I’ve already plugged the irresistible Cher Lloyd — whose song “Want U Back” is now happily climbing up the Billboard Hot 100 — but in her 2010 X-Factor cover of “The Clapping Song” (in a weird mash-up with Missy’s “Get Ur Freak On”), Lloyd’s vocal pyrotechnics and two dozen fist-pumping dancers couldn’t hold a collective candle to the slyly swaying hips of the song’s original performer, Shirley Ellis.
Shirley Ellis was born in the Bronx in (or around) 1941 to parents of Caribbean descent. She was a precocious musical talent, and before she’d even left her tweens, she’d written two songs that were waxed by the Chords (a group perhaps best known for “Sh-Boom,” a song perhaps best known as the dead-body makeout soundtrack from the cult classic board game adaptation Clue). She won amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theater, and joined the group the Metronomes. The majestically-named Alphonso Elliston, leader of the Metronomes, took Shirley as his bride and gave her the surname that would shortly be shortened for Shirley’s solo career.
The Timbaland to the original Miss (or, rather, Mrs.) E was Lincoln Chase, a songwriter and producer who had written “Such a Night” for the Drifters (later a hit for Elvis) and “Jim Dandy” for LaVern Baker. Chase wrote a trio of hits for Ellis, starting with 1963′s “The Nitty Gritty” (a favorite of the Beatles’ George Harrison) and continuing the following year with “The Name Game.” I suspect I’m not alone in having grown up with my dad inserting the name of every kid he met into the song’s chorus (“Sara, Sara, Bo-Bara, Banana-Fana-Fo-Fara, Mi-Mi-Mo-Mara, Sara!”) and with my siblings brainstorming every possible name that resulted in an obscenity when name-gamed.
“The Clapping Song” (1965) was Ellis’s last, and best, hit. Like “Nitty Gritty” and “Name Game,” it features Ellis singing instructional lyrics over an incongruously funky beat, replete with braying horns. A live video shows Ellis — a TV favorite — lip-syncing the complicated clapping instructions (notice how precisely no one in the audience tries to follow them) while pairs of bouffanted go-go girls wobble their heads and clap in rhythm. Ellis is as sexy as another noted hitmaker from the West Indies, but much more effortlessly so: all Ellis has to do is twist that foot and gently swing those toned arms to put you in orbit.
For a song that’s never joined the hoary ranks of overplayed golden oldies, “The Clapping Song” has had a surprisingly diverse legacy — Cher Lloyd is only the latest in a very long line of Shirley Ellis fans. “The Clapping Song” has been covered by performers including Pia Zadora, Gary Glitter, Aaron Carter, and Cupid. A Spanish-language version was a hit in Mexico in 1980. Ellis’s original has been sampled by Afrika Bambaata and Spank Rock. The song’s been referenced by Radiohead, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, and UB40. It’s been remixed by Andrew WK and performed by Lil’ Kim in character as Shirley Ellis on the ABC drama American Dreams.
Ellis herself has kept a very low profile since her music career petered out in the 60s — her Christmas song about the threat of nuclear war (“You Better Be Good, World”) didn’t go over very well — but she’s still alive and well, to the best of the Internet’s knowledge, at age 71. That’s only five years older than another Cher who’s still strutting around like she invented music. Shirley Ellis, we want u back!