Last week, I stumbled upon a spread in the New York Times T Style Magazine titled “Shimmer Like Sister Kate.” Cool, I thought, while making a mental note to post the opening image on this site. But, uh, what does that mean?
As I started doing internet research, it became clear that the headline was a play on the title of a song, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” As promised, today I bring you the story of said song.
While the jazzy ditty was originally published in 1915 by Clarence Williams and Armand Piron, the real originator of the song appears to be Louis Armstrong, who played a similar tune about one of New Orleans’ most notorious madams, Kate Townsend. Townsend operated a brothel at No. 40 Basin Street, and was stabbed by her lover during a fight sometime in the 1880s. The case captured the attention of the city because of its lurid details.
The lyrics of “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” don’t really get into the whole high-profile-murder part of the story, though. The song is written from the perspective of a younger sister entranced by her elder sister’s beauty, dance moves, and ability to command male attention. Midway through the song, she seems to catch on to why her sister has such an effect on men. Maybe?
Here are the lyrics, so you can judge for yourself.
I went to a dance with my sister Kate
Everybody there thought she danced so great
I realized a thing or two
When I got wise to something new
When I looked at Kate, she was in a trance
And then I knew it was in her dance
All the boys are going wild
Over sister Katie’s style
Oh, I wish I could I shimmy like my sister Kate
She shimmies like a jelly on a plate
My mama wanted to know last night
What makes the boys think Kate’s so nice
Now all the boys in the neighborhood
They know that she can shimmy and it’s understood
I know that I’m late, but I’ll be up-to-date
When I shimmy like my sister Kate
I mean, when I shimmy like my sister Kate
Now I can shimmy like my sister Kate
I know that I’m real late
I think I’ll do a real shimmy dance
Dancing like my sister Kate
Sweet papa, just like my sister Kate
The song has been covered many, many times. Versions have been recorded by Frances Faye and Rusty Warren, Shel Silverstein, The Red Onion Band, The Remo Four, and Dave Van Ronk. In the 1950 movie “Wabash Avenue,” pin-up girl Betty Grable also performed the song. That’s the clip above.
More recently, the song was covered by the Beatles. And apparently, David Bowie adapted “Sister Kate” for his hit, “Fame.” The song also appeared in “All In The Family,” in a plotline where Edith and Stephanie planned to perform it at a school talent show.
Most recently, the song was covered by Los Angeles indie music darlings, The Ditty Bops. And what the heck, here’s their version too.