Shirley Ellis was an American R&B/soul singer-songwriter best-known for a number of hit such as “The Nitty Gritty,” “The Name Game,” and “The Clapping Song.” Ellis was born in The Bronx, New York. She started her singing career as a member of the vocal group the Metronomes, whose lead singer Alphonso Elliston became her husband. Lincoln Chase on the other hand was Ellis’ professional and songwriting partner, as well as her manager and producer of her hits. All of her three abovementioned hits were released on Congress label, which was the subsidiary of Kapp Records. Ellis had also recorded for Columbia and Bell Records. She died in 2008, aged 79.
Early life and career
Shirley Ellis was born in New York City’s The Bronx on January 19, 1929, but the accuracy of her birthyear has still been widely disputed. According to other sources, she was born in 1943. She was of West Indian or Caribbean origin.
This talented and clever singer-songwriter was already musically precocious. She wrote a couple of songs, including one titled “Pretty Wild” which the doo-wop group The Chords (who rose to fame via the hit single “Sh-Boom”) recorded. And it was a big achievement for a 13-year-old (if her other reported birth year 1943 is proved accurate).
Ellis won in an amateur singing competition held at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, while also singing with her group the Metronomes. She later married the group’s lead vocalist Alphonso Elliston, who also managed other acts such as the Heartbreakers.
Through Elliston, Ellis also met his cousin Lincoln Chase. Contrary to some reports and sources, Ellis and Chase were never married. The truth was that Chase became Ellis’ songwriting partner and, eventually, her manager and producer.
“The Nitty Gritty”
In 1963 Ellis made her debut at the Congress label with the incredibly thrilling “The Nitty Gritty,” which was written by Chase. It went to the top 10 on both Billboard R&B and pop charts at #4 and #8, respectively. The lesser follow-up “(That’s) What the Nitty Gritty Is” went on the lower rungs of the Hot 100 in 1964.
“The Name Game”
At the end of the year though, during the holiday season Ellis bounced back by releasing another fun novelty single called “The Name Game” which she wrote with Chase. Released also on Congress label, it went all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #4 on the R&B singles chart, becoming the singer’s biggest hit of her career. The number is also alternatively known as the “The Banana Song.”
“The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap)”
In early 1965, Ellis did it again with another enjoyable novelty number called “The Clapping Song (Clap Pat Clap Slap)” which was written by Chase, Mrs. Larry Kent and and Mrs. James McCarthy (as billed). It became Shirley Ellis’ first and only international hit, as it didn’t only hit the national charts but also on the British chart. It also went on to become Ellis’ third and final Top 10 pop hit (at #8), as well as peaked at #16 on the R&B singles chart that year.
Shirley Ellis’ legacy
Her other singles such as “I Will Never Forget,” her Christmas song “You Better Be Good, World” stiffed on the charts. She left Congress for the major Columbia label, where she recorded a rather conventional number “Soul Time” in 1967 before she withdrew into retirement.
Ellis passed away in her birthplace in Bronx, on October 5, 2005. She was 76 years old. Yet her legacy remains alive through cover versions of her most memorable hits. Her songs have been covered by many artists including Laura Branigan, Madeline Bell, The Belle Stars, Aaron Carter, Gary Glitter, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ricardo Ray, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Pia Zadora, and many others in the international music scene.
Ellis may be unjustifialby pigeonholed as a novelty star, but she was actually a versatile artist who could be funky, and in turn she would be classy and at times quite sassy. She could sing pop, R&B, soul and jazz with equal aplomb.