Although she only cut a handful of secular 45s in the late 60s Shirley Wahls showed that she had the vocal talent to be a big big star. As even the most cursory listen to any of her singles will tell you, she had a big background in the church, working with the Argo Singers, Gertrude Ward Singers and the Dorothy Norwood Singers before trying her hand at soul around 1965/6. By now she was resident in Chicago having been born in Marvel, AR on 28 December 1941, and all her secular music was created in the Windy City.
Her first solo disc was produced by Bill Sheppard and leased out to King. Why Am I Crying is a good easy mid paced beat ballad, but the thing that set it apart from so many others in the same vein was Shirley's great deep voice, full of fire and emotional strength. She has claimed it sold about 65,000 copies in Chicago. But good as that 45 was far better was to come. Sheppard tried one follow up on Calla but "Because I Love You" lacked all the charm of the previous 45. The flip, written by Wahls herself was a much better vehicle for her sensational voice, but the neither the arrangment nor the production was anywhere near the standard of the song.
Wahls moved on to the much more sympathetic production team of Joshie Jo Armstead and Mel Collins for the next couple of years. Their first collaboration Cry Myself To Sleep is a hard hitting deep ballad perfect for Wahls' big voice and lovely timbre. This was the first time that she and Armstead wrote a strong number - but it wasn't the last. No wonder it got a second chance in the marketplace on Smash the following year.
Half A Man carried the same sort of emotional weight of some of Aretha's early Atlantic material and may just be the absolute pinnacle of Wahls' secular recordings. Check out the way she screams out the refrain, and the excellent church piano, not to mention the perfect horn arrangement and background vocals. Absolutely stunning. The version on Giant a year later had a few extra seconds and a much clearer pressing so that's the one you can listen to here.
Wahls spent a little while with the rock group the Rotary Connection before cutting her last secular 45 with producer Tom Washington which unaccountably fetched up on the Miami based Blue Candle label. On the tuneful and rather moving Remember Martin Luther King Shirley went back to a theme she had first covered in the storming uptempo "We've Got To Keep Movin' On". After this track she went back to the church, creating her own gospel group the Shirley Wahls Singers. But you know I don't think she ever really left it.
UPDATE ~ I'm delighted to say that Shirley Wahls herself has been in touch to say "I appreciate your synopsis and flattering detail as to my musical career." She has a new gospel CD out - details can be found here. I'm sure every true soul fan will want to investigate this exciting release.
Why am I crying / That's how long (I'm gonna love you) ~ KING 6083 (1967)
Because I love you / I don't know ~ CALLA 140 (1967)
Cry myself to sleep / Prove it everyday ~ BLUE ROCK 4059 (1968)
Cry myself to sleep / We've got to keep on movin' on ~ SMASH 2205 (1969)
Don't destroy me / Half a man ~ SMASH 2223 (1969)
It ain't there no more / We'll be together ~ SMASH 2251 (1969)
Half a man / Tell the truth ~ GIANT 711 (1970)
Remember Martin Luther King / Walking ~ BLUE CANDLE 1511 (1976)
1. The bare facts about Shirley Wahls life have been taken from Robert Pruter's excellent book on "Chicago Soul". The details on her recordings and the opinions on them are mine. Thanks to my friend Michel for spotting the lovely picture of Shirley.
2. Both of the King 45s can be found on the Ace UK CD "King Northern Soul". "Cry myself to sleep" can be found on the Mercury double CD "The Blue Rock Records Story".