Singer-songwriter Earl Lee Nelson was a part of the R&B/doo-wop duo vocal duo in the 60s music era before scoring his own hit with “The Duck” in 1965. Lee (then under his real name Earl Nelson) and Bobby Byrd were both members of The Hollywood Flames (who scored a #18 Billboard hit with “Buzz Buzz Buzz” in 1958, with Nelson on lead vocals). Bobby Byrd left to start a solo career as Bobby Day, and Nelson hired another “Bob”, Bob Relf; the duo eventually billed themselves as Bob & Earl. Relf and Lee wrote songs together, including “Harlem Shuffle,” which was arranged by Barry White; it went to #3 on the R&B charts in 1964. Under the pseudonym of Jackie Lee (based on his wife’s name Jackie, and Nelson’s middle name), Nelson released a single titled “The Duck” which became a Top 20 charter in 1965. Nelson and Relf reunited when “Harlem Shuffle”‘s re-release became a success before splitting up for good in the early 1970s.
A bit of Jackie Lee’s early years
Known for his one and only hit, “The Duck,” Jackie Lee was born Earl Lee Nelson on September 8, 1928 in Los Angeles, California. Young Lee began singing when he became a member of a church choir. In 1937, he and his family moved to Los Angeles and when he reached the age of 17, he entered the U.S. Army. During that time, he was also working on the construction of the Panama Canal at the same time.
Jackie Lee as a recording artist
Lee started performing after he left the US Army. He used to sing with a range of Los Angeles-based doo-wop and R&B acts, one of whom was his future music partner Bobby Byrd, also known as Bobby Day. In 1957, Lee joined the doo-wop vocal group the Hollywood Flames wherein Byrd was also a member. Later that year, the Hollywood Flames released the single “Buzz Buzz Buzz” which featured Lee as the lead singer. Later, the song became a hit and peaked at #11 on the pop charts and #5 R&B.
Lee working with two “Bobs”
As early of 1955, Lee and Byrd were already a duo as The Voices. They had several releases until 1957, but most of them went unnoticed. Later in 1957, the two were signed to Class record label as Bob & Earl. They debuted with the song “You Made a Boo Boo” which was a failure. The following year, they issued the second single “Gee Whiz.” Like the first single, it did not gain any commercial impact until a cover by the pop group The Innocents became a Top 40 hit in 1960.
During that period, Byrd was already making his own noise with the big hit “Rockin Robin” and left his partnership with Earl. However, the duo was survived with another “Bob,” Bob Relf. In 1962, they were signed on Tempe label and cut a couple of singles: “Don’t Ever Leave Me” and “Deep Down Inside.” The following year, they switched to Marc Records where they released “Harlem Shuffle.” Penned by the duo and arranged by the legendary Barry White, “Harlem Shuffle” charted modestly in the US, peaking at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #36 on Cashbox. However, the song became more successful when it was re-issued in the U.K., reaching the #7 spot. The song was also reported to be George Harrison’s all-time favorite record.
“Harlem Shuffle” was followed by several singles such as “My Woman,” “Your Lovin’ Goes a Long, Long, Way,” and “Baby I’m Satisfied” but saw no notable successes. In 1985, “Harlem Shuffle” was performed by the Rolling Stones and became a chart success as well as included on their eighteenth album, Dirty Walk.
Success with “The Duck”
In 1965, Lee launched himself as Jackie Lee which he got from his wife’s first name. From there, he had his best known recording with “The Duck” which became a dance craze of the decade. It entered the Top 20 on the Billboard chart, peaking at #14 while it was #4 on the R&B charts. Because of “The Duck”‘s achievement, he was then given a chance to record several tracks which include “Do the Temptation Walk,” “ The Shotgun and the Duck,” “Oh! My Darlin,’” and “Darkest Days.”
Later years of Jackie Lee
In 1974, Lee attempted to come back to business with another alias, Jay-Dee. On Warner Bros.’ compilation album Strange Funky Games and Things, he contributed a track with the same title of the album. However, he still continued to perform live across his hometown until he succumbed on July 12, 2008 due to Alzheimer’s disease which he had been battling for years. Lee was 79 years old.