I’m sitting with Gene Chandler in Ed Debevic’s, where they’re playing “My Girl” by the Temptations and someone near us has ordered a Blue Moon Burger. “I played with them last week,” Chandler says, “the Marcells. They do ‘Blue Moon.'”
He’s looking fit in a kelly green velour V-neck sweater. He likes green. Ray Charles’s rendition of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” is his favorite song. Chandler’s a songwriter too; he’s the guy who wrote “The Duke of Earl.”
“I’ll take a burger and a small salad,” Chandler tells our waitress, who looks at him apologetically.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “We wanted to play your song. I tried to find it on the jukebox, but it’s not there.”
Chandler was born Eugene Dixon on the south side of Chicago in 1940. His dad was a steelworker and his mom worked at Dominick’s. He was an only child. He went to Englewood High School, where he and a few friends formed a neighborhood singing group called the Gay Tones and performed at high school talent shows. Once, after winning one of those shows, they performed at the old Trianon Ballroom at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and a local radio station broadcast the show live.
Before serving in the Airborne Rangers, Dixon linked up with a group called the Dukays, who played local cabarets and nightclubs. He sang lead. “We weren’t making no more than $15 apiece,” says Chandler. “But sometimes we’d do two or three shows a night, and back then that was a lot of money.”
After he got back from the armed services, Dixon and the Dukays started to record. They released two charted singles: “The Girl’s a Devil” and “Nite Owl.” While “Nite Owl” was going up the charts, Dixon wrote another song.
“One night at rehearsal,” he recalls, “we opened up our throats to warm up. We were going ‘Doo-doo-doo-doo’ and I told the fellas to keep singing, the ‘doo.’ Then we changed it to “the duke’ because that made more sense. Don’t ask me why. And there was a fella in the group whose name was Earl, so I told them to say ‘duke of Earl,’ and I just started putting lyrics to it.
“We ran from my house four blocks to our manager Bernice Williams’s house. We told her how good it sounded to us. My mother even liked it. While we were practicing, she came out of her room and said, “What’s that song? I never heard you-all sing that.’ We said, ‘We just made it up.’ She said, ‘It sounds good.’ Bernice Williams liked it and she changed one line. She added the line about ‘I walk through my dukedom.'”
NAT records, the company that was handling the Dukays, turned down “The Duke of Earl.” But Vee-Jay records was interested. The only problem was that Eugene Dixon was signed to NAT as lead singer of the Dukays. So Vee-Jay signed Dixon as a solo act under an assumed name. He took the last name of his favorite actor, Jeff Chandler. The record company would have preferred that he just take the name “Duke of Earl,” and they credited his first album simply to “the Duke.” Chandler’s name is only mentioned once, in the liner notes under “special thanks.”
The song hit number one in February 1962. “It took off so fast that they were just moving me around the country. I did the Dick Clark show. I did a movie called Don’t Knock the Twist,” says Chandler.
To hype the song, Chandler would dress up in cape, tails, and top hat. “They had me dressed up in the style of those English days when they had stockinged ladies and tight pants and powdered wigs,” recalls Chandler. “I said, ‘No, we got to do a modern-day duke: top hat, cane, cape, tails, monocle.’ So that’s how we came up with the outfit.”
During his tour, Chandler met up with Tommy Dark, who had been a member of the Ideals and of a duo called Tom and Jerrio who hit the charts once, in 1965, with a number called “Boo-Ga-Loo.” Dark wanted to get out of the performing business, so Chandler took him on as a chauffeur and valet. Dark still works as Chandler’s road manager.
“I would make sure his clothes were clean and his shoes were shined,” recalls Dark. “There were racks of clothes he’d carry out on the road. Shoes. He’d have a pair of shoes for every outfit, shirts to match. At the time, he liked a lot of open-collar shirts. He did a lot of shirt-and-pants situations. He’d have a calypso-style shirt, chest showing, and I had to make sure that it was all there, clean and pressed at all times so he could have a choice.
“These days it’s not too extravagant,” says Dark. “I check into the hotel, check the room, make sure it’s how he wants it. Usually he likes a king-size bed, white wine, and two TVs. He loves TV. But he’s not an extravagant person. He doesn’t mind flying coach. With us, it’s not your typical star-chauffeur situation. We’re like brothers.”
Gene Chandler has a couple of businesses going these days. He lives in the south suburbs, but he says he runs a variety store in Indiana and plans to open a combined recording studio and limousine service in Washington, D.C. He also owns a construction business, which does interior decorating and painting, with Tommy Dark.
He’s had a couple of businesses that have failed over the years too, including a music publishing business. In the mid-70s, his entrepreneurial instinct got the better of him and he was arrested for selling junk.
Though these days he’s known primarily for “The Duke of Earl,” Chandler tours the nostalgia circuit on the strength of several of his other chart makers, including “Rainbow,” “Groovy Situation,” and his comeback 1979 disco hit “Get Down.” He hopes to record another number-one song soon. “It’ll be all up-to-date–synthesizers and everything,” he said. “I’m going to do it as long as I feel I’m able to. I don’t want to be an old, fat dude trying to sing to make money.”
Back at Ed Debevic’s, Chandler is singing along with the jukebox to “Stand by Me.” A waitress comes up to him. “How’re you doing, Duke?” she whispers. “It’s OK. I won’t tell anyone you’re here.”
“Thank you,” he says.
“When I was writing ‘Duke of Earl,’ I didn’t know what it meant,” says Chandler. “But now I think it’s a representation of my personality as an aggressive fighter and never believing that I’m gonna fall. People admire me, they love me. And most people I meet, I love them too, mostly because they love me. And if they want to call me the Duke, that’s fine. They don’t mean any harm by it. ‘Duke of Earl’ will be here forever and I’ll always be known for it. My grandkids can say, ‘That was my grandfather. He was the Duke of Earl.'”
Chandler is part of the huge lineup in the Chicago Music Festival, the show James Brown and Aretha Franklin are headlining tomorrow night at Soldier Field. It starts at 6:30; tickets are $24-$27. Call 247-6308 or 791-9400 for info