From 1962 to 1970 Gene Chandler put nineteen songs in the top forty, but he will always be known all over the world as the Duke of Earl, his first hit that topped the pop and R&B charts in 1962 and launched his career.
In 1957 Gene became a member of the Du-Kays, a rhythm and blues group with a strong rock and roll sound. After a stint in the Army and singing solo in the Army he returned to Chicago in 1960 and rejoined the Du-Kays. Bernice Williams, young music business manager heard the group perform and quickly agreed to manage the young group. She arranged an audition with Nat Records in Chicago and the Du-Kays were offered a recording contract. Their first professional recording session was late in 1960, at which time they recorded “The Girl is Evil”.
They recorded “Nite Owl” and “Duke of Earl” in 1961. “Nite Owl” was recorded first and out for distribution when they recorded the Duke, but the creation of the Duke of Earl was a bit more unusual.
The Du-Kays would warm up by singing do-do-do-do- in various tones and pitches. Gene started singing duke–duke–duke and from there added fellow member “Earl” Edward’s first name to complete the phrase. He then began composing the lyrics on the spot. It worked so well and they were excited that this was a potential hit. They immediately sang the lyrics to Bernie who in turn added more lyrics. They recorded the Duke of Earl. But getting the “Duke of Earl” released however, was the hardest part. Nat Records released “Nite Owl”, but was unable to get the distribution rights for “Duke of Earl”.
Calvin Carter, A&R man with VeeJay Records absolutely loved the tune and especially liked Gene’s singing style. Carter was more interested in Gene alone than in the whole group sound and felt Gene could top the charts easier as a solo artist. While “Nite Owl” by the Du-Kays was shooting up the charts, VeeJay was holding back the release of the “Duke of Earl”, because Gene couldn’t decide to go solo or stay with the group that had a hit 45 on the charts. In January of 1962 Eugene Dixon became Gene Chandler, taking his last name from actor Jeff Chandler because he thought it had a romantic ring. Under Gene Chandler he released solo records while still under contract with the Du-Kays as Gene Dixon. The ” Duke of Earl” was finally released and it sold a million copies in little over one month. It was a huge hit, Number 1 for three weeks in 1962. It dethroned the ” Twist ” from its Number 1 position.
Gene began to dress like the “Duke of Earl”. He wore a monocle, cape, top hat and cane. Gene usually ended his concerts with the Duke in full dress, leaving the audience totally wanting more and for the most part he would go back and sing “Rainbow”, a very successful R&B tune that was again his signature style. “Rainbow” is the only tune Gene recorded three times, once in 1963 again in “Rainbow Live 1965” with Constellation Records and then finally, “Rainbow 80” with ChiSound Records. Simply, all of his recordings on “Rainbow” were a tremendous smash. “Rainbow” was one of the songs that Curtis Mayfield of the Impressions wrote for Gene. In addition to “Rainbow”, Curtis wrote “A Man’s Temptation”, which Gene recorded around the same time while under contract with VeeJay. Gene’s collaboration with Curtis Mayfield proved to be a match made in heaven. Mayfield’s songs made Gene a first-rate ballad singer. These soft, tender sexy love songs went over well in concert with Gene’s falsetto slides sent ripples of excitement through the ladies in his audience.
Gene then signed with Constellation Records in 1964 and ended his tenure at Constellation when they closed in 1966 and Chess Records purchased Gene’s songs. Gene’s manager, Carl Davis signed him with Brunswick Records at the same time. The two record companies ended up altering Gene’s record releases, one new single then a re-release of an older recording.
Finally, tired of the road and no viable new hits, Gene turned his attention to the business end of the industry. After all his successes, Gene decided to put his energy into producing, arranging and hyping other acts. Gene formed two music-publishing companies, a production company and was President of Bamboo Records. Gene’s biggest hit at Bamboo was ” Backfield in Motion” by Mel and Tim in 1969. Gene selected this song, cut it and sold a million copies. In 1970 Gene signed with Mercury Records and recorded “Groovy Situation”. The Strength of both of these tunes got him nominated for “Producer of The Year” Award for the National Association of Television and Radio announcers (NATRA). Gene won the NATRA award in Houston, Texas in August of 1970. He beat Norman Whitfield, producer of the Temptations and Gamble and Huff of the Philadelphia sound for the award, an astounding accomplishment considering the popularity of the Detroit and Philly revolution in that time period.
“Groovy Situation” was a top hit that summer, selling another million. Gene’s disco hits were extremely popular in the UK in the 70s and 80s and Gene collaborated with Reggae star “Johnny Nash” in London. “Get Down”, another million-seller absolutely rocked the disco revolution. Gene was with Chi-Sound Records, as Executive vice-president under the direction of Carl Davis at the same time “Get Down” was recorded. Back in high demand, Gene ended up back on the road to perform on the concert circuit, with notable “Wolfman Jack’s” Oldies Tour and extensively performing solo in the Northeast, Las Vegas and in California, and of course in Chicago.
Today, Gene still lives in Chicago and attributes his success to his faith in God. His romantic performance style along with his superbly rich voice still makes him a hot number and fabulous performer to contend with. He still packs them in decades later—– Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl. Nothing.. and he’s doing just fine.