Most people became familiar with the song “Harlem Shuffle” when the Rolling Stones covered it in 1986. The Stones version of the song leaped up the Billboard Hot 100 to the #5 spot. That record featured none other than Bobby Womack on background vocals. I’d like to think that the hit inspired people to go back and check out the original version of the song which had been recorded more than 20 years earlier.
Bobby Byrd and Earl Nelson met when they were members of a vocal group called the Hollywood Flames that was based in Los Angeles. Nelson sang lead on the Flames biggest hit, “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” which was released in 1958. At the time Byrd also had a solo career under the Bobby Day. He recorded the original version of “Little Bitty Pretty One” which became a hit for Thurston Harris in 1957. Byrd/Day had a hit of his own with “Rockin’ Robin” the following year.
In 1960, Byrd and Nelson teamed up as Bob & Earl and began recording for Class Records. Unfortunately, none of their releases found success and Byrd returned to his solo career as Bobby Day in 1962. Nelson must have enjoyed the duo format and he found himself another Bob, in this case, Bobby Relf who was a veteran of L.A. groups like the Laurels, the Upfronts, and Valentino and the Lovers. None other than Barry White sang bass and played piano in the latter two groups.
An L.A. singer named Round Robin had released a song called “Slauson Shuffletime” and Nelson and Relf based their song, “Harlem Shuffle,” on it. Fred Smith produced it, White contributed the arrangement, and the record was released on Marc Records (a subsidiary of Titan Records) in 1963. It was not a huge hit but nearly cracked the Top 40 on both the pop and R&B charts. The Bob & Earl record proved to be more successful in terms of inspiration than in sales. The duo’s vocal style can be clearly discerned in pairs that followed like Sam & Dave.
The record was re-released in the U.K. in 1969 and this time it became a Top 10 hit. By that time though, Nelson was on another path, having found solo success under the name Jackie Lee. He had a Top 20 hit with a dance record called “The Duck” in 1965. But when “Harlem Shuffle” became a hit in England, Bob & Earl reunited to tour behind the success. That lasted until the early ’70s when they split up for good.