Released in 1963, written by Lincoln Chase and sung by Shirley Ellis, “The Nitty Gritty” swept the nation and made it to No. 8 on Billboard’s Top 100. The lyrics don’t add up to much. The refrain, “Let’s get right down to the real nitty gritty,” can mean just about anything. It’s the way Ellis keeps the rhythm rolling, keeps a swinging sense of acceleration in the beat, that’s elating. When Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded “The Nitty Gritty” in 1969, their funk version went flat.
The song got a big boost in 1964 when it was featured on The Judy Garland Show. Peter Lawford announces it: “We are pleased to present our dancers with their interpretation of ‘The Nitty Gritty.’” His enunciation of those Ts is a hoot; it’s as if he’s handling them with sugar tongs. Then Lawford, Garland, and a third woman pretend to be blown offstage by an incoming gust—the dancers.
The lyrics don’t add up to much. It’s the way Shirley Ellis keeps the rhythm rolling, keeps a swinging sense of acceleration in the beat, that’s elating.
The minute the three couples start in you can’t take your eyes off the guy front and center. He’s Robert “Bobby” Banas, a name with lots of bounce. Think of James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, those firecrackers who moved on the ball of the foot. Banas danced in film musicals, among them 1961’s West Side Story—he was Joy Boy. Here, however, he’s more of a bad boy. He shakes his mop top like one of the Beatles, and works up to a Mick Jagger strut—pre Mick Jagger. He’s in his own turbulent world, a fury. And he thinks he owns the dance because, well, he choreographed it. He’s in deep.
And yet Banas is not the only show. This performance gives you three stylings of the choreography, shows you three synaptic systems at large in the dance, each unique.
Rewind and watch the man in the back to the right. Wow. Here is a deconstruction. This guy is completely on tempo but opens windows of stillness in his performance. He’s isolating the moves—the tossed head, the arched back, the cocked knee. Where Banas is a flurry of flinches amid catlike curves, this guy’s airy and angled; he brings a stop-action suspension to the flow. I think I like him better than Banas.
Robert “Bobby” Banas shakes his mop top like one of the Beatles, and works up to a Mick Jagger strut—pre Mick Jagger.
The man in the back to the left seems to want a martini. He’s a Perry Como of a dancer. He’s not skimping the steps, just doing them in a cool minimalist mode. Of the three, he may be the one who’s a bit winded by the end. But then, this dance is a beast. It blew Judy Garland off the stage.
Sadly, the women are little more than a chorus dressed in white, fading to gray. While the men are neat in their tuxes, with their black bow ties, the women look like silly dolls in their shirtwaist party dresses. Half their machinery—hips and thighs—is hidden. It’s the argument in Anne Hollander’s essay “Sex and Suits” embodied: tailoring closely aligned to human anatomy says might and right.
A little gem of the past, “The Nitty Gritty” can be read as a song and dance about style. What kind of energy do you bring to the job? How do you shape it? How much will you play with it? What do you think is essential?
“The Nitty Gritty” is available on YouTube
Laura Jacobs is AIR MAIL’s Arts Intel Report Editor