“I remember when the Duke was popular,” says Gene Chandler to the writer from Jet. “There were so many women trying to get to me backstage, we started telling them that they’d have to bring a gift if they wanted to see me — just to keep them away. Hey, if I’d had a piece of some of those gift shops nearby, I wouldn’t need to tour.” Chandler was being feted by Jet magazine in the dining room of the Johnson Publications building in midtown Chicago, and he was making conversation effortlessly.
“Today, music is coming together,” he continues. “With people like Rod Stewart and Elton John, white music doesn’t have that loony tune sound anymore. Still, I don’t see where ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ is that much tougher than ‘Get Down,’ yet they told me that ‘Get Down’ was too funky to break white.”
If Chandler’s rap seemed tainted with the “whitey-stole our-music” clichés that pervade black publications, there are few performers who have as much right to run it as Chandler. With his hit recording, “Get Down,” Chandler has taken advantage of disco’s democratic playlist — which has given everyone from Cher to Cab Calloway another shot at the charts — but his second taste of success is tinged with bitterness, for he knows that disco has become, in many quarters, another synonym for r&b, for soul, and is subject to the same segregating radio policies. So, if victory for Chandler is bittersweet, it is still victory, one of the most dramatic comebacks in the business. Eighteen years ago Chandler experienced overnight success with and as the Duke of Earl, one of rock’s most memorable oldies. Chandler, caped and tuxedoed, cut one of rock/r&b’s most colorful figures, and extended his career through the ’60s as one of the era’s most durable soul singers. But like many others, Chandler was swept away by the British invasion and the declining local scene, and his success became increasingly segregated. In the early ’70s, he packed it in as a performer, and still the bottom was not in sight. Jet reported in its January 13, 1977, issue that Chandler had been convicted of the sale of 388 grams of heroin (street value: $30,000) for which he would serve four months in late 1978. It is a subject he steadfastly refuses to talk about for the record.
The interview is scheduled for late that afternoon, and Chandler, who initially suggested we do it at his place, raises his guard higher by suggesting instead that we do it at the home of his producer and longtime professional associate Carl Davis. Chandler picks me up in his 1979 maroon Cadillac Fleetwood; “I usually use the Coupe,” he offers. Yet despite his obsessive cool, Chandler is not a difficult interview. He is courteous and articulate, and impresses with his durability. Though at 38 the lines on his face are etched more sharply than in his early publicity photos, he is considerably slimmer. A couple of years ago he started dieting — cutting out meat, and having his fish and poultry broiled — and it is his most engaging topic of conversation.
His singing, too, reflects his good health. Chandler’s new album, Get Down, though paced by his disco hit, is most impressive for a ballad, “Traveling Kind,” which has a lyrical folkish bent and is about someone leaving a loved one. It was cut just before Chandler went to prison, or as he puts it, “went out of town.” But it is “Get Down” that has revived Chandler’s career. The tune has a heavily synthesized rhythm section, overlaying an infectious insistent disco beat, and is mixed with an endless series of instrumental fades in and out, so that it is as much one long succession of hooks as it is a structured song. And by straddling the song-groove structure, it has been able to chart top-25 disco, top-5 r&b, and top-50 pop.
We get to Davis’s home in Flosmore, one of Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs, where he lives with his wife and the four youngest of their seven children. It’s a luxurious though tasteful ranch house, equipped with tennis courts, and an in-door pool, and Davis greets us at the door wearing a sweatshirt and gym pants. At 44, his moustache and the burns of his short Afro are flecked with silver but his medium height frame is healthy and robust. If Chandler is a survivor, then Davis is the fittest, and when pressed, Chandler, who is somewhat stifled by the need for historical overview, will defer to Davis’s carefully worded and enunciated observations.
The Chicago of the ’50s that Chandler came through was a hotbed of musical activity. Representatives of the majors were old and out of touch and it seemed that there was a generational turnover among local musicians and record men. Chess Records and its stable of artists had their secure share of professional success, but on the street the sound was passing over to hundreds of teenage doowop groups. New, black-owned labels like United and Parrot and Chance were establishing themselves, but the comer was Vee-Jay Records, owned by Vivian Carter and administered by Ewart Abner. The label had the combination of street ears, professional smarts, executive-level charisma and its records, beginning with the rather segregated blues of people like Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, gradually cut a swath across the charts, with pop-sounding records by artists like Jerry Butler and finally with white acts like the Four Seasons.
Chandler was singing lead with a group called the Dukays when the group’s manager called them to the attention of Davis and producer Bunky Shepard. Davis had gotten to know all the record men in the area after he came out of the service in the early ’50s. He was an expert DJL Veritype operator and was able to research and compute sales reports. Soon he was doing it for every major local label. From there he went on to local promotion and together with Shepard produced a session with the Dukays that resulted in two charted records for the group, “The Girl Is a Devil” and “Nite Owl,” both of which were leased to a small New York–based company, Nat. “The Duke of Earl” was also recorded at those sessions but Nat passed on it. Vee-Jay heard it and liked it, but faced with a group already signed to another label, “Gene Chandler was created,” says Gene Chandler.
“My real name was Eugene Dixon, but Carl and I both liked Jeff Chandler, we thought the name had a white sound to it, the record company was crazy about the record so I gladly stepped into the slot. The record was released in November, ’61, and by January ’62, it had knocked ‘The Twist’ out of the box. And I played the act to the hilt,” recalls Chandler of the days when his outfit consisted of a tuxedo, top hat, cane, cape, and monocle. The image perfectly complemented the tune, which merged doowops’ exaggerated bass harmony and falsetto vocals with the then-popular cha-cha-inflected groove. Two and a half minutes of teenage majesty, the song and the image was a fantasy fulfillment for every hood who ever wanted to crash the high school dance. But like so many records of the era, it was followed up with a lifeless imitation, “Walk On with the Duke.” Although it bombed as it deserved to, it is in retrospect noteworthy, for on it Chandler temporarily forfeited his own newfound pseudonym for another — the artist-listing is simply “The Duke of Earl.”
Then Chandler got his first professional reprieve; some northern stations flipped one of his novelty follow-ups — an answer record to Mary Wells’s “You Beat Me to the Punch” called “You Threw a Lucky Punch” — and uncovered a ballad called “Rainbow.”
“Rainbow” would kick off the most productive period of Chandler’s career, as a ballad singer, and also begin a series of magnificent collaborations with its author, Curtis Mayfield. Listen to it on side one of the deleted Chess LP, The Duke of Soul, one of the best-sequenced album sides ever. “Rainbow” — like “Valerie” by Jackie & the Starlites farther north, and “Please, Please, Please” by James Brown & the Flames farther south — was less a song than a slow hypnotic groove, its two chords repeated cyclically over a gospelic female chorus. Here Chandler combines the unbridled yet highly stylized emotionality of the doowop singers with the powerful tradition-ensconced vocal maneuvers of gospel. The album segues to “Rainbow, Part Two,” recorded live, as Chandler defines soul’s love-man performance, inflecting his vocals with a sexuality as unpop as his gospel style. Then listen to another Mayfield composition, “A Man’s Temptation.” If Curtis Mayfield, with his songs of poetry and idealization, was pure spirit, and Jerry Butler, who sang Mayfield’s songs of love and survival, was his secular ego, then Gene Chandler was Mayfield’s libido, and in “A Man’s Temptation” he dramatized the conflict of a man caught between his wife and lover, a role neither Mayfield nor Butler could have played.
Finally, there are “What Now” and “Just Be True,” featuring Johnny Pate’s majestic strings and trombone-laden horn sections. These two songs characterize Chicago soul, as individual and original a contribution to the ’60s as Stax and Motown. As for Chandler’s stature, a local writer Robert Pruter observes, “In the ’60s, there was no one bigger in Chicago — not Marvin Gaye, not Otis Redding, no one.”
But Chicago was dying as a music center. Vee-Jay, crippled by lavish spending and the huge gambling losses of one of its key executives, soon folded, and Chandler, who was contracted to that executive, shuttled along from one dying label to another.
At one point he was alternating between Brunswick (where Davis had returned after heading CBS’s Okeh label for a spell) and Chess, scoring r&b hits for both. Finally, he switched to Mercury, which put him in charge — nominally, at least — of his own affairs with a novelty label called Mr. Chan. A picture of his face was incorporated into the logo. There in 1971, his self-produced hit, “Groovy Situation,” gave his lagging career a buzz. But Chandler was essentially a man on his own by then. He overburdened himself with production assignments, and except for Mel and Tim’s “Backfield in Motion” was not successful with any of them. There was a brief, but abortive contract with Mayfield’s Curtom Records in ’72; then, for the rest of the decade, zero. Chandler describes his decline with nonchalance. “I just couldn’t get the good help. People like Gamble and Huff are fortunate to have each other. I can say that I closed up shop not owing anybody any money. And I always knew in the back of my mind that if the business thing didn’t work, I had plenty of time to bring Gene back.”
Gene was brought back in 1978. Within weeks after his acquittal in the Brunswick payola trial, Davis had formed Chi-Sound Records, and within months of that Chandler was signed as an artist. “Get Down” had already been recorded a couple of years earlier on a demo album that was never released. It was laid down again with a newer, hotter, more synthesized rhythm track, then was disco-mixed by Rick Gianatos. It took less than a month to break.
Why did it take Chandler — and Davis, who had usually assisted in producing Chandler, even when other contractual commitments forbade putting his name on the record — so long to meet the commercial demands of the market head on? Why was Chandler allowed to fall into an artistically satisfying but commercially limited ballad groove?
“During those days,” offers Chandler, “they just weren’t playing black records pop.”
“I would say that during the early ’60s they were playing more black music then than they are now,” adds Davis. “Now, it’s ridiculous. Then it was just bad. If you could reach number one on your black stations you had a good shot of going over to your pop station, but it went like this: If Dee Clark had a number one record in the country, r&b and pop, when his next record came out he did not automatically go pop, he had to go back on the r&b stations and prove himself all over again, and if he didn’t hit number one, he didn’t go pop. Now you take the same situation with Bobby Rydell, if he had a number one record, when he came out with his second record, it automatically went pop. It wasn’t until the days of Motown and Stevie Wonder that some black music would be an automatic pop radio add. In fact, I left my position with CBS over a fight with an executive who wanted me to copy whatever was hot. It depends on what you’re about. I don’t believe in gimmicks. I believe in getting an artist who can sing, giving him the right song with the right arrangements, and he’ll sell his share of records. The whites like to hear ‘bip-bam thank you ma’m’, but when you start thinking about it after one or two records you never heard from those acts any more. None of them were able to sustain like a Nat Cole, who lasted for years without ever singing uptempo tunes.”
“Or take Chubby Checker,” adds Chandler, “when the twist was over with, so was he. I used to notice that fast records took off much quicker than mine, but I had confidence in my ballads, and if everybody’s records shot past mine on the charts, mine would sit there a little longer than theirs.”
“Even Motown,” says Davis, “was just an invention. If an artist was out of the country, he’d come back and ‘Here’s your track.’ The key was too high? They’d put background vocals on for the high notes. So while the invention worked, when any of those acts left Motown, they died, because they couldn’t take the invention with them.”
“For black entertainers,” concludes Chandler, “it was a ‘you can eat, but you’ve got to eat in the back’ situation. Or the concerts that were all white with blacks allowed to sit in the balcony.”
Has disco, with its democratic playlists, made it a whole new ball game for crossing over? “No” they both answer simultaneously and emphatically. “Because now you’ve got your pop stations saying that they’re not disco stations, and using that as an excuse for not playing records like ‘Get Down.’ That’s the same reason you now have separate disco charts,” says Chandler. And Davis adds: “I can’t think of a major pop station that’s gone on ‘Get Down,’ even though it’s approaching a million and the album’s approaching a half million.
“Let me tell you something,” Davis goes on. “ ‘Disco’ was being played by black tavern jockeys so long ago it was ridiculous. All of a sudden, in the past few years, someone — or whites — said let’s capitalize on it and call it disco, but years ago we couldn’t get our records played on a lot of stations so a lot of guys went to jockeys who had their operations set up in a tavern where they used to have sock hops. Even before that, in the dance halls, you’d have some guy by the turntable taking the volume knob and just punching it and it would give you that choom-choom,” he says, flicking his hand forcefully… “Now somebody had the bright idea to combine it with lights and call it disco, and they’re making a million bucks on it, but during the times when we couldn’t get our records played, thank God we were able to use that to develop grassroots sales.”
Still, didn’t “Get Down” represent Chandler and Davis’ most aggressive pursuit of the marketplace in many years? And had Chandler read Wilson Pickett’s remarks in Rolling Stone about how stand-up singers should not compromise their sound for the demands of disco?
“Yes, I read that,” snaps Chandler, “and that’s his opinion. But I personally feel that we are performers for the public, that we don’t owe them and they don’t owe us. My all-time favorite entertainer is Ray Charles, and that’s because he was able to do any type of material — even material that wasn’t expected of him — and do it well and have hits with it. Now you heard my LP; on it I do some uptempo stuff, some so-called rhythm and blues stuff. The idea is to compete, and if you’re not gonna compete then get out of the business.”
How did Chandler feel about the fact that the type of material he does best — the ballad — has not been the material that has brought him success?
“I always keep the faith that sooner or later the pop public will appreciate me totally as they should have some time ago. The ballads, those are my first love, but I’m a capitalist. I’m not going to go out there and sell Chandler soap while my competitors are labelling theirs ‘Supersoap.’ I’m going to put ‘New, Improved, Super Chandler’s Soap’ on mine. So if disco is what’s happening I want a piece of that market. It obviously was the correct thing to do because it brought me all the way back out there, whereas the slow record didn’t; so the idea is to keep throwing the fast stuff on them, and every time they buy the LP, they’re just going to have to suffer with the ballads, if that’s what it is.”
That duality was evident at Chandler’s recent comeback performance at Chicago’s Auditorium. Supported by Joe Simon, Chandler only filled the 3800-seat hall to about one-third capacity, and according to Prouter there was a sharp division between an older audience, who came prepared to enjoy an evening of Chandler’s oldies, and teenagers, who “seemed to come from nowhere and pour out through the aisles when Chandler closed the show with ‘Get Down.’ ”
The question of whether Chandler can parlay his disco-oriented chart success into concert level popularity is unresolved and is likely to remain so through his upcoming European tour. Although “Get Down” is currently top-25 in England, European audiences have a tendency to treat veteran black performers as folkloric. If this tradition prevails, the tour could prove vastly unfulfilling for Chandler, who is in a competitive frame of mind. “I don’t dislike Teddy Pendergrass,” he says. “But it’s like if Ali is the heavyweight champion, then everybody else is trying to take his spot, and I’m going to see if I can have Pendergrass’s position before the year is out.”
This kind of remark is typical of Chandler and his attitude toward his career, as a source close to Chandler puts it, “Gene’s biggest problem is that he’s hung up on ‘I.’ He should quit going around telling people that he is great as anything but an entertainer, when anyone can see that for a seven-year period he didn’t have or produce a hit. He was also affected by the fact that his first record was so big, and there was so much hullabaloo about it that it was bigger than he was… People don’t like an egotist.”
The ride back to Chicago is long, and it’s gotten dark out, and Chandler, who has been “on” for the media all day begins to let his guard down.
“You asked me about incidents from the past that stuck out. How about the time that a woman followed me back to my motel room and threatened to kill me if I didn’t make love to her. That scared the hell out of me,” he says wearily. “Or the time on the road when I woke up in the middle of the night, looked out window and the back of the car was like an accordion, we were in a three car collision — the kind that killed Billy Stewart.
“When the Duke of Earl was happening they moved me around so fast that I didn’t realize what I’d had until the record was over, and only then realized how much more I could have capitalized on it. Then seeing records I’d recorded that I was crazy about miss, I’d say to myself, ‘How could this record miss? Am I recording correctly? Do I know what I’m hearing? Am I off the beam?’ And working those same joints year after year, seven shows a day at the Howard, never stepping up to the Vegas thing. But I know that there’s been a void as far as single entertainers go, I’m not talking about groups like Earth, Wind & Fire. I’m talking about the guy who’s out there by himself. So finally, when Carl put Chi-Sound Records together I had to push my pride aside and ask him if he would take me back.”
Ultimately, Chandler is a man who has had more than his share of highs and lows, and through them, has only rarely shown the tarnished side of his armor of cool. But despite his shortcomings, he is a man for whom music is truth. The last entertainer who told me that singing is 90 percent business promptly put me to sleep in concert, while Chandler, as his new album will evidence, is still singing for all he’s worth, and with a vitality that few if any of his contemporaries can approach. I wish him the best as he embarks on the newest phase of his career; that of “the Duke of Disco.” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 30, 2019