Born Irving Lee Dorsey, 4 December 1926, New Orleans, Louisiana
Lee Dorsey was the principal vocal interpreter of writer / arranger / producer Allen Toussaint’s best work of the 1960s and 1970s. Over these two decades, Dorsey recorded seventy Toussaint compositions, all arranged and mostly produced or co-produced by Toussaint himself (55 of them during 1965-72, Dorsey’s commercial heyday).
Born in New Orleans in 1926, Lee Dorsey was raised in the city’s Ninth Ward, where Fats Domino was a childhood friend. At the age of ten, Dorsey moved to Portland, Oregon, with his family. After a World War II stint in the Pacific as a gunner with the US Navy, Dorsey worked as a professional lightweight boxer in the Portland area under the moniker Kid Chocolate. He returned to New Orleans in 1955 and studied car repair on a G.I. Bill. At first he worked at the garage of local deejay "Ernie the Whip” ; later he established his own modest auto repair business that he maintained until his death in 1986.
At the instigation of local record producer Renaldo Richard, Dorsey first recorded in 1959 for Cosimo Matassa’s local Rex label (“Rock’/“Lonely Evening”, reissued on Ace 640 in 1961). The record sold well enough to provoke a second attempt, this time for the Valiant label, owned by Joe Banashak. At the studio Dorsey first met Allen Toussaint, who played piano, arranged the session and wrote one side of the release. But it was the Dorsey/Richard composition “Lottie-Mo” that took off locally and just missed the national charts when it was picked up by ABC-Paramount in March 1961.
Marshall Sehorn, then southern promo man / talent scout for Bobby Robinson’s labels, heard “Lottie-Mo”, phoned ABC to ask if Dorsey was under contract with them, and when this turned out to be not the case, he signed Lee to Fury in June 1961. Dorsey's first record for the label was ”Ya Ya”, which he co-wrote with Bobby Robinson. It was an instant smash, peaking at # 1 on the R&B charts and # 7 on the pop charts. The pianist on the record is not Allen Toussaint, as most people think (he was asked to play on the session, but his contract with Minit didn't allow this), but Marcel Richardson. Petula Clark cut a French version in 1962 (“Ya Ya Twist”), scoring a French Top 10 hit in the process.
Dorsey’s follow-up to his hit was “Do-Re-Mi”, written by Earl King, incorporating the same nursery rhyme approach. It went to # 27 on the pop charts and # 22 R&B. Over the next couple of years, while touring the USA with the likes of James Brown, Dorsey made another dozen or so chirpy recordings for Fury, all cut at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans. Allen Toussaint was involved with some of Dorsey’s Fury releases, but for the most part he was contractually busy with other singers for Minit. Bobby Robinson’s record operation began to decline and Fury collapsed in 1963. Dorsey returned to car maintenance, but Sehorn kept the faith and recorded him during 1963-64 with various local talents. A few sides were leased to Smash and Constellation ; others remained on the shelf until first released by the Charly label in the UK in the 1970s.
Allen Toussaint returned to civilian life in early 1965 after two years of Army service. He did not feel comfortable going back to Minit, which had been sold to Lew Chudd. Now that both men were free from contractual obligations, the Toussaint-Dorsey relation- ship could start off in earnest. Toussaint formed his own production company with Marshall Sehorn (Sansu Enterprises) and Lee Dorsey became their principal project. His recordings were leased to the Amy label. “Ride Your Pony” (# 7 R&B, # 28 pop) was the first of an impressive string of Toussaint-produced Dorsey hits during the 1965-69 period. Other successes include “Get Out Of My Life, Woman”, “Confusion”, “Working In the Coal Mine” (Lee’s second Top 10 pop hit, # 8) and “Holy Cow”. These four numbers were also Top 40 hits in the UK in 1966 and Dorsey spent three months touring England that year. Lee was internationally acclaimed on stage, whether individually booked or sharing the bill with acts as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis and Pink Floyd.
Backed by the Meters in 1970, Dorsey released the critically acclaimed, but poor selling album “Yes We Can”, released on Polydor. The title song, redone as “Yes We Can Can”, was a # 11 hit for the Pointer Sisters in 1973. By the early 1970s Lee Dorsey’s infectious, happy singles began to fall out of favour. Toussaint and Sehorn built their own Sea-Saint studio and were too busy trying to lure outside record labels. Dorsey was not unhappy to return to his car repair shop and to spend more time with his large family (11 children!), still making occasional stage appearances. He released a new album for ABC in 1977 (“Night People”) and served as the opening act for the British group The Clash on their 1980 US tour, his last notable gig. After a year-long battle with emphysema, Lee Dorsey died in his home town in December 1986, aged 61.
More info :
Discography (singles only) : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/ldorsey.htm
CDs : Many collections are available, for instance “The Essential Lee Dorsey” (Arista, 2014, 40 tracks on 2 CDs) and “Soul Mine : The Greatest Hits And More, 1960-1978” (Charly, 2012, 56 tracks on 2 CDs).
Acknowledgements : John Broven, Jeff Hannusch, Cliff White.
Dik, April 2017
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