As one-hit wonders go, the horn-blaring, finger-popping floor-filler "Harlem Shuffle" by the Los Angeles soul duo Bob & Earl has proved one of the most enduring. Co-written by Bobby Relf and Earl Nelson, and featuring their friend Barry White on piano, the song was originally released in the United States in 1963.
It was subsequently introduced to London's mods by Guy Stevens, who was DJ-ing at the New Scene Club. At the time, Stevens also ran the UK division of the New York label Sue, and duly issued "Harlem Shuffle" in Britain in 1965. It failed to chart but became a firm favourite at clubs up and down the country and was covered by the mod band the Action. When it was eventually re-released with the full promotional might of Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1969, it belatedly made the Top Ten. "Harlem Shuffle" was most famously covered by the Rolling Stones, who took it back into the charts in 1986, while House of Pain sampled the song's trumpet intro on their Nineties hit "Jump Around".
Born in Los Angeles in 1937, Robert Relf assembled a doo-wop group called the Laurels while attending Fremont High School. In 1955, the vocal quartet issued a single, "Yours Alone". The following year Relf released two solo 45s, "Our Love" and "Little Fool", before joining the local group the Upfronts, featuring Barry White on baritone vocals. Relf was briefly a member of the Hollywood Flames, a group that had previously featured Bobby Byrd, as well as Earl Nelson. Byrd had formed the original Bob & Earl with Nelson in 1957, and when he went solo in 1962, Relf proved a natural replacement on the single "Don't Ever Leave Me".
In interviews, Relf willingly admitted that "Harlem Shuffle" was based on Round Robin's "Slauson Shuffletime", about the Los Angeles avenue of the same name. "No one back East knew of Slauson but they knew Harlem. We changed Slauson to Harlem, making it a hit in LA and New York," he said. "Harlem Shuffle" crossed over from the R&B charts to the Top 50 in the US, though the duo struggled to match its success with the subsequent singles "Baby I'm Satisfied" and "Don't Ever Leave Me". In fact, after charting one last time in the US with "Baby It's Over" in 1966, they went their separate ways.
As Bobby Garrett, Relf recorded "I Can't Get Away", recently revived for a Kentucky Fried Chicken TV ad in the UK, and wrote and produced "Try a Little Bit Harder" for the Fi-Dels. In 1968, he reverted to Bobby Relf for "Blowing My Mind to Pieces".
When "Harlem Shuffle" became a hit in Britain in 1969, Relf and Nelson enjoyed a short-lived reunion. Relf subsequently worked with Barry White on releases by Love Unlimited, Gloria Scott and White Heat as well as composing "Bring Back My Yesterdays" for White's album I've Got So Much To Give in 1973.
Robert Nelson Relf, singer, songwriter and producer: born Los Angeles 10 January 1937; married; died Bakersfield, California 21 November 2007.