D is for Duke of Earl

‘Duke of Earl’ is a 1962 US #1 song, originally recorded by Gene Chandler.  It is the best known of Chandler’s songs, and he subsequently dubbed himself ‘The Duke of Earl’.  The song was penned by Bernice Williams, Eugene Dixon (Chandler’s real name), and Earl Edwards.  This song was a 2002 inductee into the Grammy Hall of Fame and it was also selected by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

The Dukays were a soul group from the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago that consisted of James Lowe second tenor, Shirley Johnson a.k.a. Shirley Jones the tenor/soprano, Earl Edwards the baritone and Ben Broyles singing bass.  The group had been around for some time before in various forms, and were thoroughly a product of the doowop era, when many of the cities were alive with the sounds of harmonizing street corner groups, each in vigorous competition with one another.  They played at various clubs around town, earning $5 a person for each date at first, later getting as much as $25.  In 1957, a teen-aged Eugene Dixon joined the group and became their lead singer.  Chandler was drafted into the Army and when his three years of service were completed, he rejoined the Dukays after being discharged and returning to Chicago in 1960.  Eugene Dixon and Shirley Johnson were cousins.  In 1961 a young music business manager, Bernice Williams, heard the group sing and agreed to be their manager.

One day at Eugene Dixon’s house while the Dukays were rehearsing ‘Duke of Earl’ was borne out of a vocal exercise used to warm up their pipes.  They used to open up their throats by going up and down the music scales in order to be able to nail the high notes, which can only be accomplished after routine recitations are mindlessly repeated.  The Chicago vocal group The Dukays would sing “ah ah ah” and “du du du” in shifting pitch, singing one syllable of text over a large number of different notes very quickly.  At one rehearsal, their du du du’s sounded really good together, so they decided to develop a song out of this.  They needed a hook, so Dixon told everyone to start singing “duke, duke, duke, thus “du” became “Duke”.  The baritone singer in the group was Earl Edwards, so that is how they got the “Duke Of Earl”.

Eugene Dixon put together some lyrics while the rest of the group harmonized.  The lyrics tell a story about a girl who is under the protection of the Duke of Earl and since nothing can stop him, she’ll always be safe as long as she has the Duke of Earl by her side.  He is going to love her, and she’ll be his duchess and someday they’ll walk through his dukedom (territory ruled by a duke) paradise.  They ran over to Bernice, who lived about three blocks away from Dixon’s house, and they said, “We got a million seller!”  Bernice changed a line of the song, after Dixon gave her a piece of the song and Earl a piece of the song.  Later, they went to Bill Sheppard and Carl Davis of Nat Records because we had another recording session coming up.  Bernice Williams arranged an audition with Nat Records and the group recorded ‘Duke of Earl’ along with five other songs, including ‘Kissing in the Kitchen’, and ‘Night Owl’ in May of 1961.  Dixon didn`t want to record `Duke of Earl` because the company didn`t have enough money to use strings during the recording, and he wanted strings on it.

The song was recorded without strings, and the distribution company turned down ‘Duke of Earl’ choosing to release ‘Night Owl’.  Sheppard and Davis had a deal with a distribution company that gave the company first right of refusal on any material Nat contemplated releasing.  Whatever the distribution company refused, Sheppard and Davis could take to another label.  Nat Records sold the publishing rights for ‘Night Owl’ to Vee-Jay Records.  Bill Sheppard went over to Vee-Jay, and Calvin Carter, the A&R director there, got a chance to listen to ‘Duke of Earl’, and he instantly recognized the song’s potential, so he phoned his boss label head Ewart Abner to sign Eugene Dixon and buy the song that Nat Records passed on.

Nat Records sold the song to a bigger Chicago label, Vee Jay Records after Abner approved it.  The single was released in December of 1961, but with the Dukays being on another label, it was a sticky situation, so they decided to release the record as a solo Eugene Dixon single.  In an attempt to avoid contract issues, Dixon changed his name to Gene Chandler, which the last name was taken from his favorite actor Jeff Chandler and he cut Eugene down to Gene, anyway he felt it had a nice ring to it.  The record became an instant smash and quickly rose up the charts.  Entering the Hot 100 at #93 on January 13, 1962, the goofy song blasted to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts five weeks later.  ‘Duke of Earl’ held the number-one spot for three weeks and it stayed on the Hot 100 for a total of 15 weeks.  ‘Duke Of Earl’ sold over a million records the first month and became the first million selling single for Chicago-based independent label Vee-Jay Records and this song became one of the most famous doo-wop songs of all time.

Musicians on the record included Floyd Morris on piano, Lefty Bates, Phil Upchurch and Kermit Chandler on guitar, Al Duncan on drums, and Cliff Davis and John Board on sax.  Songwriting credits on this one went to Gene Chandler, Earl Edwards, and a woman named Bernice Williams, who managed The Dukays and wrote some of their songs.  Chandler played up the image he created in this song by dressing in royal garb when he was on tour, wearing an outfit that consisted of top hat, tuxedo, sash, cane and even a monocle.  Chandler was the lead singer on ‘Night Owl’ by the Dukays, which Nat Records already released and was starting to move up the charts.  But he also was the lead singer on ‘Duke of Earl’, which was now owned by Vee-Jay Records. He had a choice to stay with Nat Records, and the Dukays, or go with Vee-Jay, but since he didn’t want to let anybody take a song that he wrote he switched to Vee-Jay.

In 1983, Billy Joel paid tribute to the Duke with his song ‘Keeping the Faith’ that was recorded on his An Innocent Man album.  This song reached #18 on the main US Billboard Hot 100 and it has the following lyrics:

Combed my hair in a pompadour
Like the rest of the Romeos wore
I thought I was the Duke of Earl
When I made it with the red head girl

Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl

Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl

As I walk through this world
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl
And-a you, you are my girl
And no one can hurt you, oh no

Yes-a, I, oh I’m gonna love you, oh oh
Come on let me hold you darlin’
‘Cause I’m the Duke of Earl
So hey yea yea yeah

And when I hold you
You’ll be my Duchess, Duchess of Earl
We’ll walk through my dukedom
And a paradise we will share

Yes-a, I, oh I’m gonna love you, oh oh
Nothing can stop me now
‘Cause I’m the Duke of Earl
So hey yeah yeah yeah

Well, I, oh I’m gonna love you, oh oh
Nothing can stop me now
‘Cause I’m the Duke of Earl
So hey yeah yeah yeah

17 thoughts on “D is for Duke of Earl

  1. I remember seeing ‘The Darts’ performing Duke of Earl on Top of The Pops over here on TV back in the seventies (even had a Gene Chandler intro). They had several hits in the same doo-wop style.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This song like a lot of 50s songs reminds me of my senior year. Our band did the music for a 50s play…we winged it but it’s weird…Its like I’m from the 50s because I think of high school…great song because it sets a mood.
    I’ll catch up Jim…the last two nights have been crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This April A to Z almost killed me last year because I picked groups and that meant that I had to write about many albums and many songs which became overwhelming for me. This year, I just picked songs and I only have two left to write and today I will finish my Y song, leaving me with only Z and there is so much less stress, because I got an early jump on my writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yea that is a big big difference there. A bio to each one would take a long long time. Yea I’m 14 days ahead in drafts…with my schedule recently I have to be or I wouldn’t post some days.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this song! The thing is, that I read something in a book that mentioned the timing of the beat in this song perfectly matched the broken lane stripes on the highway as you are driving (I think) 55 mph. And it sure does. haha! 🙂 So that’s what I think of whenever I hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

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