The Shells - Whiplash
Someday some dedicated individual is going to write the definitive book on 1960’s Chicago soul (someone already tried, but did not succeed). From Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, to Major Lance, Jerry-O, Chess records and on and on the Windy City produced scores of brilliant, stylish soul sides. One of the more obscure (but no less amazing) records to come out of Chi-town is ‘Whiplash’ b/w ‘When I’m Blue’ by the Shells on the Conlo label. My old buddy Haim at www.longtallsimon.com hepped me to this platter years ago and it quickly became one of my favorites. I haven’t been able to track down a whole lot of info on the Shells (likely group members Charles Calvin,Willie Exon,Billy Harper and James Calvin*). First and foremost, they don’t seem to have any connection to the New York based doowop group that recorded for Johnson. They do seem to have roots in St. Louis. Their 1965 Conlo 45 was produced by none other than Jerry Butler and Eddie Thomas (of Chicago’s Thomas records – see Cash McCall, Jamo Thomas, etc.) . As the Four Shells they recorded a second 45 (in 1966) for the Volt label (also produced by Butler, but not as inspired as the Conlo sides) before receding into the mists of time. The first thing you hear when you drop the needle on ‘Whiplash’ is the thin, slightly echoed guitar that sounds like it was lifted from a Pretty Things 45. It’s followed shortly by equally under-produced drums and throbbing bass (is there really any other kind??). The vocals are something of a revelation. While I wouldn’t hesitate to describe ‘Whiplash’ as a “soul” record, the Shells’ vocals are definitely in a style that is on the cusp of old shool R&B and straight-ahead soul. The lead vocal is definitely of it’s time, but the backup vocals display elements of doowop harmony (maybe even a hint of gospel). Voice and instrumentation combine to create a seriously danceable beat (are those handclaps behind the snare drum???). The lyrics are dance-craze boilerplate, though the writers get extra credit for lines like:
Here’s the real big dance that’s going nationwide. It took over baby when the Twine and Monkey died!
The payoff (assuming you’re not lying awake at night wondering who killed the Twine and the Monkey) lies in the fact that all of these seemingly disparate elements, which in the first few seconds sound like they’ve been hammered to each other like so much scrap wood in a tree-house, quickly mesh to reveal that they were meant to be together in the first place. My temptation is to compare ‘Whiplash’ to the best “Outsider” art, because it carries with it a raw, “accidental” beauty, but that would be unfair. The folks that put this record together clearly knew what they were doing. What makes this record so great and so unusual is its inherent missing-link-ism. It has one foot in R&B, one in soul and a third, mysterious foot dancing between rock’n’roll and gospel. In the end, you would not be out of place pulling this one out at a “soul” dance party, but you shouldn’t be surprised when eyebrows are raised. The flip side (which I’ll post at a later date) ‘When I’m Blue’ is another slice of genius. As far as I know neither of the Conlo sides has been reissued. The Volt sides were available as part of the complete Stax/Volt Singles box set.
*I was recently informed by the son of James Calvin (originally listed here as "Calvin James", now corrected) that James and Charles Calvin were in fact brothers.