Sylvia Vanterpool was born in Harlem and dropped out of school at age 14 so she could pursue a singing career. She recorded for Columbia Records as Little Sylvia beginning in 1950. Mickey Baker was a guitar player from Kentucky who began teaching Sylvia to play the guitar. The pair recorded singles beginning in 1954. They initially recorded as Little Sylvia with Mickey Baker and His Band.
Their biggest success came in 1957 when they released Love Is Strange and credited themselves and Mickey & Sylvia. The record peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 and topped the R&B chart. The soundtrack of Dirty Dancing also featured the song.
The duo continued recording singles for the next four years and even started their own record label. Sylvia produced Ike and Tina Turner’s It’s Gonna Work Out Fine and Mickey played guitar on the single. The result was a Grammy nomination for Ike and Tina and a #14 record in 1961. Shortly after that, Mickey moved to Paris, and the duo split up for good.
In 1972, Sylvia wrote Pillow Talk and sent a demo of the song to Al Green. When he turned down the chance to record the song, Sylvia recorded the song herself. The single reached #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart in 1973.
In a nearly perfect parallel timeline, Shirley Goodman was born in New Orleans and recorded a demo in 1950 with a few of her friends. Eddie Messner was the owner of Aladdin Records and Shirley’s voice on the demo impressed him. He paired her with Leonard Lee, and the duo began recording together as Shirley & Lee. The duo recorded I’m Gone in 1952 and the single peaked at #2 on the R&B chart. They recorded several more singles that reached the R&B chart, but their biggest hit came in 1956 when a song Shirley wrote, Let The Good Times Roll, reached #20 on the Hot 100 and topped the R&B chart. The film Stand By Me included the song on its soundtrack.
The duo split up in 1963, and Shirley moved to California. She made a living as a session singer for Sonny and Cher, Dr. John, and even the Rolling Stones before retiring from the music industry.
Sylvia and Shirley had become friends in the sixties. In 1974, Sylvia convinced Shirley to record the lead vocals on a disco record she had written. Sylvia produced Shame, Shame, Shame and listed the artist as Shirley And Company. The record topped the US Dance Chart and Soul Chart and also reached the top of the charts in at least four other countries. Disco wasn’t quite the juggernaut it became a year or two later, but the single still reached #12 on the Hot 100 in 1975. A second single only got as high as #91 on the Hot 100, and Shirley’s comeback career soon faded and she retired for good in New Orleans in the late seventies.
Sylvia and her husband Joseph Robinson formed Sugar Hill Records in 1979. She came up with the idea for the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five album The Message and produced the album, an important cornerstone of hip hop music.
Warner Brothers Studios is working on a film biography of Sylvia. Some sources claim that Sylvia’s life is one inspiration for the character Cookie on the Fox show Empire. Sylvia died at the age of 75 in 2011.
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