Pop Culture

Out of tragedy, a son’s joyful tribute album

For a singer seeking stardom in the early 1960s, there was no better place to be than New York, where clubs bounced all night to the exciting sounds of such acts as Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis, Jr.

At the dawn of the civil rights movement, before the Beatles and the rise of the singer/songwriter, a young R&B singer Shirlee Ellis Amos was making a splash. Under the stage name Shirl-ee May, she became a regular on the nightclub circuit and signed a recording contract.

If you have not heard of her, it’s because she gave it all away to get married and raise a child. She never released an album, and never became a household name. Not even in her own house, where her glorious past was consigned to history.

Forty years later, Shirlee finally returns to the spotlight, courtesy of her son, Shawn, a Los Angeles musician and record company executive, who teamed up with some notable names to record the album, “Thank You Shirl-ee May (A Love Story).”

The Shout! Factory label release is no ordinary tribute album. It’s a celebration of a woman who was cut down in her prime by mental illness and eventually killed herself when the pain became too much.

Secret lifeShawn Amos knew all about his mother’s problems, acting as her caretaker from a young age, but nothing about her glory days until after she died in early 2003. As he was sorting through her belongings, he came across boxes filled with publicity shots, newspaper cuttings and demo recordings.

Before him lay a world of glamour and promise, and his mother had been at the center of it all. He vowed to re-create those times on disc, writing what would become a three-act suite detailing her rise and long descent into madness.

Notwithstanding the underlying tragedy, the album is largely a joyous, upbeat affair musically, reflecting the cross-pollination of styles and bands and genres at the time, before music became categorized and segregated.”

“I don’t want to come across like this whole thing is a downer,” Amos, 37, said in a recent interview. “I feel like it’s a success story. The album is a celebration of this woman’s life.

“It was a really great time for her. She was single and dating and beautiful in New York in the ’60s ... You don’t have to be completely consumed or subsumed by the tragedy.”

In fact, he wants people to enjoy the album even if they know nothing about the backstory and assume the whole concept is a work of fiction.

The first voice heard on the album does belong to a real person: R&B veteran Solomon Burke, credited as the master of ceremonies. “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Shirl-ee May,” he intones, as the music kicks in with a scratchy excerpt of her singing the jazz standard “You Made Me Love You.”

The original tunes cover her days in New York, the inevitable loneliness, industry sleazebags, and her romance with the dashing man she would marry, Wally Amos, a talent agent who would go on to found Famous Amos Cookies.

Shawn’s parents met, married and produced a baby in the space of a year, during which time she started showing signs of illness -- such as paranoia that she was being followed. They split when Shawn was 7. Wally moved to Hawaii and remarried, but continued to support his ex-wife for the rest of her life. Shawn lived with her in Los Angeles until he was 15.

“I’m amazed that she was able to raise me at all,” he said.

Up until her death, he would have attributed his own tenacity to his father. Now he knows differently.

While most parents can be embarrassing at times, having a mother diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder was not a total nightmare. A lot of Shawn’s high school friends loved her because she would buy beer for them, he recalled.

“When she was properly medicated she was O.K.,” he said. ”You would have thought she was quirky, kinda eccentric in a way, but she was utterly charming.”

The only problem is that she wasn’t very disciplined about taking her pills, which aggravated her symptoms.

She returned to North Carolina in February 2003 and “went downhill really fast,” Shawn said.

“Any calls from her were increasingly more delusional. It got to a point where she had thought that I’d been killed, and who she was talking to was an impostor of me,” he recalled with a laugh.

In her later years, she had become more religious, and the album’s sole cover, “Dear Lord,” written by English singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur, imagines the despair she must have felt as her strength finally subsided.

In the end, she was discovered in her bed, having taken an overdose of blood pressure tablets. Her final note was a rambling message, written on a mirror with lipstick, to her ”late” son and ex-husband. She was 66.

“The illness finally won,” Shawn said. “I don’t really see it as like her taking death by her own hand.”

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