Is it true that you toured here (Australia) in the early sixties? I’ve never toured Australia before.
But, your record was certainly very big over here and I think you know, of course, which record I’m talking about, ‘The Duke Of Earl’. How many copies did it end up selling? (Laughs) that’s a good one. ‘Duke Of Earl’ it sells so much and it has sold so much over the years, I really couldn’t tell you. Because you know its about, since 1962, about forty years or something like that. We’ve sold oh millions and millions of it. It’s still selling today. It’s one of those phenomenal records. I don’t know what to tell you because it still sells today. Very big.
You have a slice of the royalties on it though I believe. I’m a writer. Actually, I wrote the song and I gave a piece of the song to one of the guys in the group who’s name was Earl and to the manager. Her name was Bernice. She put the line in there. She took some line out, I can’t remember what it was, and she added in there “will walk through my dukedom” and I gave her a piece.
For that line? Well yeah. I mean we were young guys. We hadn’t really recorded before. We were just getting started and at the time, you know, I just shared you know? And I’m still that way today really.
It was a number one nationally for five weeks which is a huge record and was pretty big on the pop charts for what people might have called a “black” record at the time. What was life like once you had a hit of that magnitude? How did your life change? Well you know at the time I couldn’t really tell because we were moving so fast. It was actually the first million-seller for Vee Jay records, at the time the label I was on. The closest they came to a million-seller at that time was ‘Raindrops’ by Dee Clark who was on the label. So it was their first million-seller. Now, once the record began to hit, I was going here, I was going there, I was on planes, there was just so many things happening that I didn’t really realise what was going on until afterwards when I had a chance to sit back and look at it and I said “wow” you know, to get a number one record or a record that big. It was like about the second or third recording, to get a record that big was really, it was fabulous.
You talked about the record company Vee Jay, which was actually a black owned and run record company was it not? Right.
Which was pretty rare for those days which was all the more galling that you could get such a big hit with that label? Well it wasn’t too rare to have black-owned record companies doing that day but for one to get such a big pop record, that was rare. That’s why ‘the duke of earl’ was their first million seller. But, there were a lot of black record companies here in America, Chicago, Detroit etc. As you know Motown took off from Detroit around the same time as Vee Jay took off from Chicago. Actually, Motown was a little behind but it came on later. So there were a lot of small black-owned companies that just never had a record the size of the duke of earl.
The story goes that the record was originally credited to The Dukays and the people at Vee Jay pushed it such that they though it would run better if it was by a solo artist namely Gene Chandler. Is that the way it happened?
Not quite. What happened was the group The Dukays went into a recording session. Our first record was a song called ‘A Girl Is A Devil’ and the second recording session we cut a song called ‘Nite Owl’ and ‘The Duke Of Earl’ was the next session. The people who had the first right of refusal to do distribute our records across the country chose the ‘Nite Owl’ record rather that the ‘Duke Of Earl’ record so that left “The Duke” just sitting out there and vee jay records owned the publishing on the ‘Nite Owl’ record so they wanted to hear the ‘Nite Owl’ record and in the process of hearing that they heard the rest of the session. When they heard “The Duke” Calvin Carter, who was the A&R director for Vee Jay Records just went crazy and said “listen, if nobody has that can we have it?”. The problem was that I was the lead singer on all the songs. I was under contract to The Dukays under the Nat label, which was the name of the label owned by Mr Carl Davis and Bill "Bunky" Sheppard and they said “well yeah you can have the record but how you going to work this out?”. So they came with a proposal stay with the group and somebody else will go with the ‘Duke Of Earl’ record or go with the ‘Duke Of Earl’ record and let somebody go with the group. I decided to go on as a single artist and go with the ‘Duke Of Earl’ record and the rest is history.
It would seem that was the best decision that you could have made?
Was there any resentment from the remaining members of The Dukays at the time? No because for so many months we agreed to share whatever profits came from both records. Whatever sold with The Dukays and ‘Nite Owl’ and whatever sold with myself and ‘The Duke Of Earl’.
How did you come from singing with friends at school to recording that first single for Nat Records? Well actually I was with a group called The Gaytones in school. The Dukays were a neighbourhood group they felt like that I was a good lead and they felt that I should be singing with them because I was from the neighbourhood. So I left The Gaytones and went with The Dukays. And we did some cabarets, some shows around Chicago. I ended up going into the service for three years when I was seventeen and half going on eighteen. I went to the airborne rangers for three years. While I was in there I sung as a single artist in special services you know I would sing for the troops. When I came home, I guess maybe three to four months before I came home they got in contact with these people who wanted to get a group and records them. They asked the people would they wait until I come home because I was there lead singer and since I was coming home before long and they agreed to it and that ended up being the Nat Label with Carl Davis and Bill "Bunky" Sheppard and when I came home that’s how I got with the group to record.
They hung around three years waiting for you to return, you must have been a hell of a singer even at that time? Well you know they didn’t exactly wait for three years because they were out there performing or whatever they were doing in the little club dates they were getting but the contract to record came about three to four months before I came home and since it wasn’t going to be that long before I came home they asked the company would they wait until I came home so their original and real lead singer would be able to lead the singers and I guess I was pretty good, what can I say?
Who were your primary musical influences in those early days? Well you know I guess there was Nat King Cole, Brook Benton people like that were people that I paid quite a bit of attention and listened to. Group-wise it was Pookie Hudson of The Spaniels. I did a lot of his songs when I was in high school. So those were my influences.
I think you can hear a bit of Pookie especially in your early work with the high falsettos? Oh yeah. Yeah.
A great singer. Yes that’s true.
What is it about Chicago that has created such spectacular music over so many eras do you think? Well you know I think Chicago is like any other city. New York has created a lot of great music so has Detroit and Chicago’s the same, you have a lot of people here that came from the south, a lot of church-going gospel singers and the influences sort of travel around the city. There were a lot of blues here in chicago you know muddy waters, chuck berry we go on and on and singing on the corners with groups and everything just like every other city and we happened to have had our good fortune to be successful around the country and around the world with our music.
You recorded for many labels in the 1960s starting of with Nat then Vee Jay, Constellation taken over by Chess, Brunswick then Mercury finished out the decade, how were you treated during that time by the record labels? Did you feel like you were mistreated by any of those labels? Well I could have been and to some extent maybe I was in the very beginning, but, I didn’t notice it. My parents were kind of smart and they taught me to be smart in the record business and watch my monies and I made a lot of good moves and a lot of good things happened for me. So I imagine there were some things taken from me that I didn’t know about. As far as my contracts were concerned, I never had a problem with those. Those were put together in a correct way that allowed me to do what I needed to do to be successful in the business.
It seemed like you did make very good decisions from time to time when your career needed a lift. To break out of The Duke Of Earl image, for instance, you started working with Curtis Mayfield. How was it working with the great man curtis? Well it was very nice because Curtis came up with tunes that I thought were my types of songs and those were a lot of love songs. Curtis wrote some beautiful love songs starting off with ‘The Rainbow Song’ and I heard those on the road. We went out on tours and shows together and he would sit down with the guitar and play me some songs and from doing that I began to fall in love with the songs he was writing from ‘Man’s Temptation’, 'Just Be True', ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ and so on. I did a lot of his songs. As a matter of fact, Curtis was my salvation after ‘The Duke Of Earl’. I mean, it was his songs that kept me going all the way up until 1970 when I again recorded another million-seller which was ‘a groovy situation’.
Did he instruct you on how you should sing it because it occurs to me that he wrote for so many artists, but, there’s a definite style to the vocal of a Curtis Mayfield song. Do you just fall into the style that Curtis wants or does he actually give you some instruction? No, he never gave me any instructions I can’t speak for anyone else. He loved the way I portrayed his songs and so I never had a problem. It was just a good marriage. I could hear what he was trying to say and I did it. I did it with a lot of feeling, the words was there, the melody was there and I just did it. There were times that he did play guitar. There were a couple of time where The Impressions some background, but, basically, I did the song on my own, the way I felt it should have been done. As a matter of fact, I did more Curtis Mayfield songs than anyone outside of the impressions.