Sometimes the weeks go by so quickly, each one with a new Soul Serenade column, and once in awhile one of the capitol cities of soul gets overlooked for too long. That’s certainly the case with New Orleans. I haven’t visited the Crescent City in quite awhile in this column, but I’m going to make up for that this week by featuring one of the city’s most iconic artists.
Lee Dorsey was a native-born son of New Orleans. He was born there in 1924 and left the city when he was ten years-old to move to Portland, Oregon. Like many other young men of his age, Dorsey joined the military during World War II. After serving in the Navy he returned to Portland and launched a career as a boxer. He was good at it too, fighting as a light heavyweight under the name of “Kid Chocolate.”
After he gave up boxing in 1955, Dorsey returned to New Orleans and found new success as the owner of an auto body shop by day, and a singer at night. He recorded singles for several labels beginning with “Rock Pretty Baby” b/w “Lonely Evening” which was released on Cosimo Matassa’s Rex label in 1958. Dorsey’s next single, “Lottie Mo” b/w “Lover of Love,” was for the Valiant label.
Dorsey’s early singles didn’t find much success. Then, in 1960, Dorsey was discovered by A&R rep Marshall Sehorn who got him signed to Fury Records. Dorsey’s path to success continued when he went to a party where he met songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint. Together they recorded a nursery rhyme-inspired song called “Ya Ya” and it shot all the way to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. “Ya Ya,” which was co-written by Dorsey, was a million-selling single and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Dorsey’s follow-up effort, “Do-Re-Mi,” found some chart success, but subsequent Fury releases didn’t do as well, and Dorsey returned to his auto body business. He didn’t stop singing though, releasing singles on the Smash and Constellation labels in 1963 and 1964. Toussaint came calling again in 1965 and Dorsey’s version of his song “Ride Your Pony,” released on Toussaint’s Amy label (a Bell Records imprint), reached #7 on the R&B chart.
“Get Out of My Life, Woman,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” and “Holy Cow” followed, and they all made the pop chart. In fact, “Coal Mine” turned into the biggest pop hit that Dorsey ever had. The Dorsey-Toussaint team produced another hit with “Yes We Can” (later a hit for the Pointer Sisters as “Yes We Can Can”) in 1970, but it was Dorsey’s last chart single. Once again Dorsey fell back on his auto repair business.
In 1976 Dorsey’s career was revived once again by his appearance on the Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album I Don’t Want to Go Home. That led to a new record deal with ABC Records. The Clash selected Dorsey to open for them on their 1980 tour, and he also toured with James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis in the ’80s.
Lee Dorsey was only 61 years-old when he contracted emphysema and died in 1986, leaving behind a string of classic New Orleans records.