Shirley Ellis - The Nitty Gritty
Miss Shirley Ellis
Some folks know about it some don’t Some will learn to shout it some wont Sooner or later baby here’s a ditty Say you’re gonna have to get right down to the real nitty gritty Words to live by brothers and sisters. Like a fresh breeze from an especially hip fortune cookie, Shirley Ellis lays it down, and 2 minutes and 15 seconds later you’re collapsed on the dance floor, hands numb from clapping, hair disheveled...you know the drill. I’ve been wanting to blog this particular track for a long time for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s one of my fave soul 45s from the 1960’s, male or female. Second, it spawned a couple of my other faves. Shirley Ellis hit the sphere (as Lord Buckley would say) in 1941, and by the time she was in her mid-teens had written songs that were recorded by the Chords and the Heartbeats. In 1959, she met (and later married) Lincoln Chase, himself a successful tunesmith having penned ‘Jim Dandy’ for Laverne Baker and ‘Such A Night’ for the Drifters. Together, Ellis and Chase wrote and recorded a number of hits through the 1960’s. ‘Nitty Gritty’ in November of 1963 was her first Top 10. The record, written by Chase and produced by Hutch Davies has one of the weirdest openings in soul history, opening with fake crowd noise, then followed by a single, tinny cymbal hit (which kind of reminds me of the high hats at the beginning of ‘Shingaling’ by the Cooperettes) before the drums drop and Shirley struts onto the scene. Ellis’ vocal is right on target, and the arrangement of the disc gets a lot better quickly with hard hitting drums for the dancers, shouted (and occasionally strange – check out that bass singer) backing vocals and stylish horns. It’s a rocking track, perfect for dancing, and one of Ellis’ best sides. A few years after ‘Nitty Gritty’, Ellis and Chase laid down the song for which she is - some would say unfortunately – best remembered, i.e. ‘The Name Game’, as in “Chuck, Chuck, Bo Buck, Banana Fana Fo...” ....well, you get the idea. She followed that with a string of similarly novel 45s, including cool ones like ‘The Clapping Song’ and some not so cool ones like ‘The Puzzle Song’. She recorded her last 45 for Congress in 1965, making the move to Columbia records in 1966. Her Columbia LP and 45s are well worth checking out for cuts like the Northern Soul-ish anthem ‘Soul Time’ and hard chargers like ‘Sugar Let’s Shingaling’. After 1967 it doesn’t appear she did much of anything. Except that is, inspire some great covers. The first – and one of my fave boogaloo sides – is Ricardo Ray’s cover of ‘Nitty Gritty’. Ray, one of the great Latin soul artists of the 60’s made a pretty straight cover of the tune, with some great shouted vocals, latin percussion (of course) and a fantastic horn chart. If you can track down the 45 (or the LP, which is a killer) on Allegre, do so. The second, which was probably the first version of ‘Nitty Gritty’ I ever heard is by Gladys Knight and the Pips. For some reason Gladys and the Pips seem to be overlooked when people start talking about funky records, and that’s a damn shame because the made some of the funkiest sides for Motown, including their version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ (my fave version), and ‘You Need Love Like I Do’ which I’ll be posting in the next few weeks. The GK& the P’s take on ‘Nitty Gritty’ features some very funky guitar, an unusual shifting tempo and great production. It shouldn't be too hard to track down either.