Bear Family Records, the German company headed by Richard Weize, is well-known among collectors for its expertly remastered and superbly crafted LP-size box sets featuring extensive hardcover book-length liner notes by notable authors. Sometime last year (and somewhat under the radar in the U.S.), they began a new “Rocks” series on their CD line which, at last count, includes 31 titles (some bearing the series title “Rockin’ Rollin'”). Though these are single CDs, they are still housed in deluxe digipacs with beautifully illustrated booklets averaging 40 pages. Each disc is devoted to a seminal artist from the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll, including major stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Ricky Nelson, along with many other rockabilly performers from the 1950s, some of whom have been largely forgotten.
The rhythm and blues roots of rock are reasonably well represented, though some of the biggest names-Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry-are conspicuously absent. No doubt the producers at Bear Family made a conscious decision to focus on lesser known artists whose recordings haven’t already been reissued and repackaged in every conceivable way, shape and form (though I’m still waiting for the ultimate Little Richard box set). The Black artists selected thus far for the series include Shirley & Lee, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Piano Red (a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Fats Domino, Amos Milburn, Lloyd “‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy” Price, and one of my favorite groups, the Cadillacs. Only the first two were sent for review, but I’m certainly anxious to get my hands on the entire set.
Title: Shirley & Lee Rock
Artists: Shirley & Lee
Label: Bear Family
Catalog No.: BCD 15785 AR
Release date: 2008
At the dawn of the 1950s, Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee were just a pair of teenagers from New Orleans’ Seventh Ward who regularly jammed together on a neighbor’s porch. One day they managed to talk legendary recording engineer Cosimo Matassa into cutting a demo for them, which Matassa later played for Aladdin’s owner Eddie Mesner, and the rest is history. They returned to the studio in 1952 and recorded their debut single, “I’m Gone,” backed by New Orleans’ finest session musicians, including trumpeter extraordinaire Dave Bartholomew (also credited as co-writer) and drummer Earl Palmer. The song hit #2 on the R&B charts, launching Shirley & Lee as one of the first male-female R&B vocal duos.
The 31 tracks on this CD represent Shirley & Lee’s “rockin’, rollin’, carnival best,” from their 1952 debut (the final track) to the 1963 release of “Somebody Put a Juke Box in the Study Hall.” Most were recorded for the Aladdin label at Cosimo’s studio using his house band, which lends a distinctive New Orleans R&B flavor, partly attributed to the rollicking piano of Edward Frank, who played on most of the sessions recorded at Cosimo’s from 1956-1960. The final sessions in 1962-63 were produced by Bartholomew for Imperial, and feature Bartholomew and his band.
I was surprised to learn how many of the songs were penned by Lee, including the megahit “Let the Good Times Roll,” (for which Shirley also received credit). In my mind, Lee was the greater talent, even though Shirley’s career lasted much longer. Shirley’s strident youthful voice, which no doubt appealed to teenagers back in the day, is an acquired taste, best sampled in small doses. Lee was the more polished singer, and the two seldom sang in tandem, preferring more of a call and response style (which nicely resolves the need to blend). Two other Top 10 R&B hits are included, the similarly titled “Feel So Good” (1955) and “I Feel Good” (1956). Other notable titles include “Rock All Night,” “Rockin’ With the Clock,” and “Everybody’s Rockin’,” all released between 1957-58 when rock ‘n’ roll was crossing over to the pop charts and fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
All in all, this is a very good introduction to Shirley & Lee’s rock ‘n’ roll oriented songs. The excellent liner notes by Bill Dahl provide a complete overview of their careers (both together and separate), while the detailed discography by Rick Coleman, Walter DeVenne and Richard Weize is icing on the cake. Anyone interested in delving further into Shirley & Lee’s recorded output should check out Bear Family’s 4 CD box set, Shirley & Lee: The Sweethearts of the Blues (BCD 15960 DI), from which these selections were drawn.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss