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When it comes to rock history writers tend to gravitate towards stories of those who’ve achieved overwhelming fame and the inevitable downfalls that follow, as they usually make for the most colorful tales.

But the more interesting stories – purely AS stories – aren’t the scandalous outcomes of those who’ve already made it big, but rather the unlikely chain of events that allowed previously anonymous figures to climb to the top in the first place.

Everybody, at one point or another, has dreamed of becoming stars, not of falling from grace, and so the improbable rags to riches transformations occasionally coming true are what keeps those dreams alive in each generation.

In rock history few of those stories can hope to live up to, let alone surpass, the one found here.


Out of My Mind
The J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans run by Cosimo Matassa had over the past five years become one of the most important studios in all of music, churning out countless rock hits despite rather primitive equipment. Since the artists were mostly locals, as were the musicians and producer Dave Bartholomew, it was a source of endless fascination for local kids who saw their heroes walking in and out every day, bigger than life and yet still within reach.

But the studio wasn’t busy every minute of every day and many of the neighborhood kids thought that if they could get a chance to sing there it’d make them feel like stars too. They pestered Matassa for the chance to cut a song and finally he told them that if they could scrounge up two bucks to pay for costs, he’d let them sing something and press them up a record as a souvenir.

He promptly forgot about the offer until a bunch of them had returned with fistfuls of coins demanding to be recorded on a song one of them had written. When the kids crowded around the microphone they sounded as sloppy and unprofessional as you’d expect, but they were happy as can be with the results, their goal having been achieved.

Some time later Matassa was looking for a spare tape which could be used for an actual session and coming across the one with the kids on it deemed that the obvious choice to erase. But Aladdin Records owner Eddie Mesner was there and hearing it he was struck by two voices in the makeshift group. The soulful slightly metallic tinged baritone of Leonard Lee, who wrote I’m Gone and the piercing off-key soprano squeal of Shirley Goodman that stood out in any crowd.

He asked Matassa who they were and though he dutifully recounted the story, he had no idea the kids names or where they lived. Eventually the two were tracked down and brought into the studio just five days after Shirley’s 16th birthday and five days before Leonard was to turn 16 himself.

Overseeing the session was Bartholomew, still freelancing before signing exclusively to Imperial Records, and though his professionalism meant he worked hard on the arrangement, surely he didn’t think much would come of this cockeyed idea of letting these kids cut an actual record.

By the end of the calendar year the results yielded one of the hottest songs in the nation and unlike other genres which valued experience, rock ‘n’ roll had shown again that its young fans were always poised to become its biggest stars overnight.


Cause Your Love Is Mine
There are two views you can take as to the probabilities of this record becoming such a massive success.

One is to marvel at the sheer implausibility of two kids with no training, no real burning desire to become professional singers by all accounts, one of whom was so painfully shrill that Cosimo Matassa said of hearing her sing, “You thought you were cut but didn’t know where the blood was”, somehow becoming sensations. Surely this meant that all the stars were aligned, the Mesner brothers had fallen in a field of four leaf clovers and while in New Orleans visited a gypsy and paid her off in gold.

But the other view is that Leonard Lee who’d written I’m Gone for the larger group to sing (boy, would we love to hear THAT recording!) shows that he had genuine talent from the start, something which would bear out over time as he continued to compose the majority of their material, occasionally helped by Goodman, and that kids like them who bought this stuff as fans had the intrinsic ability to know what it was those like them wanted to hear when they started making it themselves.

Of course it never hurts to have Dave Bartholomew arranging and producing the song with his top-notch band in tow, cementing his status as rock’s most skilled producer by shepherding two nervous kids to deliver such an indelible performance. In the process he gives the song such solid underpinnings, especially that bassline that manages to be both melodic and still deep in a groove, that you could envision an instrumental version getting countless jukebox spins in its own right.

But that would deprive us of the joy of hearing these two kids who cast aside any nervousness and sound like absolute pros who knew exactly what they were doing from the start.

Gone Far Away
The way in which Shirley and Lee barely sing in unison helps to set this apart, making it a conversation rather than a typical duet and you have to assume that since there had been MORE kids involved in the makeshift amateur version they’d cut, it was probably done with all the voices singing together, as it’s doubtful there’d be room enough for a half dozen or more solo lines.

Whosever idea it was though, Bartholomew or the kids themselves, the results are magical, as now the song becomes a teenage drama of the highest order, thanks to Lee’s ingenious trick of emphasizing the dual meaning of the word “gone”.

In his first go-round the word indicates that he’s lost his mind over this girl and will do anything to get her back. Goodman’s reply fills in the story in succinct manner, saying she liked him too until he started lying, that’s why she left… thereby giving us the other definition of the word.

From here on in the two are engaged in a romantic jockeying for position. Lee is working to convince her he’s worth the effort without pushing her too hard and scaring her off, while Goodman is trying not to appear too eager and let him think he can get his way without making amends.

Throughout it all we have no doubt they really do like each other and their rift was merely temporary and done without any animosity from either party, making it far different than the usual adult breakup songs we’ve heard. Yet don’t let that impression sell the composition short, as for a song presumably written on a lark there’s an incredible amount of depth to it, as this is the epitome of teenage romances where these kinds of misunderstandings are par for the course.

More amazing is the fact that despite her quirky voice, Shirley is not being used as a gimmick here, as most producers would have a tendency to do, knowing the company would be looking for a way to sell this pairing to public. Bartholomew however is letting them play it straight, maybe because he doesn’t have high hopes for them, but you’d never know it by how tight the band is behind them.

There’s such an easy going groove to I’m Gone thanks to Frank Fields’ bass and the subtle piano, that it almost hypnotizes you. Then there’s the fact there’s no instrumental break or solo of any kind, something I’d wager that Bartholomew went into the session thinking he’d HAVE to come up with to bolster the kids’ deficiencies and make the record presentable. Instead, their differing tones keeps it from becoming monotonous and the gently rolling melody is not something he’d want to upend and risk breaking the spell they cast over you.

Though the vocal qualities of Shirley and Lee can both be picked apart on technical terms, what can’t possibly be debated is how expertly this uses those so-called flaws to their advantage. The result is an absolutely perfect record, from the swelling instruments that kick it off to one of the most mesmerizing fades where their voices seem to destined to roll on together for eternity.


Beg You To Love Me Sometime
It’s hardly surprising this record rocketed to the top in New Orleans pretty quickly, with the West Coast – where Aladdin was located – following behind in December. But the surprising thing is that once it dropped OFF the local New Orleans listings by the end of the calendar year that was when the rest of the country went crazy over it and propelled it into the national Top Ten where it stalled at #2 for three weeks in early 1953.

Surely though industry veterans hearing this unusual tandem had to assume that the success of I’m Gone was some sort of fluke. Forget about the backstory of how they got together, which was right out of the storybooks, but just the fact they were kids with atypical voices may have suggested it was a weird promotional gimmick that inexplicably struck gold.

Yet there’s nothing about the response to indicate the fans who ate this up considered it a novelty at all and to their credit Aladdin never promoted it as such.

Maybe none of them could’ve predicted the long career littered with classic sides that followed, but one thing was certain… Aladdin Records who’d been at the forefront of the rock revolution in the 1940’s had now fully made the the turn into the 1950’s.

The only thing NOT surprising was that this turn of events happened in the Crescent City, the birthplace of rock itself and at a studio where these hard-to-believe stories of untested kids becoming stars in the blink of an eye seemed to happen every time you turned around.


(Visit the Artist page of Shirley & Lee for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)