Lee Dorsey – From Boxer to Singer


Introduction to Lee Dorsey

Lee Dorsey was an American R&B and pop crooner who achieved successful recording career in the 60s music era.  Born Irving Lee Dorsey in 1924, Dorsey started his career in boxing upon his return from service in the US Navy during WWII.  He fought under the alias “Kid Chocolate” and had quite a successful career until he retired from the sport in 1955.  His music career started when he sang at clubs in the evening.  Songwriter/producer Allain Toussaint signed Dorsey to Fury record label in the early 1960s.  There, he recorded a nursery-rhyme inspired single “Ya Ya” which eventually became a Top 10 hit in 1961.  Other hits followed:  “Ride Your Pony,” “Get Out Of My Life, Woman,” “Holy Cow,” and “Working in the Coal Mine,” the last of which became  Dorsey’s final Top 10 hit.  In the late 70s Dorsey appeared as guest on the Southside Johnny and Asbury Jukes track “How Can You Treat Me So Bad?”; the collaboration would lead to his own recordings under ABC Records in an unsuccessful comeback attempt.  In 1986 he died from emphysema in his birth city of New Orleans, Louisiana, aged 61. 

Early life, stint in the US Navy, boxing and early singing career

Professionally known as Lee Dorsey, Irving Lee Dorsey was an African-American pop and R&B singer who gained some popularity during 60’s music scene. Born on December 24, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, he and his family relocated to Portland, Oregon when he was ten years old. Dorsey enlisted for a while in the United States Navy during World War III. Returning to Portland in the early 1950’s, he became a lightweight boxer who went by the alias “Kid Chocolate.” Dorsey later gave up his boxing career in 1955 and returned to his hometown, starting his own auto repair business and also, singing at night clubs. 

Professional singing career

In 1958, Dorsey debuted as a recording artist for Valiant and Rex labels with little success. In  1960, he was signed to Bobby Robinson’s Fury Records with the help of songwriter and producer Allan Toussaint. On that label, Dorsey later recorded the single “Ya Ya.” The nursery rhymes-inspired song made to the Billboard chart at #7 in 1961. The million-selling record earned a gold disc presentation. It was followed by another Fury release “Do-Re-Mi” which did moderately well on the pop charts at #22. In 1963, Dorsey issued several singles for Smash and Constellation labels, but these saw no commercial impact. He decided to go back to his auto repair business.

Dorsey’s other Top 10 hits

During the mid-60’s, Dorsey was convinced by Toussaint to record his song “Ride Your Pony” for Bell Record’s subsidiary, Amy label. The song peaked at #28 on the pop chart while it was at #7 on R&B.  In 1966, another R&B single became another hit for Dorsey with “Get Out of My Life Woman” which reached the #5 spot.

Another success came in for Dorsey when he issued the single “Working in the Coal Mine” in 1966; it entered the charts of pop and R&B at #8 and #5 respectively. It also peaked at #5 on the UK singles chart.  The follow-up single “Holy Cow” did quite modestly on the pop chart at #23 while it was #10 on the R&B chart. However, the song was an even bigger hit in U.K. at #6. Between 1967 and 1970, further recordings had been released but these singles failed to repeat the success.

His later years and legacy

A collaboration album was released by Dorsey and Toussaint in 1970 entitled Yes We Can. It was also the title of his last entry on the pop chart. After that, his career went downhill and then returned to his own auto repair business. “Yes We Can” was later redone by the Pointer Sisters but with the title “Yes We Can Can.” It became a hit for the group.

1n 1980, Dorsey became a part of The Clash’s US Tour as their opening act. He also opened for James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis as well.

On December 1, 1986 in New Orleans, Dorsey died from emphysema. He was 61 years old.

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