shirley Ellis

Soul Serenade - Shirley EllisNovember, 1963 was one of the darkest times in American history. It was on the 22nd day of that month that John F. Kennedy was shot down in Dallas. The nation went into a state of mourning which some would argue has never really ended. It was on that November day that this country truly lost its innocence.

Popular music has always been a source of solace when times are hard, and late 1963 is a perfect example of that. It wasn’t long after President Kennedy died that songs by the Beatles were being heard on radios across the country, and by the following February, the band was here in the flesh, making their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. The young President was not forgotten, but at least there appeared to be a beacon of hope in this cold world.

The Beatles weren’t the only artists who showed up at the right time. Shirley Marie O’Garra had been born in the Bronx in 1929 to West Indian parents. By the time she was in her mid-teens she had already written songs that were recorded by the Chords, and the Heartbeats. She started her career as a singer in a group called the Metronomes, and married the group’s lead singer, Alphonso Ellston, in 1949. Somewhere along the way she changed her name to Shirley Ellis.

Shirley Ellis

In 1959 Ellis met Lincoln Chase, who became her manager, record producer, and songwriting partner. Chase was a successful songwriter himself, best known for the songs “Jim Dandy,” which was a huge hit for Laverne Baker, and “Such a Night,” which scored for the Drifters. It was Chase who wrote Ellis’ first hit record, “The Nitty Gritty,” which appeared on Congress Records, a Kapp Records subsidiary, in November, 1963. The record rocketed up to #8 on the Pop chart, and #4 R&B.

As well as “The Nitty Gritty” did, Ellis’ biggest hits were still in front of her. The following year she released the smash hit “The Name Game.” It’s a record that you either love or hate, but a lot of people loved it back in the day, and it rose all the way up to #3 on the Pop chart. Then in 1965 she scored again with another novelty hit called “The Clapping Song.”

And then it was more or less over. Ellis kept releasing singles for the next couple of years, but novelty records were no longer in vogue, and songs like “The Puzzle Song (A Puzzle in Song),” and “Ever See a Diver Kiss His Wife While the Bubbles Bounce About Above the Water?,” found only minor chart success. “Soul Time,” released in 1967 on Columbia Records, was the last Ellis record to chart.

Ellis’ hit records have been covered by a wide range of artists including Madeline Bell, Laura Branigan, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, whose 1969 hit version of “The Nitty Gritty” was produced by Norman Whitfield.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwYqaw8bBxw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OngAzGe0YOc