Hello there! This week’s entry is Duke of Earl, one of the greatest doo-wop songs from the 50s. We will begin with the original by Gene Chandler, after which we will briefly discuss the song as it appeared in the movie Don’t Knock The Twist. We will then include covers of that tune by Sha Na Na and by the group Earth Angels, and we finish with a snippet of “bonus video.”
Gene Chandler and Duke of Earl:
The artist Gene Chandler was born Eugene Dixon in 1937, and grew up in Chicago. In 1957 he joined a singing group called The Dukays, where he became their lead singer. Dixon was inducted into the Army later in 1957, but re-joined The Dukays after he left the Army in 1960.
The Dukays recorded a few songs for Nat Records, including Nite Owl and Duke of Earl. Nat Records chose to release and publicize Nite Owl, which became a moderate R&B hit.
When Nat Records decided against releasing Duke of Earl, Dixon left that record company, changed his name to Gene Chandler, and released Duke of Earl under his new name.
Below is a photo of Gene Chandler. As we will see, after Duke of Earl became a hit, Chandler adopted a formal style of dress that capitalized on his self-appointed status as a “Duke.”Embed from Getty Images
The lyrics to Duke of Earl describe a young man whose confidence has soared because of his love for his girlfriend. He believes he can surmount any obstacle, and he vows to protect his woman from any harm.
The song begins with a repetitive refrain from a chorus, after which Gene Chandler’s vocals enter.
Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
[repeat 7 times]
As I walk through this world
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl
And you, you are my girl
And no one can hurt you, oh no
Yes 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
Duke of Earl became a smash hit. It rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts and was certified a gold record. Here is Gene Chandler singing Duke of Earl live at a “doo-wop oldies” show.
As you can see, even in later life Gene Chandler retains those great pipes. Not only can he knock off the iconic lines that were so meaningful in our teen-age years (“you’ll be my duchess, Duchess of Earl”), but he also nails the falsetto stanzas at the end of the song.
The tune Duke of Earl had an interesting genesis. Apparently The Dukays would warm up by singing “Du du du du …” in a number of different keys. One day Dixon replaced that with “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl,” a reference to fellow Dukays member Earl Edwards. Dixon and Edwards, together with songwriter Bernice Williams, subsequently fleshed out the lyrics to the song Duke of Earl.
I knew of Gene Chandler’s career only through Duke of Earl, and had suspected that he was a ‘one-hit wonder.’ As it turns out, I was seriously mistaken.
After Duke of Earl, Chandler charted a number of other top-40 songs, several of which were written by his friend and colleague Curtis Mayfield. Chandler then became a producer, and formed his own record label and production company.
Chandler also collaborated with a number of Chicago soul artists. He released an album of tunes in collaboration with Jerry Butler, and he also performed with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. In the late 70s, Chandler produced a number of disco-era dance tunes.
I never realized Gene Chandler’s many accomplishments! He still tours today, primarily showcasing his big doo-wop hit Duke of Earl, but also the song Rainbow that was written by Curtis Mayfield.
The song Duke of Earl has sufficient staying power that Gene Chandler is typically the final performer in these doo-wop retrospectives. Keep it up, Gene, and remember – nothing can stop you, ’cause you’re the Duke of Earl!
The movie Don’t Knock The Twist:
Don’t Knock The Twist was a 1962 Columbia Records release. It starred Lang Jeffries and was directed by Oscar Rudolph. It showcased a number of contemporary pop songs, and naturally (being a “twist film”) it featured Chubby Checker.
As far as I can tell (I have never seen Don’t Knock The Twist), the movie included pop stars Chubby Checker, Gene Chandler and The Dovells. At left is a poster for the movie Don’t Knock The Twist, which was a sequel to the 1961 film Twist Around The Clock (also, of course, featuring Chubby Checker).
I was under the impression that The Dovells were ‘one-hit wonders,’ and that their biggest-selling record was their bouncy, hook-filled 1961 dance tune The Bristol Stomp. That record hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts. However, that quartet also struck it big with You Can’t Sit Down, a tune that reached #3 on the charts in 1963.
As for the plot of Don’t Knock The Twist, here is the sum total of everything I could glean about this film:
Many twist dancers meet in preparation for the TV variety show called “The Twist.” While the special is still in the production stages, jealousies lead to problems – and a whole lot of dancing.
Got it? On the basis of this information, you could probably write the entire script for this film! So here is Gene Chandler’s appearance in Don’t Knock The Twist.
Obviously, Chandler is simply lip-synching from his record. Note that he has taken to wearing what became his trademark outfit – top hat; tails; cape; monocle; and cane.
This song is indeed a doo-wop classic. It starts with the iconic “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl” intro, at first with a single voice and then joined by an entire chorus. Gene Chandler really has a lovely and powerful voice that he uses to great effect in this song.
The backup singers show off impressive harmonies, and the bass singer gets to highlight his vocal talents. This song brings back vivid memories, a tune that was a staple at “sock hops” when I was in high school, invariably as a “ladies’ choice” dance. What a treat!
Sha Na Na and Duke of Earl:
We previously discussed the pop group Sha Na Na in our earlier blog post on the song Great Balls of Fire. So here we will briefly review the history of this ensemble.
Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group that formed in the late 1960s. They were initially members of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen (no relation to the Seattle rock group who recorded the garage-band classic Louie Louie).
In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. The band achieved cult status at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969, where Sha Na Na went on immediately before Jimi Hendrix.
The group became instant stars after their appearance in the concert film Woodstock, where they performed a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.
Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in concert, from 1975.Embed from Getty Images
So here are Sha Na Na in a live performance of Duke of Earl. I believe this took place in 1971.
Well, this is certainly an energetic rendering of Duke of Earl. It features Jon “Bowzer” Bauman on bass and Dennis Greene on lead vocals.
Over the years, Sha Na Na had as many as a dozen performers. Typically, three of them were dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits, while the remaining members appeared in 50s “greaser” attire. In this song Dennis Greene appears in gold lame, while Bowzer shows off his physique (or lack thereof) in a black muscle T-shirt.
I struggle with my reaction to Sha Na Na. If their performances are intended as an appreciation of 50s rock, then I enjoy them. On the other hand, their act could be seen as a parody of rock music, in which case I am kind of offended.
Sha Na Na had a dramatic impact on popular culture. Their focus on fifties rock and roll
helped spark a 1950s nostalgia craze that inspired similar groups in North America, as well as the Broadway musical Grease, the film American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days.
The group hosted a self-titled TV variety show from 1977 to 1981. The show had high ratings, and generally featured a series of 50s songs, sketches and guest artists.
Although some of the group members have been successful in the music business, it should not be surprising that a singing group composed of Columbia University students would produce several notable alumni.
For example, former Sha Na Na members include physicians (notably a sports medicine physician who serves on the medical staff for our national soccer team), lawyers (e.g., the VP for production and features at Columbia Pictures), and professors (faculty in linguistics, English, and religious studies).
Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although by now the group has undergone dozens of changes in personnel.
Earth Angels and Duke of Earl:
The group Earth Angels is a Catalan a capella group that specializes in doo-wop music. Their lead singer Jordi Majo had been a fan of doo-wop music and an avid collector of 50s American pop records.
In 2007 Majo met up with brothers Christian and Joan Carrasco, who shared his love of this genre. The group began performing in the Barcelona area, where initially they were street musicians. They subsequently graduated to nightclub performances.
In 2010, Earth Angels released their first album. Later that same year, they flew to the States to participate in a “doo-wop oldies” concert in Pittsburgh.
The city of Pittsburgh was significant in the development of “doo-wop” music. Not only were there a number of record companies that specialized in this style, but prominent doo-wop groups such as The Del-Vikings, The Marcels and The Skyliners all originated in Pittsburgh.
At left is a photo of the group Earth Angels, during their 2010 visit to Pittsburgh.
Here, the Earth Angels give a live a capella rendition of two doo-wop songs: Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl followed by Just One More Chance.
I am unfamiliar with Just One More Chance (it’s possible that this song was written by the Earth Angels, as their catalog includes a combination of new and classic doo-wop songs), but I really like the Earth Angels group. Their a capella stylings are very appealing. In particular, both the lead singer and the bass produce authentic 50s-style vocals.
How intriguing, to see a group emerging from Spain with an interest in reviving doo-wop music!
Bonus: Jimmy Fallon and Robert Plant, Duke of Earl:
Here is some “bonus video.” This took place on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Here, Jimmy’s guest is Robert Plant, the lead singer from the heavy-metal blues group Led Zeppelin, and one of the greatest rock vocalists in history.
Fallon introduces Plant to what appears to be an iPad “Looper” app, in which one inputs vocals. When you play it back, you can overdub on top of the original vocals, and eventually produce an effect that sounds like a chorus.
In any case, Fallon suggests to Plant that they experiment with the doo-wop classic Duke of Earl. In the following video, they try this out:
I must admit that I don’t understand quite how this technology works. Fallon and Plant spend a fair amount of time setting this up, although once they got started the final result was a lot of fun. The “Looper” multi-tracking app eventually allows Fallon and Plant to produce an impressive “doo-wop quartet” sound. So, enjoy!