Irving Lee Dorsey (December 24, 1924 – December 1, 1986) was an American pop and R&B singer during the 1960s. His biggest hits were "Ya Ya" (1961) and "Working in the Coal Mine" (1966). Much of his work was produced by Allen Toussaint, with instrumental backing provided by The Meters.
CareerBorn in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dorsey was a childhood friend of Fats Domino before moving to Portland, Oregon when he was ten years old. He served in the United States Navy in World War II and then began a career in prizefighting. Boxing as a lightweight in Portland in the early 1950s, he fought under the name Kid Chocolate and was reasonably successful. He retired from boxing in 1955 and returned to New Orleans, where he opened an auto repair business as well as singing in clubs at night.
His first recording was "Rock Pretty Baby/Lonely Evening" on Cosimo Mattasa's Rex label, in 1958. This was followed by the Allen Toussaint-produced "Lottie Mo/Lover of Love", for the small Valiant label in late 1960 (picked up by ABC Paramount in 1961). These efforts were unsuccessful, but around 1960 he was discovered by A&R man Marshall Sehorn, who secured him a contract with Fury Records, owned by Bobby Robinson. After meeting songwriter and record producer Allen Toussaint at a party, he recorded "Ya Ya", a song inspired by a group of children chanting nursery rhymes. It went to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Although the follow-up "Do-Re-Mi" also made the charts, later releases on Fury were not successful. Dorsey returned to running his repair business, but also released singles on the Smash and Constellation labels in 1963 and 1964.
He was then approached again by Toussaint, and recorded Toussaint's song "Ride Your Pony" for the Amy label, a subsidiary of Bell Records. The song reached no.7 on the R&B chart in late 1965, and he followed it up with "Get Out of My Life, Woman", "Working in the Coal Mine" – his biggest pop hit – and "Holy Cow", all of which made the pop charts in both the US and the UK. Dorsey toured internationally, and also recorded an album with Toussaint, The New Lee Dorsey in 1966. In 1970 Dorsey and Toussaint collaborated on the album Yes We Can; the title song was Dorsey's last entry in the US singles chart. It was later a hit for the Pointer Sisters under the title, "Yes We Can Can". With declining sales, Dorsey then returned to his auto repair business.
In 1976 Dorsey appeared on the album I Don't Want to Go Home by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which led to more recordings on his own with ABC Records, including the album Night People. In 1980, he opened for English punk band The Clash on their US concert tour, and also toured in support of James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Dorsey contracted emphysema and died on December 1, 1986, in New Orleans, at the age of 61.
Dorsey's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Petula Clark and Johnny Hallyday ("Ya Ya Twist", a 1962 French version of "Ya Ya") and Devo ("Working in the Coal Mine"). "Ya Ya" was covered on John Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll album. "Get Out of My Life, Woman" (1966) was performed often by the Byrds (who based their instrumental "Captain Soul" on it), the Jerry Garcia Band, also predated the boom bap beat of the 90s Hip Hop; and Robert Palmer had a hit with "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley". His version of the Allen Toussaint song "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)" is referenced in the Beastie Boys' song "Sure Shot", with the lyric "Everything I do is funky like Lee Dorsey." "Ya Ya" was spoken by Cheech Marin in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie, as he was waiting for his girlfriend.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Lee Dorsey among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.