‘As I walk through this world, Nothing can stop The Duke Of Earl’
There are days when all is right with the world. Days when the sun shines clear in an azure sky that bathes you in balmy glory. Days when the gods are indulgent so that your long shot romps home at 100-1 and the girl you’ve nearly asked out a thousand times suddenly smiles at you and asks what you’re doing later. The poet Robert Browning expressed this feeling of elated contentment very well in his verse drama, ‘Pippa Passes’:
‘The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-sides dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!’
Being an educated sort of chap these lines often spring to mind when I find myself enjoying one of those blessed days when nothing seems impossible – when all the gears of the universe seem to mesh perfectly to deliver pleasure, promise and delight.
Probably 10% of my memory is indexed to recall the deathless thoughts of the great poets when these occasion presents themselves. However, I would estimate that at least 30% of my memory neurones are tasked with filing, indexing and processing the melodies, lyrics and performances of the canon of popular music created in the recording era between the 1920s and 1980s.
So while I will sometimes find myself quoting Browning, Byron or Wendell Berry as I give thanks for the gift of life – much more often I find myself singing at the top of my voice the lyric from one of my all-time favourite songs (it will be one of my 8 Desert Island Discs list when the BBC finally get round to asking me to appear on that iconic radio programme), ‘Duke Of Earl’ by Gene Chandler.
Scanning my memory for this post I recall chanting out, ‘Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl’ on the red letter days of my life. The day I learned that I had won a scholarship to Cambridge, the day I got married and the day my son was born were all celebrated with repeated choruses of Gene Chandler’s immortal classic from 1962.
‘Duke of Earl’ is one of those songs that works every time – always lifting the heart and spirit with its simply stated belief that there is indeed a paradise to be shared and that a Duke can find and cherish his Duchess as they walk together through the Dukedom. Since first hearing this song I have never been able to use the technically correct term, ‘Duchy’ for the territory ruled over by a Duke – such is the power of music!
Apparently the song evolved from the vocal warm up exercises used by the Doo-Wop group The Dukays which formed in late 1950s Chicago. Gene (then known by his original name of Eugene Dixon) practiced his vocal craft with James Lowe, Shirley Jones, Ben Broyles and Earl Edwards. It was while running through the pre-show, ‘Do do do do’ routine that one night Gene mixed things up by singing instead, ‘Du, du, du … Duke of Earl’ and thus with some help from manager Bernice Williams a million selling No 1 pop and R&B record was born!
The Dukays record company (Nat Records) preferred the song, ‘Nite Owl’ to ‘Duke of Earl’ so Gene went to Vee-Jay records as a solo artist to find fame and hopefully some fortune. To promote the record Gene gamely appeared dressed in Hollywood History’s version of ducal attire – Top Hat, Monocle, Walking Cane, Opera Cape and White Gloves! I have to say he carried it off very well, as many a video clip shows, and the, ‘Duke Of Earl’ look has in consequence become my default fancy dress party attire!
The vocals on ‘Duke Of Earl’ display a top flight Doo-Wop group creating a wonderfully full sound from basso profundo bass to ascending to the heavens falsetto tones. Every, ‘nonsense’ syllable is entirely translatable by our human hearts as glimpses of momentary happiness. Gene Chandler sings with the affecting gliding ease that would carry him to some 40 hit records. Gene sang the hell out of every song that came his way whether it was badged, ‘Doo-Wop’, ‘R&B’, ‘Soul’ or ‘Disco’. Whatever the genre Gene delivered a welcoming humanity through his vocals that engages the listener on a visceral level – locking in our attention and winning our affection.
I look forward to many more, ‘Duke Of Earl’ days in my life and wish the same for you.
‘Duke Of Earl’ has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was selected as one of the, ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’.
Gene Chandler has had a fabulously successful and diverse career as a singer, songwriter and producer. Look out for several versions of the scintillating, ‘Rainbow’ which is frequently quoted in concert by Van Morrison who knows a great song when he hears one! I prefer the atmosphere drenched 1965 version recorded in Gene’s hometown Regal Theatre.
Gene had a series of wonderful collaborations with the king of tender soul balladry – Curtis Mayfield. Even the stoniest hearts will crack listening to, ‘Just Be True’ and if you’re aren’t out on the floor dancing to, ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ from the first notes you need to get your reflexes tested!
A few hours listening to the above along with, ‘Think Nothing About It’, ‘A Man’s Temptation’, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’, ‘Groovy Situation’ and, ‘Get Down’ among others will more than repay your time.
As a producer Gene won the NATRA Producer of the Year Award for the unreservedly recommended, ‘Backfield In Motion’ by Mel and Tim (look it up now!)
I was delighted to find that Gene’s website is called The Dukedom! You can find it at genedukeofearl.com