Gary James' Interview With The Duke of Earl
Sometimes all you need is one song to be remembered by. For Gene Chandler, that song was and is "The Duke Of Earl". It became one of the biggest hits of the early 1960s. The record is still selling and Gene Chandler is still performing.
Q - Mr. Chandler, according to the authors of the book Where Have They Gone, Gene Chandler can make a half dozen deals in the time it takes to lick a stamp. Is that true?
A - Absolutely. (laughs)
Q - So you've been involved in the business end of the music business for some time now?
A - Quite a long time.
Q - Was Vee Jay Records a good label for a singer to be on in the early 1960s?
A - Yes, it was. It was for me anyway.
Q - They didn't do too much for The Beatles.
A - Well, I wouldn't say that. I would say that it was a matter of Brian Epstein selling his deal to two different people. What he did was sell some songs to Vee Jay that they had sort of recorded in the past. But, he didn't sign the group to Vee Jay to record. He simply sold some masters to Vee Jay. But with Capitol, he made a deal through E.M.I. and so they were signed to the label. Now, when Vee Jay put their stuff out, they didn't have the kind of money Capitol had to do all the publicity. So, that was the difference. Vee Jay bought masters so when they released 'em it was without all the publicity. It was later on after Capitol released their songs that Vee Jay then re-released The Beatles' stuff and some of those things began to sell. Then, there was a lawsuit from Capitol to stop Vee Jay from releasing what they had. Then they made some kind of deal to allow Vee Jay to continue to sell 'em for so many months and after that they had to cease and desist.
Q - But you were satisfied with the job Vee Jay did for you, weren't you?
A - Well, it was Vee Jay's first million seller. At the time they had gotten close with Dee Clark's "Raindrops". That had done nine hundred and some odd thousand. I guess they did as good a job as they possibly could. They set up some nice things. When I flew to Los Angeles to do a movie at the height of the record, there was a show at the Cow Palace the night before. We flew to San Francisco first and they had me change into my outfit on the plane. When I got off the plane I stepped onto a red carpet that led to the limousine and they had Hawaiian girls dancing along the side of the carpet. I guess they did the job they knew how to do at the time. Abner was pretty good at the job he did. He was the President of Vee Jay.
Q - What did you think when the "Duke Of Earl" knocked "The Twist" out of the number one position in 1962?
A - Well, I didn't think too much of it except the fact that I was very happy I hit number one. You always remember who you knocked out and who knocked you out. It was Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" that knocked me out. But, what goes up must come down and so it was my turn. "The Duke" did well, as well as it does today. It was a phenomenal record.
Q - Did you admire a singer in Chicago called Pookey Hudson of The Spaniels?
A - Absolutely.
Q - What was there to admire in that singer?
A - Well, when I was going to school, 'cause The Spaniels came out in the 50s, I came out in the 60s, I loved the sound of Pookey Hudson. I tried to emulate him and sing everyone of his songs. We did a little group show. We were standing on the corners. I always loved to sing Pookey songs. That was it. It was his voice and the way he did what he did. And we're good friends today.
Q - What did the British Invasion do to your career?
A - Nothing at all.
Q - So, you continued to work and didn't notice a difference in the bookings?
A - Not at all. I did all the things I had been doing prior to that. After "The Duke Of Earl", most of my songs that took off were from the Soul charts. "Duke" was a very big Pop record and then from that point most of my songs were big R&B records. And so, that had no effect. If you put on an R&B station they weren't playing The Beatles. They were playing Soul music. So, consequently I continued to be successful with what I was doing.
Q - Did you ever go out on those Dick Clark tours?
A - No, I didn't.
Q - Did you ever perform at the Paramount Theatre in New York?
A - Yes, I did.
Q - Who did you work with on those shows? Do you remember?
A - Some of those shows The Impressions were on. Brook Benton, Fats Domino. Sometimes Solomon Burke. He wasn't there on all the shows. Fats Domino wasn't on all the shows.
Q - Did you come up with this name Gene Chandler or did an A&R guy by the name of Carl Davis come up with it?
A - Well, they say Carl did, but actually I did. Actually what happened was, I was assigned to the label, Carl Davis' label. He and Bill Shepherd produced me. We went into a session and recorded "Duke Of Earl" and "Night Owl". The company that had the first right of refusal to put out the songs for Carl Davis' label chose "Night Owl". They turned down the "Duke". Vee Jay had the publishing on "Night Owl" because Carl and Bill needed money to record. So, they sold them the publishing on the "Night Owl" record. And naturally they wanted to hear what it sounded like when we were finished with it. They listened and they listened to the rest of the songs. They said, well, who owns this if you're putting out "Night Owl"? They said nobody, and turned it down, "The Duke Of Earl". They said can we buy it and they said yes. So, they bought "The Duke Of Earl". I was the lead singer on everything else so what happened was I had a choice of going with "The Duke Of Earl" as a single artist or staying with the group. And they would replace with me, which ever way I decided. I decided to go as a single artist because that's what I wanted to be all the time. Under the contract I had with the group, it was Eugene Dixon, which is my real name. So, going over there, we shortened it from Eugene to Gene and Jeff Chandler was a favorite actor of mine. I liked that name so I took Chandler. That's how Gene Chandler came about.
Q - Do you care what the critics say about you?
A - No. I mean when they're saying something bad I don't care. (laughs)
Q - Let me read you something and you be the judge if it's bad or not.
A - OK.
Q - This comes from the book The Encyclopedia Of Rock and Roll by Brown and Friedrich: "Gene Chandler's only real claim to fame as a Rock 'n' Roll star was a song called "The Duke Of Earl". Is that true?
A - So, they're saying that basically outside of "Duke Of Earl" I was nothing?
Q - They're saying that basically you were a one-hit-wonder.
A - Well, the proof is in the pudding. Actually, that can't be true because the song "Rainbow", which I recorded three times, was a hit three times. I had a series of Curtis Mayfield songs like "Nothing Can Stop Me", "Just Be True", that were hits. That's what I mean by the Soul charts. Then I came in 1970 and produced myself on the Mercury label. "The Groovy Situation" was a million seller. Go back to 1969, when I started my own record company and I produced "Groovy Situation" myself. Mercury also distributed my label Mr. Chad. I was the president of Bamboo Records out of St. Louis, where I recorded another million seller, which was "Backfield In Motion" by Mel and Tim on the Bamboo label. I also ran that company and was producing 25 acts at the time and managing 15. I had a series of small hits and I guess the biggest was "Backfield In Motion" by Mel and Tim. So, I've had a series of things over the years. Plus the fact, here I am today still working. My claim to fame is I'm a good performer. I do a good job. The reason I'm working as heavily as I am and headlining shows, is because the kind of job I do on the stage. So, whatever they have to say, they must be sleeping in one of those caves with Bin Laden. (laughs) I don't pay any attention to that. What I pay attention to is the fans and the crowds we get and the shows I'm putting on and those kinds of things and the royalties I receive from previous records. That's what I pay attention to.
Q - These authors go on to say: "This record sounded even worse than its title. It became a hit because Chandler put on one hell of a show. We don't know whose idea it was, but he performed the show decked out in high hat and tails, monocle and cape and he really strutted his stuff. That helped a little, but it still wasn't enough to make up for the horrible sounds that went along with it." Whose idea was it for you to dress that way?
A - Mine. I got it from what they originally wanted me to have on, which is a picture you'll never see. (laughs) They originally wanted me to dress up like one of the old English Parliament (members) where they had the tight white stockings on and the short pants and the jacket with the blouse coming out of the shirt and one of those hair pieces on with a triangle hat. I actually took a picture of that. I balked and I argued and fought. I told them I needed to be a modern day Duke. They thought about England and that's what they thought I should look like. They were totally away from top hat, cane and cape and that's how I ended up having it which is a much better picture. You would've still been laughing today if you had seen the other one. (laughs) And, as far as these guys are concerned and the comment that the song was a hit only because of the way I put on a show, yes, I did put on the show. But, they must understand, I never got out there until the record was a hit! So obviously people liked what they heard. Now it is 40 plus years later and the song makes more money than any other song I have in my catalog. I mean it makes money. I will not give you the exact figures, but this song does over $100,000 every six months.
Q - So, you really don't need t go out and tour then?
A - Well, it just so happened that during that time I gave a piece of the song to two other people...Bernice Williams and Earl Edwards. I took the Earl from him. I made it up in a rehearsal. They were opening up the intro saying "Doo, Doo" and I told them to say "Duke" and they were going up the scales and I began to put lyrics to it. Also, I did not own the publishing because I knew nothing about a publishing company at that time. If I had the song by myself and the publishing, then of course...but, it still wouldn't stop me from getting out there. I'm out there because of the love of the fans. I love what I give them and how they respond back to it, the standing ovations every night, people wanting autograph pictures. It doesn't matter how much money I'm getting. I'm still viable. I'm still young and healthy as far as I'm concerned. I enjoy all of this. Of course I'm going to perform. Basically I perform on weekends only, because of the business interests. That could also keep me from going out there. But, I'm a busy man. I do all of this stuff. As long as God has given me the mind to do it and the health and strength, I'm going to be out there.
Q - And how many shows do you perform every year?
A - It varies. I really don't keep up with it. Because of my schedule, I don't sit down and count the number of shows I've done. All I count is money. (laughs) I really honestly don't know the answer to that question.
Q - Do you have an agent or do you book yourself?
A - Well, people call me. I don't solicit any dates. I get calls from agencies. I'm not exclusive. So, any agency can book me. Promoters call me.
Q - So, you can set the price then.
A - Oh, well, yeah. I set the same price basically. The difference is I don't need to change the price. If it's an agent booking me, then they get 10%. If they call me direct, then I don't give up 10%. It's just me.
Q - You worked as a producer for A&M Records from 1974 to 1977.
A - Yeah. I don't know if it was that late. I don't think it was '74. I had a group over there (A&M) called Sisters Love. They did a fairly good job. At that time they couldn't get a lot of R&B play and that's where they were running with the record.
Q - Who else did you produce?
A - Well, Mel and Tim, "Backfield In Motion", Simtech And Willy, "Gotta Get Over The Hump", which was on my label and several other groups.
Q - Do you know how many records "The Duke Of Earl" has sold?
A - There's absolutely no way (of knowing). (laughs) I challenge any artist that had a record out for 40 years to tell you exactly how many copies they've sold. That's a very difficult thing. First of all, there was so many copies that were sold that were stolen from you that you didn't know about. There's a lot of bootleg copies that were sold. You can't keep a count of those. There are give-a-ways, copies that were given to jocks (disc jockeys) and you got people selling them. It is virtually impossible, take it from me, to keep up for 40 years with sales of what you've sold out there. There's just too many things about the business you're concerned about, and you want to keep up with, then to keep up with exactly how many copies you've sold, especially for 40 years. Now, if you had asked me this the third year or the fifth year, I might've been able to tell you. But, beyond that point, you don't pay any attention. You're just worried about what you're gonna get. First of all, on a song like "Duke Of Earl", you don't know when you first record it that it's gonna create the kind of excitement it does. Then the other thing is, when you have over 20 some albums like I have, all of those songs that you recorded, you don't sit around keeping up with one particular song or how many it sells. If you did that with every song you recorded, you're keeping a number. If I ventured to guess, the song has probably sold over 4 million copies, at least, 'cause then you gotta count the foreign markets, I defy you to tell me anybody who kept up with 40 years of sales on one record. Anybody! I'd like to meet that person. You don't pay attention to them things. You pay attention to the money. You know when you get a million seller 'cause that gets you a Gold Record. You know when you're number one on the charts. You don't forget that. I couldn't tell you how many records I sold on "The Duke Of Earl" in the last 2 years. You just don't keep up with that after a while. You see, you get money from so many different places...radio, television, sales in the stores. Then another thing, there's so many people that have the song "Duke Of Earl" in a package. They sell it with a bunch of other artists. So, you're selling over there. Then, they have the old Vee Jay "Duke Of Earl" album that's out in a CD now and you're selling there. Then MCA is selling some "Duke Of Earl". Everybody is selling something. I just look to see about the money. (laughs)