It’s said that on the boxing circuit in the Pacific Northwest, a former WWII sailor-turned-lightweight-prizefighter named “Kid Chocolate” went undefeated until he retired in 1955 and decamped back to his birthplace of New Orleans. There, Lee Dorsey opened a bustling auto repair business and sang in clubs at night, winding up with a recording career at the age of 35. In Dorsey’s inimitable voice, the inherent carnival of New Orleans nightlife can be heard, as well as a trait that no doubt helped him in the ring, a sense of buoyancy and indomitability in the face of adversity.
In 1961, Dorsey was introduced to Allen Toussaint, a pianist in the New Orleans boogie-woogie lineage of masters like Huey “Piano” Smith and Professor Longhair. By then, Toussaint was already in the business of penning R&B classics like “Mother-in-Law” and “Fortune Teller,” songs that would go on to be covered by the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, and more. And while Toussaint had a formidable stable of talent, from the eccentric Ernie K. Doe to the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, Dorsey’s gifts stood apart. “He had a happy voice and he wasn’t too cool to sing a humorous song,” Toussaint said of the singer.
Despite nearing middle age, the spry and youthful Dorsey took direct inspiration from playground skip-a-rope chants for a string of early singles: “Do-Re-Mi,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” “Eenie-Meenie-Minee-Mo” and “Ya Ya.” In 1961, “Ya Ya” hit the Billboard top ten, moved a million copies and became a gold disc. No more hits followed, so Dorsey just went back to his shop, while Toussaint wound up drafted in the army for two years, discharged in 1965.
Dorsey then climbed the charts again with a decidedly more grown—but no less playful—tune. Penned by Toussaint and backed by a band of incredibly in-the-pocket, second-line players known as the Meters, “Ride Your Pony” remains a strip club anthem without peer. Dorsey, Toussaint, and the Meters proved to be a potent triumvirate of Naw’lins power. From there, Dorsey would be the main vocal conduit for the prolific pen, production, and piano playing of Allen Toussaint, with songs like “Get Out of My Life Woman” and “Holy Cow” following.
Clanging metal on metal lent “Working in the Coalmine” a distinct chiming, mechanistic groove and gave Dorsey another Top 10 single, its hammering beat ringing through new wave and even country, covered by the likes of Devo and the Judds. Dorsey could bop and weave through such rhythms, humorous and spot-on with his interjections, which once led critic Robert Christgau to gauge Dorsey “as much a percussion instrument as JB, only funnier.” Dig through any of his late ‘60s singles—even on songs that didn’t become staples—Dorsey always hits: the sweetness of his duet with Betty Harris on “Love Lots of Lovin’” and his own “Candy Yam,” the slinky funk sitar of “Give It Up,” the breakbeat fury of “Four Corners,” the daily affirmation of “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).”
New Orleans music always enjoyed a bit of distance from the rest of the world, with life moving a little slower in the Big Easy and that laid-back feeling permeating every aspect of the city’s sound. But as the volatile ‘60s bled into the ‘70s and civil rights and black pride came to the fore in the work of James Brown, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations, even the vivacity of New Orleans funk allowed for some deeper insight. And with Dorsey’s 1970 album Yes We Can, Toussaint provided one of the most empowering anthems in his mighty songbook, crafting a towering achievement in New Orleans music with Dorsey on the microphone and the Meters backing him up. Decades before it echoed through the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, Yes We Can finds Dorsey at his most sagacious and optimistic leading into the chorus: “I know we can make it work/ I know we can make it if we try.” Even in the midst of the era’s upheaval, Lee Dorsey’s voice soothes while the bouncing beat, swells of organ, and triumphant horns all reinforce the positive message without a hint of false hope or disbelief in a good outcome.
The rest of the album is just as joyous and affirmative. “Riverboat” transforms the Meters into a steam room, all bleating horns, hissing hi-hats, and drums that churn like pistons, while the wah guitar eddies alongside the titular boat and Dorsey floats across the song. He sings of the overwhelming bigness of life as well as the grain of love that counterbalances it all, riding out the tumultuousness that “on land they’re fighting man to man” with love.
The rest of the album wonders about heartbreak, poverty and paying bills, the disappointing side of human nature, failure, and more. But Toussaint’s arrangements remain light throughout, the Meters lay down the most liquid of rhythms, and the esprit of Dorsey infuses it all with sweet sanguinity.
But while the title track dented the singles charts, Yes We Can as an album, didn’t and the faltering sales led Dorsey back to his auto repair business. But his influence could be heard on the likes of the Band, Robert Palmer, John Lennon, and Van Dyke Parks, who would cover two songs for his 1972 album Discover America. And in 1980, the Clash brought Lee Dorsey out on tour with them.
In two years time, Dorsey himself would be gone. But for all the punches that Lee Dorsey took—in life or in his songs—his music never once loses its footing or goes down. On his best singles, he conveys a sound of joy. “If a smile had a sound, it would be the sound of Lee Dorsey’s voice,” Allen Toussaint once said. “No wonder he inspired so many of my favorite songs.” Forever a boxer, Dorsey remains deft and undefeatable. “Another failure, another try,” as he reminds us on “O Me-O My-O.” “Just keep on pushing.”