In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Gene Chandler – “Duke Of Earl”
HIT #1: February 17, 1962
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
It started out as a vocal warmup. Gene Chandler, a Chicago native and former Army serviceman, was part of an early-’60s singing group called the Dukays; they’d had a couple of minor hits on the R&B charts. They’d sing nonsense syllables in different keys to get their voices going, and Chandler would sometimes turn those nonsense syllables into nonsense words: “Duke, duke, duke, duke of Earl.” When he turned them into a song, that song was pretty much still nonsense: “Nothing can stop me now cuz I’m the Duke Of Eeeeaaaaarl!” And the pure, giddy nonsense of “Duke Of Earl” is what makes it great.
All the members of the Dukays sang on “Duke Of Earl,” but the group’s label decided not to release it as a group song, giving it to Chandler as a solo single instead. And he went running with it. By the time the song hit, he’d bought a top hat, a cape, and a monocle, all of which he’d wear onstage when singing “Duke Of Earl.” And in “Duke Of Earl,” you can hear the willingness to go all-out in support of a supremely goofy bit.
“Duke Of Earl” isn’t about anything other than the sheer joy of hearing these voices piling up on top of each other — pushing themselves, wailing out giddy hooks. The song almost works as the entire genre of doo-wop concentrated into one two-minute song, all its daffy virtuosity put on proud display. Its sheer shameless silliness is exactly what pushes it toward transcendence. And Chandler sings the hell out of it, putting athletic intensity into high notes that don’t mean anything.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Cypress Hill rapping about shooting you over a “Duke Of Earl” sample on their 1991 classic “Hand On The Pump: