Earl Nelson: Half of Bob & Earl

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The Independent Online

In 1985, the mood in the Rolling Stones' camp was decidedly fractious. With Mick Jagger busy promoting his first solo album, the other band members were cooling their heels and kicking ideas around in studios in Paris and then New York. Bobby Womack visited and they started playing "Harlem Shuffle", a song by the US rhythm and blues duo Bob & Earl. When Jagger finally arrived, the group recorded their own version of the track, which hit the singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The role "Harlem Shuffle" played as ice-breaker between Jagger and Keith Richards added yet another chapter to the story of a classic record first issued 45 years ago.

A guaranteed floor-filler to this day, the infectious "Harlem Shuffle" reached the US Top 50 in 1963 but became a much bigger hit in the UK after being re-released in 1969, when it reached No 7 and stayed in the charts for three months. Earl Nelson was the sole Earl in a partnership which, at various times, featured two different Bobs: Bobby Day and his replacement, Bobby Relf, the other voice on the finger-popping "Harlem Shuffle" and the song's co-writer.

Born in 1928, Earl Lee Nelson sang gospel as a boy and by the mid-Fifties had hooked up with Day to record doo-wop as the Voices. He would subsequently sing tenor on singles credited not only to the Hollywood Flames, but also to Bobby Day and the Satellites and Bob & Earl, sometimes appearing as all three acts on the same bill.

In 1957, he sang lead on "Buzz Buzz Buzz", a significant hit, and Nelson and Day quit their day jobs at the Revell Toy Factory. The following year, Nelson sang background vocals on Day's "Rockin' Robin" – a US No 2, revived by the Jackson Five in 1972 – and they left the Hollywood Flames.

However, their original pairing as Bob & Earl proved short-lived and Day resumed his solo career. For the single "Don't Ever Leave Me" in 1962, Nelson teamed up with Relf from the Laurels.

This new Bob & Earl recorded "Harlem Shuffle" in 1963, with their friend Barry White on piano, arrangement by Gene Page and production by Fred Smith. Relf admitted that the track was basically a reworking of "Slauson Shuffletime" by Round Robin, with the location switched from Slauson to the better known New York neighbourhood. In a further twist, Bob & Earl later sued Smith, and each won a third of the royalties derived from the track.

Nelson had his biggest success in the US as Jackie Lee when he cut "The Buzz" for the Mirwood label in 1965. This, along with the stompers "Do the Temptation Walk", "The Shotgun and the Duck", "Oh! My Darlin" and "Darkest Days" – all credited to Jackie Lee – made him a favourite on the Northern Soul scene in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties.

Pierre Perrone

Earl Lee Nelson, singer and songwriter: born Lake Charles, Louisiana 8 September 1928; three times married (nine children, and two children deceased); died Los Angeles 12 July 2008.