Many folks only know New Orleans R&B through the teenage singing and songwriting duo of Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, who penned and recorded the definitive version of the most explosive party tune of all time (with the possible exception of "Great Balls of Fire" that came six years later), "Let the Good Times Roll." Given the fact that this box set is four CDs in length, anyone who believes that Shirley & Lee were mainly responsible for that smash hit alone have incomplete knowledge of the duo. Here are 113 performances that include all of their singles, outtakes, albums, and unreleased and rehearsal tracks, which serve not only as a chronology of the pair's contribution to the Crescent City's R&B tradition, but as a portrait of the studio scene and its players who were already changing musical history. This set has all the chapters of their "Sweethearts of the Blues" story on disc one and then gets deep into their scorching, risqué, utterly moving, and joyous R&B tracks. The "Sweethearts of the Blues" moniker was concocted by Aladdin, their label, as a way of getting regional fame based upon the success of their first single, "Sweethearts" and "I'm Gone." When they had the "Sweethearts" angle in place, Shirley & Lee began to write songs to match the chapters in a love affair. With "I'm Gone," the first chapter was written; next came "Shirley, Come Back to Me," which was followed by "Shirley's Back" (the alternate take of which is the better of the two), "So in Love," "The Time Has Come," "I Love You So," "The Proposal," and "Two Happy People," before Lee got sick of it and wrote "Lee Goofed." The folks in New Orleans and throughout the regional South followed the pair's antics on record and Aladdin's scheme worked. Shirley & Lee even had a stage routine to go with the songs! This set documents Shirley & Lee's regional successes and their gradual national buildup, which broke down popular culture's door nationwide with "Let the Good Times Roll." Finally, the appeal of the pair was noticed in terms of the raw excitement they provided. The record broke out of New Orleans like a rocket and didn't stop for years. DJs everywhere were playing the hell out of it until about 1960, four years after it was released! The pair's edgy, sharp voices enunciated perfectly above the crackling din of the Crescent City's finest musicians.
And that's the other part of the story -- that many players, such as Dave Bartholomew (who first recorded them commercially), Earl Palmer, Alvin "Red" Tyler, Lee Allen, James Booker, Frank Fields, Herbert Hardesty, Wardell Quezergue, and many others played on dozens of these records. Bartholomew, Palmer, Tyler, and Allen appear on almost everything here! The cream of the crop in New Orleans backed these two singer/songwriters. And as a unit, the combination was unbeatable, as the Aladdin, Warwick, and Imperial sides all attest. Just check the deep horn section swing on "When I Saw You," or hear Allen check out of the stratosphere on "The Reason Why" and "Why Did I," or Booker's flailing arpeggios on "Honey Bee." When listening to this box, a foggy part of American musical history begins to reveal itself, the other side of the rock & roll coin that white American was obsessed with in Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and fakes like Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon. This is the other side, a musically diverse and challenging catalog that drove black audiences wild all over America under the noises of white kids who would have flipped if they'd only had the opportunity to hear Shirley & Lee. New Orleans, being what it is, would probably have remained unchanged, but it might have gotten a different kind of attention for its musical wealth in the same way that Memphis did, where its musicians would be regarded as kings throughout the rest of the world -- and not just among other musicians. But these are all big "ifs." Shirley & Lee created an atmosphere conducive to asking those kinds of questions while listening, but this collection does plenty more -- for starters, it makes you get your damn shoes off, take your loved one in your arms, and begin to slip and shimmy all over the floor until.... There is no higher tribute for great R&B music than to inspire people to dance and to get busy, and this music certainly does that.