A person doesn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realize that a whole lot of modern art has been inspired by the relationships between sons and mothers. From Al Jolson to John Lennon, musicians have screamed for their mommies with various degrees of tenderness and pain. This album’s different than most in several ways. First, singer-songwriter Shawn Amos knew little about his mother’s life as a nightclub singer and recording artist until recently, after she committed suicide. The disc is really an imaginary evocation of his mother Shirlee Ellis Amos’s life as a rural Southern black girl who moved to Harlem during a period of great revitalization of African Americans in the arts. Amos creates a song cycle so rich in musical pleasures, sociological detail, and psychological complexity that it would hold up strongly even if the biographical tale wasn’t true. The fact that Shirl-ee May really existed just adds another layer of resonance to Amos’ affecting story of life and love in the big city.
Shirl-ee May shared the stage with such notables as Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis, Jr. during her brief career as a singer, comedienne, actress, model, and dancer. She was a good lookin’ lady with a fine set of pipes, who even recorded an album for Mercury Records before she gave up on her professional life and got married in 1967 to the future king of cookies, Wally “Famous” Amos, who then was an operative for the William Morris Talent Agency. Shawn begins the disc with a piece of his mother’s tremolo-tinged version of “You Made Me Love You” and later incorporates her rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into his record for effect. These snippets reveal her extraordinary talents.
But this is Shawn’s album. He builds a three-part saga about his mom that not only uses her voice, but also utilizes the styles and sounds of the era in which Shirl-ee performed. This covers a wide swath of musical territory from a period known for its diversity of popular tastes. There’s the percolating, swinging jazz of “Bubble Hill”, whose faux-sophisticated saxophone solos mix tenderly with the strumming of an old banjo as Amos tells the tale of his Tar Heel mama carrying on in the Big Apple, where it’s hard to tell the “assholes from the agents” and “Negroes were in vogue”. Amos lays down the pop rock of “You’re Groovy (for Boy Blue)”, complete with a clean electric guitar line and a catchy chorus. Shawn puts on the funk, with the sexy “Make It” that declares “Off with the dance clothes / Don’t tell a soul” and a fat bass beat thick enough to chew on. He goes country and blue, with the help of Garrison Starr’s duet vocals, on “The Bottle Always Brings Me Down”. Starr also joins Amos on the album’s sole cover tune, Joseph Arthur’s song of redemption, “Dear Lord”. Soul great Solomon Burke also does a cameo on this tune, which takes a gospel turn. Other well-known session musicians that accompany Amos on the album include guitarist Ray Parker, Jr., trumpeter Chuck Findley, and drummer Gregg Bissonette.
The multifaceted approach Amos takes to his mother’s life defies easy analysis. Despite the emotional arc and seemingly chronological take on the biographical events, he lets the songs spread out. Amos does not provide a simple narrative of events, but constructs a mosaic. Shirl-ee suffered from mental illness, something her son conveys by his depiction of her becoming overwhelmed and not understanding the reality of what takes place as she deals with new experiences. Falling in love is always disorienting. Comprehending the changes in New York City between 1964 and 1967 must have been hard for anyone. Shawn ends the saga with the hopeful “Bad Timing”, that acknowledges the highs and lows of Shirl-ee’s personal history. Amos ends the album the way it began, with his mother crooning “You Made Me Love You”.
Thank You Shirl-ee May (A Love Story) uses Dualdisc technology. One side is the audio CD of the album. The other side is a DVD that features visual montages to each song in 5.1 surround sound, a mini documentary about the making the album, live performance footage, and a photo gallery. The documentary can also be seen at www.shawnamos.com, and one can hear Shirl-ee singing six songs, including complete versions of “You Made Me Love You” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” at www.shirleemay.com.