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Duet for mother and son

Shawn Amos happened upon his mother's secret self. In their music, he finally got to know her.

April 30, 2005|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Shawn Amos has long known that his father was famous -- literally. His dad is Wally "Famous" Amos, the cookie mogul.

"I used to work at the store in Hollywood when I was a kid," says Amos.

So for the Los Angeles singer-songwriter to address the topic of fame and dreams of fame is natural. But his moving new album, "Thank You Shirl-ee May (A Love Story)," is about his mother. More specifically, it centers on her life as a budding young singer in the early '60s under the stage name Shirl-ee May, a life her only child knew nothing about until after her suicide at age 66, nearly two years ago.

Amos will tell you he never knew Shirl-ee May at all. He knew Shirlee Ellis Amos, a woman who struggled most of her life with mental illness. He was about to board a plane to visit her in Raleigh, N.C., the hometown to which she had recently returned, when he got word of her death.

"I went there on autopilot, an out-of-body experience," says Amos, 36, taking a break at a rehearsal studio where he's been running through the songs with his band. It's something he hasn't discussed much publicly, he said, but as he spoke here, memories and emotions seemed to rush out.

Amid dealing with police formalities and funeral arrangements, Amos was given a week by his mother's landlord to sort out her possessions. Having grown up with her erratic behavior, paranoid delusions and frequent hospitalizations, he thought he knew all there was to know.

"I'd just go through stuff, boxes with my baby pictures and things," he says. "And then I found these other boxes. There were photos of her, like modeling shots, and sheet music and a recording contract with Mercury Records and acetates of demo recordings she'd made."

These were artifacts of a life his mother had as a moderately successful nightclub singer in the New York region, but a life that was put aside in 1967 after she married Wally Amos, at the time a William Morris booking agent.

It was a lot for Shawn Amos to process. But almost immediately he found that it helped to deal with it as a songwriter. Having made two well-reviewed albums addressing matters from romance to racism, Amos was working on a third when his mother died.

"Most of it was written, but then I stopped," he says. "And the song 'Thank You Shirl-ee May' I wrote the week she died."

He had no plans to write a full album about his mother, but not surprisingly he found himself obsessed.

"I kept getting further into her life," he says, by tracking down such old friends of his mother's as playwright Adrienne Kennedy. "I wanted her to tell me what she was really like."

Fittingly, perhaps, it was his mother's illness that led him to writing in the first place. Dealing with the day-to-day uncertainty of her behavior was tough for a child to handle, living alone with her in L.A. (His father was not on the scene much, and the couple officially split when Shawn was just 7.)

"Writing saved me growing up," says Amos. "I wrote poems, journals. Then I went to film school to be a screenwriter. But I loved songwriting, telling a story in three minutes rather than two hours."

As a songwriter, he'd previously taken a personal approach, utilizing Americana settings to explore a variety of topics in his 2000 debut, "Harlem," but nothing this personal. He'd also established himself on the other side of the music business and is currently serving as vice president of A&R for the Shout! Factory label, a company founded by some of the key figures from the Rhino Records label, where Amos previously worked.

Among the projects he has overseen are the new album by soul singer Solomon Burke, who in the '60s was a client of his father's, and last year's wry "Has Been" by actor William Shatner. He also had a stint running producer-composer Quincy Jones' charitable foundation.

Now, though, he found that his writing helped him not to escape his mother but to get closer to her, albeit posthumously.

Conversations with Kennedy inspired the song "New York City 1964," constructed from Kennedy's memories of sitting with Shirlee watching "All About Eve" and dreaming of their own climbs up the ladder. For "You're Groovy," Amos used a poem his mother wrote about first dating his father, and other songs' lyrics were, in places, inspired by entries he found in journals she'd kept since 1959.

"Almost a year had gone by, and I was starting to feel better, but I was writing songs from this period of my life and was really sad," he says. "And Adrienne said, 'It's going to be sad.' She gave me permission."

With Anthony Marinelli, a keyboard player and producer with a long list of session credits, including Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Amos fleshed out the song concepts into a full song cycle. With the songs written in various character voices, Amos took most of the roles himself for the recording but brought in Garrison Starr to handle some of the lines from his mother's perspective, and Burke was enlisted for a cameo as master of ceremonies.

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