It’s Jazz Fest time down in New Orleans so I thought that it would be appropriate to tap some of the Crescent City’s rich musical history for this week’s column. And that brings us to the story of Shirley Mae Goodman, who, with her partner Leonard Lee, created an indelible hit record in 1956.
Goodman was born in New Orleans, where she started singing in her church choir. By the age of 14, she was already in a local recording studio making a demo with some friends. But it was Goodman’s solo voice that stood out and captured the attention Eddie Messner, who owned Aladdin Records.
Messner had the brilliant idea of pairing Goodman with Lee, and it wasn’t long before the duo had their first hit. “I’m Gone” was produced by the legendary Cosimo Matassa and shot all the way up to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1952. There was something special about the blend of Goodman’s soprano voice and Lee’s baritone. Some say that their sound influenced the creation of ska and reggae music.
Although Goodman and Lee weren’t lovers in real life, they adopted a persona for which they were. As far as the public knew, they were the “Sweethearts of the Blues.” But it was a subtle change in their style that led to their biggest hit. In 1956, Shirley and Lee’s song “Let the Good Times Roll,” with Earl Palmer on drums, topped the R&B chart and crossed over to Top 20 success on the Billboard Hot 100. The record was a million-seller and a gold disc winner.
The follow-up single, “I Feel Good,” was a hit as well, reaching #3 on the R&B chart, and #38 on the Pop chart. But subsequent releases for Aladdin didn’t fare as well and in 1959 the duo lit out for Warwick Records. But the new label failed to bring renewed success, and by 1963 the duo had split up. Lee went on to make some solo records that didn’t do particularly well.
Goodman moved to California where she made a name as a session singer. She worked with some of the biggest stars of the day including Sonny & Cher, and Dr. John. She even sang background vocals on the classic Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street.
After a short retirement, Goodman reunited with Lee for a show at Madison Square Garden in 1971. The “oldies” show featured other artists from the original rock era including Bobby Rydell, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.
In 1974, Sylvia Robinson came calling. She had been half of the hit-making duo of Mickey & Sylvia, and by then was the co-owner of All Platinum Records. Robinson wanted Goodman to sing lead on a dance track called “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Goodman took the gig, and the record credited to Shirley & Company became a huge smash hit, reaching #12 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Shame, Shame, Shame” is widely considered to be one of the records that led to the disco craze.
Also in 1974, Goodman once again reunited with Lee to appear on the Midnight Special television show, which featured an oldies theme that week. Naturally, the duo sang their biggest hit, “Let the Good Times Roll” for the occasion.
Leonard Lee died from a heart attack in 1976. He was only 40 years-old at the time of his death. Eventually, Goodman retired from the music business and returned to New Orleans in the late ’70s. She had a stroke in 1994 and returned to California. Shirley Mae Goodman died in Los Angeles in 2005 and was buried in her hometown of New Orleans.