The Infinite Jukebox: Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’


No, I’m not a soul boy, but this is magnificent. Just the horn intro, so stark, severe and declarative, making this the best soul intro I’ve ever heard and close to being one of the best ever. Listen to those notes, those stretched, drawn-out notes, their formality, their severity. Then tell me you could resist any song that came after that introduction.
And the song obeys the same imperative. The piano, the same dignity, the same aural sense of removal to a plane far above you. And Bob and Earl, coming in together, instructing you on how to do the Harlem Shuffle. You move it to the left, yeah, you go for yourself, you move it to the right, yeah, if it takes all night…
No dancer, me, nor am I into songs that instruct you on dances, but this is something different. This is Olympian, the sound descending from the Gods, immune to opinions, a thing of itself, precious and complete.
This is a slow dance, full of soul, you make it last. It incorporates other songs, including the limbo, challenging you on how low can you go? And the horns roar again, building the sound, the big sound, as if Phil Spector did soul, as if he could surround the singers without overwhelming them with the Wall of Sound, just making the music big, as immense as it can get with such simple and precise instrumentation.
Now come on baby, Bob and Earl cajole, don’t fall down on me now. Would you fail them? Could you? Just move it right here to the Harlem Shuffle. Moving to this, the most klutzy of us become cool by definition. If man was made to move, he was made to move to this.
Hitch, hitch-hike baby across the floor…
Bob and Earl were a vocal duo, veterans of doo-wop groups who came together in the late Fifties. They made no headway and the original Bob left, leaving Earl Nelson to recruit another Bob, Bobby Relf, with whom ‘Harlem Shuffle’ was written and then recorded in 1962. It was a minor American hit, but it emerged from obscurity in 1969, the period with which I always associate it, as an unexpected British top 10 hit.
But does the year really matter? This is the kind of sound that comes from no era but which is eternal. It’s something special, something outside of time, bound to nothing and no-one but its own imperatives.
I have never had the privilege of dancing to ‘Harlem Shuffle’ at a party, or in a disco. My arthritic right knee makes that kind of dancing particularly painful. But let me have but one chance and I will be out there and I will shake, shake, shake, shake a tailfeather baby. Those horns call…

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