Spectropop remembers

WILLIE DENSON (1936 - 2006)

Songwriter Willie Denson, best known for the Shirelles' 1961 classic 'Mama Said', has died of lung cancer. He was 69.

Born and raised in Columbus, Georgia, Denson migrated to New York City in 1957. While pursuing a career as a songwriter and poet, he worked the night shift at the U.S. Post Office, a job he held for three decades and retained even when his musical aspirations became a reality. In 1959 he teamed with composer Luther Dixon to write 'Mama Said', inspired by the memory of Denson's own mother, Lillie. In a 1996 interview, he recalled her as someone "always happy, always smiling". His family recalls him the same way. "He was the kind of man who kept everyone's spirits up," said Ann Denson, his wife since 1960 and mother of his four children. "He loved to write poetry. He played the keyboard by ear and banged on his bongo drums when working on a song."

Recorded by the Shirelles' two years later, the song rocketed into the U.S. Top 5 and remains one of the more memorable cuts of the girl group era. The Shirelles recorded a number of additional Denson/Dixon collaborations, including 'Stop The Music', 'The Things I Want To Hear (Pretty Words)', 'Love Is A Swingin' Thing' and 'Blue Holiday'. Denson's other compositions include Gene Pitney's 'Backstage (I'm Lonely)', Gene McDaniels' 'A Tear', Tammy Montgomery's 'It's Mine' and the Ronettes' 'Recipe For Love'.

His attempts to launch his own recording career in 1962 as Denny Denson and as Wee Willie Denson on the Rayna and May labels, respectively, met with little success, although he appeared on television shows such as American Bandstand and, later, Soul Train. In 1995 he returned to his native Columbus, making headlines six years later when he won $3m in the Georgia lottery. "Winning didn't change him a bit," said his daughter, Danette Powell. "There was no difference."

(Adapted from an article by Jason Ankeny at All Music Guide)

Willie Denson, songwriter and singer: born 1936 - died July 1st, 2006