Bob and Earl – Harlem Shuffle 

(Discothéque Fantastique Edit)

Hitch, hitch hike baby Across the floor....

George Harrison is believed to have claimed ‘Harlem Shuffle’ as his favourite record of all time. He certainly liked it. In a feature in Record Mirror in 1966 about the contents of his jukebox, it was in prime position at #1, nestling alongside Don Covay, Otis Redding, Barrett Strong and Booker T & The MGs (who later covered the tune).

 In 1962, Earl invited Bobby Relf to join him and after a couple of flops, they released ‘Harlem Shuffle’ on another LA label, Marc, in 1963. Loosely based on Round Robin’s ‘Slauson Shuffletime’, a local record that was named for Slauson Avenue in Central LA. They moved the subject to the better known Harlem, and threw in a slew of dance moves popular at the time (Monkey Time, Hitch Hike, Shake A Tail Feather). It made it #44 in the Billboard Hot 100.

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The original Bob & Earl comprised of Earl Nelson and a singer called Bobby Byrd (not the James Brown one). The pair had originally been part of the Hollywood Flames, a doo-wop group who scored two hits in 1957 with ‘Buzz-Buzz-Buzz’ and ‘Crazy’ both featuring Nelson on lead vocals. The first iteration of Bob & Earl cut three 45s for the Class label, but Byrd left to restart his solo career and in 1958 had a huge hit with ‘Rockin’ Robin’ (under the name Bobby Day), which was later covered by Michael Jackson.

After that, the duo had limited success and broke up, although both went on to record further songs which are now regarded as legendary among the baggy-trousered northern soul fraternity. Earl Nelson’s subsequent pseudonym, Jackie Lee, scored with ‘The Duck’, while Bob Relf recorded the epic ‘Blowing My Mind To Pieces’ (according to some it was particularly big because of the accidental drug reference in the title).

In 1969, when it was reissued in the UK, ’Harlem Shuffle’ was an even bigger hit than it had been first time around, making it to #7 in the BBC charts and handing the twosome another bite of the cherry. They reformed and toured but the success soon dwindled and Relf went back to working as a producer and songwriter, while Nelson continued touring right into the 1980s.

In some ways, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ was almost a dry-run for the career of Barry White. Although White had been around LA studios at this time, he played no part in the composition or production of the song. But his arranger, Gene Page, also arranged ‘Harlem Shuffle’ and Bob Relf became a key part of the White backroom staff. 

White had scored an early hit for himself as producer and co-writer of Felice Taylor’s ‘I Feel Love Comin’ On’ (#11 in the UK in October 1967), but the big breakthrough was in 1972 with Love Unlimited’s ‘Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love’ (#14 in both US Bilboard and UK), which was arranged by Gene Page, with Barry White producing and Bob Relf co-writing the B-side. This trio went on to work together over a series of albums, including Tom Brock, Love Unlimited Orchestra, White Heat and, in particular, the iconic Gloria Scott LP What Am I Gonna Do.

‘Harlem Shuffle’ enjoyed even greater success when Rolling Stones recorded a rather perfunctory version for their Dirty Work in 1986 but nothing quite matches the joy and loose-limbed funk of the original.

Bill Brewster

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