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Shirley and Lee:The most unique rock and roll duo

Published:Sunday | March 31, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Sometime in 1951 in Cleveland, Ohio, a phrase was coined that would become the biggest pop music genre in the world - the words rock and roll.

The genre was the off-spring of the urban American heavy-beat, instrumental-driven music call rhythm and blues (R&B), which was influenced by the black-revivalist, handclapping church-goers of the late 1940s, and recording artistes like Roscoe Gordon and Louis Jordan.

Rock and roll entered American music proper, in the mid-1950s and quickly became the predominant beat.

But strangely enough, music with a rock and roll beat has been around since 1951, when the Clovers recorded the yank-styled Don't You Know I Love You, for Atlantic Records in New York, and a month later Jackie Brenston, using a more up-tempo style, recorded Rocket 88 for Chess Records in Memphis, Tennessee.

The fluctuation in tempo has, in itself, become another feature of rock and roll.

Various combinations and permutations, in terms of size and gender also characterised rock and roll groups. The genre was filled with quintets, quartets, trios and duos, with duos mainly concentrating on the slower yank-style.

This set included Marvin and Johnny, Skip and Flip, Charlie and Ray, and the unique mixed-gender combinations of Micky and Sylvia and Gene and Eunice.

The Most Unique

But of all the mixed-gender duos of the rock and roll era, Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee), were the most flamboyant and unique.

They were part of an even more exclusive combination, who carved out for themselves a niche in rock and roll.

The duo's influence spread as far as Jamaica, inspiring mixed-gender Jamaican duos, like Keith and Enid, Annette and Shenley, Derrick and Patsy, Stranger and Patsy, Owen and Millie, Jackie and Doreen, and Creator and Norma.

Like Shirley and Lee, most of their recordings focused on the theme of romance. But Shirley and Lee recordings depicted more than just romance as well.

Early in their career, they became known as the 'sweethearts of the blues', not for any real personal relationship, but for their continuing recordings, depicting romantic sagas of break-ups, pleadings and make-ups, which formed the basis of their recordings, done between 1952 and 1959, and which bordered on a fictional soap opera of two sweethearts. Fans would buy these recordings, simply to keep abreast of the continuing story.

I'm Gone, a big top-10 R&B song in the fall of 1952, was the first of the lot. Others followed, like, A True Love Never Dies. The story continued with the heartbreaker, Shirley Come Back, the following year, in which Lee pleads:

I love you, I hope you'll understand.

I just want to be your man.

Shirley come back to me,

Followed by Shirley's rebuttal:

You don't love me.

I could plainly see.

you try to make a fool of me,

I must leave you Lee.

After the make-up, the saga continued with the recording Shirley Is Back.

Not long after, they were at it again with the recording, I'm Leaving.

Lee, to who the statement was directed, replied with, Oh Please Don't Go. The latter was in turn met with Shirley's response, You Lied And Cheated. Lee was persistent, responding with But I Love You So. The saga would only end with The Proposal.


Singing in a style that was different from other duos, they almost never sang in harmony, preferring to alternate their parts individually.

For a decade, between 1952 and 1962, they made some of the most exciting and unusual music. The contrast between Shirley's high quavering soprano and Lee's rich bluesy baritone brought a new dimension to rhythm and blues and gave the act its appeal.

Born between 1935 and 1936, in the cradle of rhythm and blues- New Orleans - the sweethearts of the blues grew up in the same neighbourhood of Seventh Ward, but met as 12-year-olds at the Mary C. Convent School in 1947.

They became interested in singing and doing concerts in their neighbourhood with other children and soon became obsessed with the writing of bluesy ballads.

First Album

In short order, they pestered Cosimo Matassa, New Orleans premier studio owner, aligned to Aladdin records, for an opportunity to record a Leonard Lee composition titled I'm Gone.

"We'd go up there almost everyday," Shirley remarked.

"We kept bugging Cosimo until he said, 'OK, as long as you got two dollars'."

"We raised the money and cut a demo of I'm Gone. It transformed two unknown 16-year-old kids into chart-topping R&B stars, almost overnight.

The majority of the duo's recordings were done at Matassa's studio between 1952 and 1959, with arrangements by Dave Bartholomew, who also spearheaded Fats Domino's career.

Bartholomew, who also had personal hits with The Monkey Speaks His Mind, When The Saints Go Marching In, and Who Drank My Beer, played trumpet in the duos musical backing, which brought a prodigious swing to New Orleans' rhythm and blues, and later influenced early Jamaican music.

Biggest Hits

The duo's biggest hits remain its most enduring. Feel So Good, was a No. 5 R&B hit in 1955; Rock All Night and I Feel Good, were No. 5 hits in 1956. Other big hits included Lee Goofed, Lee's Dream, That's What I'll Do and I'll Thrill You. But it was the 1957 rocker Let The Good Times Roll, which kicked off the soundtrack to the 1973 rock revival movie of the same name, and introduced them to the white rock market, propelling the duo to perpetual prominence.

A million-selling hit, which climbed to No. 2 on the R&B charts, the title was supplied by a club-goer as Shirley rejected his drunken advances.

"Aw come on baby," he persisted, "Let the good times roll."

The duo left Aladdin in 1959 and recorded with less distinction for the Warwick and Imperial labels, before splitting up in 1963.

After being out of the music business for a number of years, Shirley made a dramatic return in 1974, as Shirley and Company, with the chart-topping disco record Shame, Shame, while Lee obtained a degree in sociology and worked with a government agency until his death on October 23, 1976.