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OBITUARIES / Earl Lee Nelson, 1928 - 2008

'Harlem Shuffle' co-writer was part of the soul duo Bob & Earl

July 25, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Earl Lee Nelson, half of the soul-music singing duo Bob & Earl, who were best known for writing the R&B classic "Harlem Shuffle," has died. He was 79.

Nelson, who had Alzheimer's disease, died July 12 at his Los Angeles home, said Toni Abdul-Hasan, the eldest of his 11 children.

In 1954, he joined an early West Coast doo-wop group, the Hollywood Flames, and sang lead on its biggest hit, the rocking "Buzz Buzz Buzz."

Written in 15 minutes and recorded in a garage studio the next night, the song was all but forgotten by Nelson, who was working at a Culver City toy factory in 1958 when he heard a radio DJ call it the most requested song in L.A., said Jim Dawson, a pop music historian.

Bob & Earl was one of several aliases Nelson used while recording with Bobby Day, a founder of the Flames who had a solo hit with "Rockin' Robin."

By performing under different names, the duo would appear on the same bill as several acts.

Their harmonies had a "smooth, unshowy, yet powerful sound that reflected Nelson's background in gospel," according to the All Music Internet database.

When Day resumed his solo career, the conveniently named Bobby Relf joined Bob & Earl.

Originally released in 1963, their Barry White-produced "Harlem Shuffle" was based on "Slauson Shuffletime," Los Angeles singer Round Robin's song about the avenue of the same name.

"No one back east knew of Slauson. . . . We changed Slauson to Harlem, making it a hit in L.A. and New York," Relf once said.

The song was a minor hit in the United States but reached the top 10 in Britain as a reissue in 1969. The Rolling Stones released a version of the song in 1986.

Relf, who performed with Nelson into the early 1970s, died in November.

Under the name Jackie Lee, Nelson had returned to the U.S. pop charts with the dance novelty "The Duck" (1965), "African Boo-Ga-Loo" (1968) and "The Chicken" (1970).

Born Sept. 8, 1928, in Lake Charles, La., Nelson moved to Los Angeles at 9 with his family. At 17, he joined the Army and worked for the Panama Canal Department.

He was divorced twice.

Nelson's survivors include his wife, Susan, whom he married in 1991; nine children; 26 grandchildren; 48 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.


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