Born in New Orleans on 19 June 1936, Shirley Goodman was 16 years old when she signed to Aladdin, the jazz and R&B label that was home to Charles Brown and Amos Milburn. The company teamed her with Leonard Lee, and rocking out of New Orleans with Dave Bartholomew’s orchestra, Shirley & Lee set about laying foundation stones for rock ‘n’ roll and soul.
Shirley had a penetrative, spiky soprano, and Lee, a punchy but warm baritone. The contrast worked and their debut single, I’m Gone, made #2 in the US R&B charts in 1952.
Three years on, Feel So Good followed suit, and Let The Good Times Roll went one place higher in 1956.
The pair were billed The Sweethearts of The Blues, though they weren’t even lovers – and they were no mugs either. They wrote Let The Good Times Roll together and Lee composed Feel So Good.
They were big enough to release an album, which declared Shirley “a well set-up attractive lady with a very sweet manner and the most appealing eyes”.
A further hit, I Feel Good, kept their name in the spotlight, but as R&B fell to rock ‘n’ roll and then soul, they faltered. They left Aladdin in 1959 and recorded for Warwick and Imperial before splitting up in 1963.
Leonard Lee embarked on a solo career with discs on Imperial, Crescendo and Broadmoor before leaving the business, an unhappy and unfulfilled man. He obtained a degree in sociology and worked with a government poverty agency until his death in 1976.
A quirk of wavebands meant Shirley’s fame spread south. Jamaica’s radios were tuned into the stations of New Orleans – they could barely receive anything else in English – and every sound system owner on the island owned a Shirley & Lee record.
Some were from the UK, on Vogue, there were 78s on Jamaica’s Downbeat label and US originals. Jamaica loved their combo of shrillness and warmth, and when those sound men decided to make their own records, they attempted to reproduce it.
Millie Small was an early entrant in the Shirley Goodman soundalike stakes. Her yelping voice on her hit version of Barbie Gaye’s My Boy Lollipop was only a part of it.
She was teamed with Owen Gray on 1962’s Sugar Plum, made records in the UK as Jackie & Millie (with Jackie Edwards, writer of hits for the Spencer Davis Group), and cut around 10 singles with Roy Panton as Roy & Millie, including a song called Oh Shirley.
Shirley Goodman tried another duo with fellow NoLa native Jessie Hill and lent her voice to numerous albums, including The Rolling Stones‘ Exile On Main Street. She also gained a steady income from Let The Good Times Roll, having won a claim to half the publishing in 1976.
Shirley & Lee returned in 1973 to perform the song for a rock revival movie, also called Let The Good Times Roll.
R&B veteran Sylvia Robinson drafted Shirley in to sing Shame, Shame, Shame (1974), a disco cornerstone. Credited to Shirley & Company, it was huge on both sides of the pond, prompting a sax cut by Seldon Powell and follow-ups including Cry, Cry, Cry and I Like To Dance (Dance, Dance, Dance).
After suffering a stroke in 1994, Shirley moved to California, and died, aged 69, on 5 July 2005, in Los Angeles. She was buried in New Orleans.