The Rolling Stones’ 1986 hit “Harlem Shuffle” was first recorded by Bob & Earl, an R&B duo whose version rose to number 44 on the charts in 1963. The song’s roots are not uptown in New York City; instead, the dance was born 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.
The story begins in the late 1950s, when Bobby Day and Earl Nelson were members of the doo wop group the Hollywood Flames. Nelson sang lead on the Flames’ 1958 hit, "Buzz Buzz Buzz"; that same year, Day had solo success with "Rockin’ Robin."
In 1960, Day and Nelson began to record as Bob & Earl. In 1962, meeting little success, Day decided to again pursue a solo career. Nelson recruited Bobby Relf of the Laurels to replace Day. Relf and Nelson co-wrote the duo’s biggest hit, "Harlem Shuffle."
"Harlem Shuffle" by Bob & Earl
The Harlem Shuffle draws from the line dances that originated in ballrooms during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s; it is also done individually with a shake of the hips and shoulders.
“Harlem Shuffle” was also the first success for Barry White, who co-arranged the track with Gene Page.
"The original version by Bob & Earl had horns on it, straight-ahead soul-disco style," said Keith Richards in Inside Classic Rock Tracks. "It was probably the first disco record. It was still the early Sixties when they did it, but the sound and beat were very connectable to that early disco stuff."
It was Richards who promoted “Harlem Shuffle” for inclusion on the Stones' Dirty Work album; Richards has said it was a track that took “five years and two takes to get Mick to sing.”
Richards added the song to every tape of prospective tunes that he gave to Mick Jagger. Eventually, Jagger recorded the vocals for "Harlem Shuffle."
"Harlem Shuffle" by the Rolling Stones
The track was so strong that the Stones released it as the opening single for the album. The addition of vocals by R&B greats Bobby Womack and Don Covay helped the song reach number five in early 1986.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever