Shirley & Company
Shame Shame Shame
Produced & Engineered by Sylvia
The title track for this album wasn’t the first disco single, but it has a bit more bite than what we consider the other early entries in the disco category. The New Orleans influence that shows on the vocal cut becomes especially clear on the instrumental version, with the horns helping punch the message home. In fact, with the sax offering the voices, the sound echos back over the first half of the 20th century, from New Orleans and up to Memphis, branching out the sound to the big cities of the East Coast, and in the other direction reaching into those dinky studios of the black independent labels in the City of Angels, and the dim-lit bars of those seedy ghettos, the man with the horn sliding down the bar on his back with his sax shinning above him like a beacon. That sax blowing with the glow-in-the-dark paint job twirls the sound around the room until twenty years later, the squares of twirling come from the mirror ball. Disco might have turned into something else once white folks discovered that it brought the people out of their shells and the cash dollars out of their pockets, but in the beginning disco was just an extension of all that had come before, dance music for down-and-out black folks, good-time music for trying times, and this single helps bridge the old good-time N’Orleans sound to the dance floors of the mid 70s.
This album also shows black gals from the 50s taking their rightful places in the music world, a realization of both the women’s lib and black-power movements. Shirley Goodman had been part of the New Orleans duo Shirley & Lee, the pair hitting it big while they were still in their teens and releasing hits from the early 50s to the early 60s. Meanwhile Sylvia Robinson had started recording as Little Sylvia when she was fourteen in 1950 and had been half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, best known for their 1957 hit “Love is Strange” but recording into the mid 60s.
Shirley’s comeback is limited to this 1975 album, but Sylvia had been busy and successful for years, formed All Platinum Records in 1968 and offshoot Vibration Records soon after, returning her name to the top of the soul charts with the Vibration imprint’s first single: the 1973 waterbed-soul classic “Pillow Talk.”
While black business owners had changed music forever with their independent labels in the 40s and early 50s, it was an equal accomplishment to run a successful independent record company in the mid 70s, a time when the major labels successfully stomped most attempts at independence. Here we see Sylvia helping to create the disco genre, and a few years later she’d help form Sugar Hill, the label perhaps most responsible for introducing rap to the world.
All this work of Sylvia deserves notice as an extension of the efforts of the black labels of decades earlier, ones that had been soon forgotten when independent labels run by white owners (Chess, Sun, and Atlantic) got most of the credit. While many think of the punk movement as introducing independent music to the masses, black artists had been doing this for decades. Sylvia deserves credit for bringing this practice to the public’s eye in the 70s, including with this hit record in 1975.
Because the set offers so many styles, it’s easy to miss the fact that this created a blueprint for many disco albums that followed. One simply has to look at some of the highlights to recognize this fact. “I Gotta Get Next To You” clearly helps bridge the waterbed soul of the early 70s to the numbers we’d soon hear offered by the stars of disco. The number is grounded in the music of Issac Hayes but also foreshadows the music to come. Sylvia’s “Cry Cry Cry,” stirs the waterbed soul of Al Green into a Caribbean rhythm, the instrumental version taking the mix into a island-flavored dance groove. You can almost see the skirts swaying and taste the sweet syrup from the tall cool glass in her hand. On cuts such as this, it’s interesting to hear Caribbean elements dominating the sound, as these island ingredients were important to the development of most American dance music. While many of the elements here had fused in New Orleans many decades before, it’s interesting to hear these elements so clearly defined at this point before they’d all fuse once again to create the new sounds of the 1970s. While the set offers variety, the feel-good vibe established on “Shame Shame Shame” at the beginning certainly runs through the entire album. Some cuts are clearly stronger than others, but the stand-out cuts make this a recommended listen, essential for fans of disco.
Sylvia is the dominant songwriter of this set, but others contribute material: Donnie Elbert (one of the artists from All Platinum) contributes “Another Tear Will Fall,” and Ray, Goodman & Brown (aka the Moments) offer “I Gotta Get Next To You.” Shirley and vocalist Jesus Alvarez also show up on several song credits.