Gene Chandler was the guy who performed wearing a cape, a tux, an eye monocle and carrying a cane. He was a “duke” in every sense of the word. The song “Duke of Earl” is truly a rock and roll original. Gene wrote the song with two friends while being a part of a group called The Dukays. Those friends Bernice Williams and Earl Edwards wrote the song for The Dukays, but it was never released under their name.
Gene Chandler was born Eugene Dixon in 1937 in Chicago, Illinois. Eugene lived on the southside of Chicago and sang with various groups as he was attending high school, including a group called the Gaytones. In 1958, he joined The Dukays and met Earl Edwards. Bernice Williams was managing the group. She got them a contract with Nat Records and during their first recording session, they recorded four sides. The two most notable sides were “Nite Owl” and “Duke of Earl.”
The writing of “Duke of Earl” is interesting. Gene had written an outline for a song in which he sang like the doo-wop roots that he had experienced during high school. He sang “doo doo doo.” With the help of Bernice and Earl Edwards that was changed to “duke, duke, duke” and the “earl” part was named after his friend Earl Edwards. This became the song “Duke of Earl.”
Nat Records didn’t like “Duke of Earl” and decided to release “Nite Owl” instead. Gene, who by now had changed his name to Gene Chandler, naming himself after the actor Jeff Chandler decided to peddle “Duke of Earl” to other record companies. “Nite Owl” was actually owned by VeeJay Records and they soon got wind of “Duke of Earl.” VeeJay Records liked it and bought it from them, releasing it in late 1961. The Dukays were still under contract to Nat Records, but Gene could record as a solo act, so VeeJay Records put his name on the label and the rest of the Dukays were forgotten.
Gene Chandler continued to record under his new name throughout the Sixties and in 1970 hit number twelve with “Groovy Situation.” After that he became a record producer and was the behind the scenes man on many records during the Seventies and Eighties. Gene still performs in Chicago, his hometown and Las Vegas and other places. In 2016, he was honored in Chicago by having a street named after him.
“Duke of Earl” sold a million copies in the first month after it was released. It has been selected by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In 2002 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Duke of Earl” debuted on the pop chart on January 27, 1962 and spent three weeks at number one.
This video looks like it is taken from one of those PBS oldie shows. Visual quality is not great, but the audio is good.