Back when Rhythm & Blues (Race Music?) was finally starting to become recognized by the masses in Canada, and back when you could only get a taste of it on distant American AM Radio stations like Buffalo’s WUFO, I loved the sound of this group.
Around 1960 in the Top 100 hits of that year I counted only about 5-6 tunes that were of this genre. There were so many other choices, but artists such as these really paved the way for a much bigger interest that would develop over the next 10 years.
The story of this duo reminds me of a lyric fragment, “… Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along” and as you read on, you may get what I mean. It all centers primarily around the career of this man…
Born Earl Lee Nelson, 8 September 1928, Lake Charles, Louisiana
Died 12 July 2008, Los Angeles, California
The musical career of Earl Nelson was entwined with that of two other individuals, each named Bobby. His group, Bob & Earl, was comprised of Earl Nelson along with:
- Bobby Byrd / Bobby Day (a.k.a. Robert James Byrd Sr.) b. 1st July 1930, Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.A. d. 27th July 1990, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.)
- Bobby Relf (b. Robert Nelson Relf, 10th January 1937, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. d. 20th November 2007, Bakersfield, Kern County, California, U.S.A.)
Nelson, the Harlem Shuffle hit maker shot to fame when he recorded novelty hit “Buzz Buzz Buzz” with the Hollywood Flames in the late 1950s and this track became a radio smash.
He would quit his day job in a toy factory when he started recording with Hollywood Flames founder, Bobby Day. When Day decided to go solo, Nelson recruited another Bobby, Bobby Relf, and Bob & Earl were born in the early 1960s.
Earl Lee Nelson was born Sept. 8 in Lake Charles, LA.
Nelson moved with his family to Los Angeles at 9. He sang gospel as a boy.
At 17, Nelson joined the Army and worked for the Panama Canal Department.
Bobby Byrd (who would later become known as Bobby Day) was a founding member of the Flames, later the Hollywood Flames.
This group recorded prolifically for labels like Unique, Specialty, Lucky and Aladdin, but they didn’t score any hits.
Bob and Earl – Enter Bob #1…
Nelson hooked up with Bobby Byrd to record doo-wop in a group called The Voices.
From The Voices, Nelson joined the Hollywood Flames as their lead singer. In October 1957, they recorded “Buzz Buzz Buzz” (for John Dolphin, who sold the master to Lee Rupe) for release on her Ebb label. The song peaked at #11 on the pop charts and #5 on the R&B lists in early 1958.
Written in 15 minutes and recorded in a garage studio the following night, “Buzz” was all but forgotten by Nelson, who was working at the Ravell Toy Factory in Culver City in 1958 when he heard a radio DJ call it the most requested song in L.A.
With the buzz and success of “Buzz Buzz Buzz”, Byrd and Nelson quit their day jobs at the Revell Toy Factory and started recording as “Bob and Earl”, debuting with “You Made A Boo Boo” backed with “That’s My Desire” (Class 213).
“You Made A Boo Boo” / 1957 /
Having several identities proved to be quite lucrative. By changing names and clothes, Byrd and Nelson sometimes managed to be on the same bill under different names three times: as the Hollywood Flames, as Bob and Earl and as Bobby Day and the Satellites. They were all the same guys!
Also by 1957, Byrd was being contracted as a solo artist to Leon Rene’s Class label and thus started a parallel solo career, writing and recording for contractual reasons as Bobby Day. His backup singers, the Satellites, were more or less the same people who sang with him in the Hollywood Flames.
“Gee Whiz” / 1958 /
Meanwhile, Bobby Byrd as a solo artist wrote and recorded the original version of “Little Bitty Pretty One“. He also scored a hit as Bobby Day singing “Rockin’ Robin“, with Earl Nelson singing background vocals.
“Rockin Robin” would later become a US #2, revived by the Jackson Five in 1972.
With the Robin really rocking, Nelson and Byrd took their cue to leave the Hollywood Flames and concentrate on a duo career as Bob & Earl.
As Bob & Earl, Byrd and Nelson recorded several songs on the Class label, but these releases had relatively little success, and Bobby Byrd moved on to restarted his solo career.
Enter Bob #2…
With Byrd going back out on his own, Nelson wanted to continue with the Bob & Earl duo, so he conveniently was able to recruit a second “Bob” from a group called the Laurels, Bobby Relf (who would also use the stage names of Bobby Garrett and Bobby Valentino).
Relf had already led several Los Angeles based acts in his career, including the Laurels, the Upfronts, and Valentino & the Lovers. The latter two groups also featured a young pianist and bass singer, Barry White.
Bob and Earl harmonies had a “smooth, unshowy, yet powerful sound that reflected Nelson’s background in Gospel,” according to the All Music Internet database.
Some songs from the newer Bob and Earl…
This new duo of Relf and Nelson recorded singles for several different labels, before hitting gold in 1963 with a song they wrote called “Harlem Shuffle“. It was arranged by Barry White who played piano on the recording.
Produced by Fred Smith, the song was based on a number called “Slauson Shuffletime” (named after a boulevard in Los Angeles) by another Los Angeles singer, Round Robin.
This song has been covered by many notable artists, including:
- Booker T and the MG’s;
- The Boogie Kings on their self-titled album on the Montel Michelle label (1965);
- The Fabulous Flippers, a regional band out of Kansas (1966);
- The Traits;
- Roy Head’s band (Treat her Right), (1967);
- John Fred and his Playboy Band on their album Vigon (1967);
- The Righteous Brothers on their album Sayin’ Somethin (1967);
- Johnny and Edgar Winter on their album Together (1976);
- The Belle Stars on their 1983 self-titled album;
- The Rolling Stones on their album Dirty Work (1986), and
- 188.8.131.52’s in 2002 on their Teenage Mojo Workout album.
- Pete Townshend also performed the song with his short-lived band Deep End.
By 1965, Earl Nelson was singing with Mirwood Records under the name “Earl Cosby”. But when he and his producer Fred Smith wrote a dance song called “The Duck“, Nelson decided he would use yet another name, so he took his girlfriend”s first name (Jackie) and his own middle name (Lee) and became Jackie Lee.
“The Duck” was released in late 1965 and eventually reached #14 in the U.S.
Other Nelson Songs, other Aliases…
For Mirwood, Earl Nelson as “Earl Cosby” recorded and released “Ooh Honey Baby” / “Send For Me I’ll Be There”…
… and he did a cover of “Land Of A Thousand Dances”.
By 1969, Relf and Nelson were producing many recordings as individual artists. Earl Nelson carried on as Jackie Lee.
When originally released on the Marc label, “Harlem Shuffle” was a modest hit on the R&B charts. Rejuvenation of “Bob and Earl” music came when “Harlem Shuffle” was re-released in the UK and became a Top Ten hit, reaching #13. George Harrison called it his favourite record of all time.
So Nelson and Relf reunited once again as Bob & Earl to do some touring.
The Bob and Earl duo finally split up for the last time in the early 1970s. Bobby Relf went on to compose the song “Bring Back My Yesterday“, recorded by Barry White on his first 20th Century Records album, I’ve Got So Much To Give, as well as another White song, “Your Sweetness is my Weakness“.
Earl Nelson used another alias: “Jay Dee”, under which moniker he released a solo album and several singles.
Bobby Day died on 27th July 1990 from cancer, in Los Angeles and was survived by his wife, Jackie, and four children.
Suffering from bouts of athsma during his life, Bobby Relf died in hospital on the 21st of November 2007, in Bakersfield, California. 5 unreleased songs by Relf are yet to see the light of day.
A former serviceman, Earl Nelson towards the end of his life suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and this lead to his death in July 2008. Some time after his relationship with Jackie, Nelson had married Dolores Curtis. Unfortunately Dolores passed away and Nelson later married another lady, Susan. He is survived by Susan, his wife of 17 years, 10 children, 26 grandchildren, 48 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
(Thanks to Wikipedia, Dik de Heer and Kathy Nelson Burrell (one of Earl’s children from his marriage to Dolores) for a lot of these facts.