I've been wanting to write this for awhile now, and I was given the opportunity when it was revealed today on Facebook that singing Duke of Earl was a featured event of the wedding reception 22 years ago today for my friends Jim and Katie.
This is one of those classic songs that was released a few years before I started listening to popular music, but it has never really left the airwaves. It's similar to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which, for people who love to exercise their vocal cords, simply never fails to please and just keeps on keepin' on.
Part of the Chicago street corner doo-wop scene that included his friend, the inimitable Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler was originally lead singer of a group called the Dukays. The group recorded Duke of Earl, which they wrote themselves, in 1961, along with another, Nite Owl, but various contract issues with their record label prompted Chandler (not his real name) to leave the group and promote the song the Dukays had produced on his own power.
That power was considerable, as the song sold a million copies practically overnight - the first record to achieve that on the Vee-Jay label. It knocked Chubby Checker's The Twist out of the top spot, in fact. Chandler, at least publicly, pretty much became the Duke of Earl, sporting a monocle, cape, top hat and cane. Don't quite get that, myself, but it seemed to resonate with audiences and still does.
Another Chandler friend was Curtis Mayfield, with whom he worked closely for a number of years. A song that I don't recall at all but which had a good following at slow dances, Rainbow '65, Part 1 & 2, was written by Mayfield for him. Very nice! It was recorded and released three times, in 1963, 1965 and 1980.
Chandler also had a career producing music. Remember the 1969 Mel and Tim hit Backfield in Motion? A product of Chandler's own label, Bamboo. He continued to record in new genres, including disco (if you want to Get Down, he'll help you), and has been out there more or less continuously since he began.
Here's to 22 more, you crazy kids! Wish I'd known you back then cause we'd have been singing this together.