How many artists can you think of whose careers spanned the years from doo-wop to classic soul and into the disco era and had hits in all of them? The one that leaps to mind for me is Gene Chandler. There were landmarks along the way for Chandler, from his 1962 doo-wop smash “Duke of Earl,” to his 1964 soul classic “Just Be True,” to his 1978 disco hit “Get Down.”
Chandler is a Chicago guy, born and raised. He was a teenager when he joined his first band, the Gaytones. In 1957 he became a member of the Dukays. His career with that group was interrupted by a stint in the Army but he returned to them when he got out in 1960. The Dukays got a record deal with Nat Records and working with producers Carl Davis and Bunky Shepherd they released their first single, “The Girl is a Devil,” in 1961.
A subsequent session yielded four more songs. Nat Records chose “Nite Owl” to be the next Dukays single so Davis and Shepherd offered another song from the session, “Duke of Earl,” to a different local label. Vee-Jay released “Duke of Earl” as a single in 1962 but under the name Gene Chandler as opposed to the Dukays. The rest is pop music history. The single sold a million copies in its first month of release and spent three weeks atop the charts.
The following year, Chandler left Vee-Jay and signed with Constellation Records. In the three years he was with the label Chandler had one hit after another including “Just Be True” in 1964, and “Nothing Can Stop Me” in 1965. Both of those songs were written by Curtis Mayfield. After Constellation went belly-up, Chandler alternated releases with Chess Records and Brunswick Records.
In the late ’60s, Chandler got involved as a producer and started a couple of labels of his own. He produced his 1970 hit “Groovy Situation” which was released by Mercury Records. The song was written by Russell Lewis and Herman Davis and had been originally recorded by Mel & Tim. Earlier, Chandler had produced the Mel & Tim smash “Backfield in Motion.” Chandler’s version of “Groovy Situation” had the magic though and it reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and it was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart while becoming a million-seller.
While it was nearly impossible to match the success that Chandler had with “Duke of Earl,” “Groovy Situation” became Chandler’s second biggest hit. Both songs have made numerous appearances in movies over the years. “Duke of Earl” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
When disco was in its ascendancy Chandler adapted when many others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Toward the end of the 1970s, Chandler once again worked with producer Carl Davis and had disco hits like “Get Down,” “When You’re #1,” and “Does She Have a Friend.”
Gene Chandler has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and he has received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1970 Chandler was named Producer of the Year by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers and he has been inducted twice into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, once as a performer and again as an R&B Music Pioneer. From his first chart single in 1961 to his last in 1986, Gene Chandler has had a remarkable genre-spanning career.