Born on Christmas eve 1924 Lee Dorsey was an old man in pop terms when he first burst onto the scene in 1961. Prior to this he'd been a man of many talents including becoming a boxer nicknamed 'Kid Chocolate', a respected fighter around the Pacific Northwest during the 40's. "I liked boxing, I never once got whupped. I was fighting featherweight and lightweight, 128 - 131 pounds. I was a dirty fighter" chuckled Dorsey. "I been knocked out on my feet and guys hit me again and bought me back". In 1955 'Kid Chocolate' threw his last punch and became Lee Dorsey once again, "I just got cocky and quit" lamented Dorsey. "I packed my things up in the old car and drove straight to New Orleans. My manager tried to get me to come back, but I just told him to sue me and that was that"
Once back in his hometown he got a job at a car body workshop repairing broken fenders.” I always liked to tinker with things and work on cars, so I thought I’d give it a try." At the time Lee had no intention of being a singer although he did start working for a local DJ Ernie the Whip, who owned a body shop as a sideline. "I used to sing to make my work go easier. And one day this guy came in to get his car fixed” - an independent record producer called Regnauld Richard. "I was under this car hammering and singing away, and he said hey you wanna make a record?" "I said sure I didn’t think he was serious. But he was”. He went down to the studio that evening after work. He didn’t have any songs but Richard asked him if he could write a poem.
Dorsey did and came up with three, one of them being his first single ‘Lottie Mo’. "That’s the one that got me on American Bandstand" he later said. It also introduced Dorsey to the songs producer ,the legendary Allen Toussaint whose friendship and camaraderie lasted well into the 80's. The record turned out to be a minor hit and also meant the body and fender whiz was going to have to appear on stage. "I was always pretty shy about performing" admitted Dorsey.” If I was sitting in a club having a drink and they introduced me, I’d head for the door, before they got my name out, I'd be out in the street".
It was Dorsey’s second single that really broke him , the infectious ‘Ya Ya’ soon tore the charts open. It reached #7 on the Hot 100 in late 1961.It also earnt Lee his first gold record. Dorsey also formed with his first group and worked with the likes of Chuck Berry, Pigmeat Markham and T Bone Walker. He also ran 61 consecutive one nighter’s with James Brown and the Fabulous Flames.
By 1963 Dorsey’s label Fire/Fury had folded and Allen Toussaint had been drafted into the army. None of this fazed Lee Dorsey however, although he did dip back and forth back into the workshop to earn extra money. His impressive string of hit singles continued in 1965 when he released 'Ride Your Pony' on Amy Records. It shot up to #7 in the R&B chart and further cemented his partnership with Toussaint.
1966 was Dorsey’s best year with the bluesy 'Get Out My Life Woman' followed by 'Working in a Coalmine', his second Gold record and 'Holy Cow'. Besides hitting the theatre/club circuit Lee also made his first trip overseas. He spent 3 months in England, which included dates with the Beatles and Rolling Stones. With Lees records in the charts producing a steady revenue Allen Toussaint had enough money along with Dorsey to work on other projects. They set up a number of house labels to record local artists, who would otherwise go unrecorded.
Musically the Dorsey-Toussaint sound matured on record, as the Meters were added as the rhythm section on Lees recordings. Their funky sound was perfect for the 1969 hit 'Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky', so obviously illustrated. Lee’s electric live performances gave him the nickname 'Mr T.N.T' and his live shows always seemed to go down particularly well with the local ladies.
Record wise he slowed up during the early 70's although he was still the perfect medium for Toussaint’s art. "I guess Allen saves his best material for me" said Lee.” He knows what he’s doin’, he can write a song to suit any style".
All Lees activities came to an abrupt halt in 1979. Lee Dorsey was driving his sons motorbike one evening when he was broadsided by a car that was being chased by the police. "I broke my legs" said Dorsey. "He just got out of the car and ran away, and they never caught the guy. The doctor said I might never walk again, but I didn’t believe that. I guess I’m a lucky son of a gun ,I’ve used up my 9 lives, hope I’ve got another 9 left too". Incredibly, Lee worked the 1980 Jazz Festival from a wheelchair, to the delight of thousands. By the fall he was back on his feet and about to embark on one of the most bizarre tours of his career opening for the Clash on their first North American Tour. "I was surprised it worked out real well, I liked em, they’re real straight forward people, We got along real well”.
Sadly Lee succumbed to Emphysema in 1986 and passed away at the age of 61. To this day he is still regarded as one of the true unsung soul music heroes and was an inspiration to millions.