Shirley Gunter and the Queens are often cited as being the first fully-fledged female doo wop group. Even if that’s impossible to prove with 100% accuracy, they were certainly among the first in that field. What is beyond question, is the fact that their 1954 Flair recording of Oop Shoop was the first record of its kind to make a national impact, in the early days of rock‘n’roll. That’s to say that it was the first to be written and performed, with any degree of success, by a group of young black women.
Although we’ve featured several of Shirley’s recordings on numerous Ace CD and vinyl compilations down the years, it’s perhaps surprising to note that we’ve never actually given the lady her own full-length album. The news of her upcoming debut UK appearance in November, at this year’s Rhythm Riot, gave us the timely reminder that we had yet to do so. Thus it was that earlier this year I had the extreme pleasure of reviewing all of Ms Gunter’s 1950s Flair and Modern tapes, with a view to putting such a compilation together – a task that I found both enjoyable and easy! A CD entitled Oop Shoop is, perhaps inevitably, the result.
Shirley formed the Queens with some high school friends, largely at the urging of her famous brother Cornel – future member of the Coasters and, back in ’54, a key component of the Flairs, who were signed to the Bihari brothers’ label of that name. You can read in full about the way Shirley’s career panned out in Jim Dawson’s extensive sleevenotes, but I can tell you that it was Cornel who arranged for Shirley to audition for the Biharis and that, suitably impressed, the brothers signed her more or less on the spot. She recorded her first couple of 45s as a solo act. Fine as they were, they made little headway and it wasn’t until Shirley brought in both three high school friends and an uptempo shuffle number that she had worked up with one of said friends, Blondene Taylor, that things started to happen. Oop Shoop was cut in just a couple of takes and the rest is, well, certainly rock ‘n’ roll history at the very least!
Shirley recorded a few more 78/45s with the Queens, before teaming up with the brother and the rest of the Flairs for a number of equally fine releases. Of those Headin’ Home came closest to becoming a real hit without actually making a significant national impact. Shirley then wound down her time with what was now Modern records by going out the same way she came in, with a couple more solo releases. Although she never had another hit of note, a quick listen to things like her original version of the Platters’ I’m Sorry and the catchy Ipsy Opsie Ooh will demonstrate that this was neither for the lack of trying, nor of talent.
Not all of Shirley’s tapes have survived the passage of time, so there are a couple of disc dubs included here But I’m especially delighted that we have at last been able to reissue Oop Shoop itself from the original 45rpm production master tape. This was thought for many years to have permanently vanished, and up to now Ace and everybody else who’s reissued it has been using an excellent ‘safety copy’ tape. However, the actual tape for both sides of the 45 turned up in the Flip tape inventory when Ace purchased that catalogue a few years back. We don’t know how it got there, and we’re not asking questions – but we were very glad that it had found its way home, and we’re delighted to give the original tape of Oop Shoop its first digitisation in this CD!
There’s little doubt that Oop Shoop’s simplistic lyric and irrepressible beat also paved the way for the future success of rockin’ fillies like the Bobbettes - or that, a little further down the line, it also provided an inspirational root for any number of Cookies, Marvelettes, Jaynettes, Chantels and Supremes that you care to mention. Our package features all of Shirley’s commercial recordings for Flair and Modern, plus three rare demos cut with just the accompaniment of a piano and the Flairs – and thus it also features almost everything she ever recorded, as beyond these there are only two isolated singles, on other labels, to complete her discography!
In a recording career that barely spanned three years, Shirley had been a member of the first hitmaking female doo-wop group, she’d written or co-written many of her biggest hits and best recordings – and she’d given rock‘n’roll one of its earliest and best anthems, in the immortal Oop Shoop. She quit the recording scene, like so many of her distaff peers, to marry and raise a family. It’s a shame that she didn’t stick it out a bit longer, but her accomplishments during her active career would be more than enough to satisfy many whose time in showbusiness was thrice that of Shirley Gunter’s.
By Tony Rounce