With its prominent use in the Summer 2017 film Baby Driver, "Harlem Shuffle" by Bob and Earl has gained renewed attention. The Rolling Stones previously scored a hit with their hit 1986 cover (featuring Bobby Womack on backing vocals), accompanied by its humorous Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi-directed video. The 1963 original features not only a more soulful vocal performance but also funky horns and drums. Over 50 years later the question remains: just who were Bob and Earl?
The duo originally consisted of Bobby Day and Earl Nelson (aka Jackie Lee), two singers who had previously recorded classics still remembered today. Day is best known for the oft-covered singles "Little Bitty Pretty One" and "Rockin' Robin," while Nelson sang lead on the Hollywood Flames' 1954 single "Buzz Buzz Buzz" (which also featured Day). The two teamed up for the Los Angeles label Class Records, releasing four singles including the 1957 minor hits "That's My Desire" and "You Made a Boo Boo." However, when Day's aforementioned singles performed well on the charts that same year, he exited the partnership. Nelson was also experiencing some unexpected success when "Buzz Buzz Buzz" was rereleased in 1958. He reunited with the Hollywood Flames, but split up shortly after their 1960 single "Gee Whiz." Looking to revive his career, Nelson reformed "Bob and Earl," this time with singer Bob Relf.
Relf, a veteran of doo wop groups including the Crescendos and the Laurels, cowrote "Harlem Shuffle" with Nelson. Released in 1963, the single featured a future star as arranger: Barry White, the 1970s R&B/disco phenomenon (Relf would go on to pen the 1974 Love Unlimited hit "Walking in the Rain" for him). The single experienced modest success in the US, peaking at number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. While "Harlem Shuffle" first bombed on the English charts in 1963, its subsequent 1969 reissue proved much more successful, reaching number seven.
From the moment the horn-filled fanfare introduces the record, "Harlem Shuffle" sounds out of its time. It has a swampy feel, an imperfect sound that emphasizes the deep soul in the track. It could have been released on Stax in the later half of the decade. Bob and Earl's voices blend perfectly, instructing listeners as well as the unnamed woman to "move it to the left." Over a shuffling bass-heavy beat, they advise us to "take it kinda slow / With a whole lot of soul." They even work in references to current dance trends such as the monkey, limbo, hitchhike, and the pony. What distinguishes this track from other dance singles from that time are those slightly distorted horns, the funky beat, almost murky sound qality, and seamless blend of the lead singers' voices.
While it may not have been a huge hit upon its 1963 release, "Harlem Shuffle" has been sampled and covered frequently ever since. Nelson himself would release a solo version in 1966 under the "Jackie Lee" moniker, while the Foundations (best known for their classic "Build Me Up Buttercup") performed it live in concert. The Rolling Stones charted the highest with their cover, a cut off their 1986 album Dirty Work. But the song gained even more attention through a prominent sample, courtesy of House of Pain. Their lone hit, 1992's "Jump Around" starts off with the same horn blast as on "Harlem Shuffle." Perhaps this proves how the original transcended its time, despite the then-current dance references in the catchy lyrics. Its roughness appeals to both rock and hip hop artists, making Bob and Earl's track a timeless classic now better appreciated.