Had an East Coast record distributor not chosen a different song as a better bet for hitdom, The Dukays would have had a #1 pop/R&B smash. Instead, credit went solely to lead singer Gene Chandler - who didn't even exist until it was pressed up!
Chandler's actual name was Eugene Dixon. Born July 7, 1937 and raised on Chicago's South Side, he formed The Gaytones at Englewood High but left to join The Dukays, assembled in 1957 by second tenor Ben Broyles, baritone Earl Edwards, and bass Motee Thurston. They were named by a local barber (the group rehearsed at his shop). The Dukays stayed together while Dixon served overseas in the Army. When he returned in 1960, he brought in his cousin, Shirley Johnson, who sang first tenor. James Lowe came in as bass while songwriter Bernice Williams polished the group and penned what would become their debut release, The Girl's A Devil.
Carl Davis and Bill 'Bunky' Sheppard were fledgling producers with offices on the West Side. Williams brought them a tape of The Dukays in December of 1960. "I got with Bunky, and we listened to it," said the late Davis. At their first session at Chicago's Universal Recording, The Dukays waxed The Girl's A Devil and the Williams-penned ballad flip The Big Lie. The single came out on the Nat label, Dixon fronting both. The Girl's A Devil proved a #64 pop seller in the spring of 1961.
For their encore date at Universal, the group readied the Williams-penned rocker Nite Owl and a lovely ballad, Festival Of Love. Then Davis overheard the group rehearsing outside his office. "They were out there doing this 'Doo-doo-doo.' And I said, 'What is that?' And they said, 'Oh, this is for the next session.' I said, 'Oh, no. Whatever that is it's a smash.' So we're gonna do that on this session," hesaid. "They went home and got together with Bernice, and they started writing the lyrics. They called me at home, and they were saying, 'If a guy is a king and he owns a lot of land, what is it?' I said, 'Well, that's a kingdom.' And they said, 'What if it's a duke?' I said, 'Well, it's a dukedom!' They finished writing the song and got it ready."
Next assignment: choosing which songs would constitute their Nat encore. New York distributor Bill Lasley decided that. "He listened to all four songs, and he sent two of them back," said Davis. "He said, 'I want 'Nite Owl,' and whatever was on the flip side.' And he sent back 'Duke Of Earl.'" Bunky peddled the remaining pair (Kissin' In The Kitchen was the flip) to Calvin Carter, A&R man for Chicago's far larger Vee-Jay label. "Calvin fell in love with 'Duke Of Earl.' And Ewart Abner, who was running the company, was in England. So he called Abner in England and said, 'Man, Carl and Bunky have come up with a smash!'
"When we decided that we were going to split up these four sides, I met with the whole group," said Davis (Nite Owl made it to #73 pop on Nat in early '62). Carl told The Dukays, "We want to put these other two out. Everybody's going to get paid the same, but we just want to name these two different. Y'all got two records out there. We were going to start off with Eugene Dixon. That was his real name. And I said, 'I don't like that at all.' My favorite actor was Jeff Chandler. He used to play Cochise in the movies. So I said, 'Why don't we do that? Why don't we just cut your name from Eugene to Gene, and then use Chandler as your last name?'" Vee-Jay put it out in October; in early January it was the top pop single in the country.The newly christened Gene Chandler donned a top hat, cape, tux, and monocle to lip-synch Duke Of Earl in the film musical 'Don't Knock The Twist.'
With Davis producing, Chandler became a soul star, posting a steady stream of hits on Vee-Jay, Constellation, Checker, and Brunswick (without Davis, Gene went gold with Groovy Situation for Mercury in 1970). The Dukays picked up Charles Davis as new lead tenor; their Please Help looked promising on Vee-Jay during the spring of '62 but didn't make the charts. Davis later changed his name to Nolan Chance when he went solo.