Born in New Orleans on 4 December 1926, Lee Dorsey moved with his family to Oregon when he was 10.
After serving four years in the Navy (he was wounded by a Japanese Zero which strafed his ship) he took an interest in boxing, called himself Kid Chocolate and launched a haphazard career as a featherweight and lightweight prizefighter.
In 1955, however, Kid Chocolate put everything he owned in a car and drove back to New Orleans. There he studied car body and fender repair under the G.I. Bill.
In his spare time, he hung out on Rampart Street and at the legendary Dew Drop Inn.
Dorsey enjoyed singing around the little body shop where he worked as a welder for a local disc jockey named Ernie the Whip. He could have remained there, totally unknown, had it not been for one of those twists of fate.
One day in 1957 a man named Reynauld Richard, an independent record producer, drove his car in to be fixed. He heard Dorsey singing and told him to come down to Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio that night.
A kid named Allen Toussaint helped with the arrangement of a song Dorsey wrote with Richard called Lottie-Mo, which got enough local airplay and sold enough nationally, to get Dorsey on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
To his chagrin, Dorsey discovered he had signed all of his publishing royalties over to Reynauld Richard so went back to work fulltime in his body shop until his contract expired.
In 1961, on a promotional trip to New Orleans, Marshall Sehorn (who represented Fire/Fury Records) heard Lottie-Mo on the radio. He tracked Dorsey down and told his boss in New York, Bobby Robinson, there was a hot singer working in a body shop in New Orleans.
Robinson was in New Orleans soon after and signed Dorsey to his label. Sehorn produced Lee’s first hit, Ya Ya (#1 on the R&B chart and #7 on the Hot 100), and went on to produce all his subsequent releases.
Dorsey gave the people what they wanted with the follow-up, Do-Re-Me, written by Earl King, and – like Ya Ya – arranged by Allen Toussaint.
Lee made the UK charts with Working In A Coalmine and Holy Cow in 1966, and his other records included Ride Your Pony, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Kitty Cat and Work Work Work.
In 1981 he made a European and American concert tour as an opening act for The Clash, who were long-time Dorsey fans.
His last major performance was at the 1985 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. His health worsened soon afterwards, but he continued working in his family’s automobile body shop right up until the end.
Dorsey died on 1 December 1986 – two days before his 60th birthday – of complications from emphysema at United Medical Center in New Orleans.