July 5, 2005 – Shirley Goodman was born on June 19th 1936 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Goodman first developed her piercing vocal style in her Baptist church choir, additionally harmonizing with friends on area street corners. She made her official debut at age nine, appearing in a local amateur revue. When she was 13, Goodman joined with several schoolmates to record the demo “I’m Gone,” produced by Cosimo Matassa — when Matassa played the master for Aladdin Records owner Eddie Messner some months later, the exec pinpointed Goodman’s high-pitched wail and tracked the girl down, offering her a record deal and partnering her with another local teen, Leonard Lee, a longtime family friend whose deep, bluesy voice proved an ideal complement. With Dave Bartholomew installed as producer, Shirley & Lee cut their debut single, “I’m Gone,” opting against traditional harmonies in favor of a contrasting boy-girl duet structure that would prove deeply influential on the development of ska and reggae.
“I’m Gone” would ascend to the number two spot on the Billboard R&B charts in the fall of 1952, and was quickly followed by “Shirley, Come Back to Me” and “Shirley’s Back,” cementing the teen romance narrative motif that characterized the duo’s early output. Dubbed “the Sweethearts of the Blues,” they spent much of the decade to follow on tour, at various times backed by New Orleans legends-in-waiting like Allen Toussaint, Huey “Piano” Smith, and James Booker.
In their early songs, they pretended as if they were sweethearts and were dubbed “the Sweethearts of the Blues”. While their live audiences continued to grow, record buyers eventually tired of the soap opera melodrama of singles like “Lee Goofed” and “Confessin’,” so with 1956’s classic “Let the Good Times Roll” Shirley & Lee changed course into rock & roll, cracking the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, which became their biggest hit single reaching No.1 on the US R&B chart and No.20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold over a million copies, and awarded a gold disc. The follow-up, “Feel So Good,” achieved the same feat, but when Messner died and Aladdin’s properties transferred to the Imperial label, Shirley & Lee’s fortunes waned, and in 1959 the duo landed with the small Warwick imprint. The move was fortuitous, however, as 1960’s “I’ve Been Loved Before” crept to the number 88 spot and a remake of “Let the Good Times Roll” went to number 48. Warwick shut down in 1961, however, and after a brief return to Imperial, Shirley & Lee split the following year.
At that point in the mid 1960s, Goodman and her son relocated to California, where she became an in-demand session vocalist, where she worked on records by Sonny and Cher, Dr. John and others, and also formed a duo for a time with Jessie Hill. She sang backing vocals on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street album, but then briefly retired from the music industry.
In 1967, producer Huey Meaux teamed her with fellow New Orleans expatriate Jessie Hill for the Wand label duet “Ivory Tower.” (Several more duets followed, all of them commercial disasters, but in 1970 Meaux’s Crazy Cajun label still compiled the sessions onto an LP, You’ll Lose a Good Thing.)
Goodman also partnered with Brenton Wood on the 1969 Whizz effort “Kid Games and Nursery Rhymes.” Despite subsequent session dates, including an appearance on the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main St., she briefly retired from the music industry, working in the offices of Playboy magazine. On October 15, 1971, Shirley & Lee were reunited for one show only at the Madison Square Garden in New York City. The playbill included musicians of the early rock era, including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell.
While manning the switchboard at Playboy, she renewed ties with fellow music biz veteran Sylvia Robinson, now co-owner of the All Platinum label. The two women began a regular correspondence, and in late 1974 Robinson paid for Goodman to fly to New Jersey to cut the lead vocal for a dance track titled “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Credited to Shirley & Company, the resulting single was an overnight sensation, becoming one of the first international disco hits and reaching number 12 on the Billboard pop charts and presaging the disco boom.. Goodman toured behind the record until mid-1976, returning to New Orleans in 1979 and soon after retiring from pop music for good.
After suffering a stroke in 1994, she moved to California, and died on July 5, 2005, in Los Angeles at age 69. She was buried in New Orleans (a month and a half before Hurricane Katrina hit.)