Sometimes you first become aware of a song at a perfectly appropriate moment in your life, and if the connection is strong enough you’ll remember it for a long time. That just might be the case for me, because there was a time in the 1960’s when my job made for many a depressing Monday morning — and that’s about when I first noticed a tune named “Working In The Coalmine.”
I wouldn’t even begin to claim that my job was as tough as what coalminers have to face every day, but when the song became a hit in 1966 it spoke to working people everywhere, no matter what their line of work. It was the signature tune of R&B singer Lee Dorsey, and was just one of his many hits in a career that spanned several decades.
Dorsey, who was born in New Orleans but grew up in the Pacific Northwest, spent the post-war years as a boxer, fighting under the name “Kid Chocolate.” In the 1950’s he quit boxing and opened a auto-body shop, but began moonlighting as a singer.
He eventually worked his way into a recording contract, but it wasn’t until he changed record companies and began working with respected producer/composer Allen Toussaint that he found some success, with his first hit, “Ya Ya,” in 1961.
Although he also had a minor hit with “Do-Re-Mi,” Dorsey encountered a dry spell after that, and had to continue working in his shop for a while. However, he continued collaborating with Toussaint and in 1965 had a much bigger seller with “Ride Your Pony,” followed by “Get Out Of My Life, Woman.” He soon found that he no longer had to work on bent fenders — but he kept the shop.
Dorsey’s smooth voice and playful, easygoing style proved to be very popular with listeners, and he became a rising star. In 1966 he released “Working In A Coalmine,” which he co-wrote with Toussaint, and it became his most famous song. It appealed to everyone who had to work for a living, and its irresistible sound – complete with clanking chains – is still fun to hear.
Over the next couple of decades Dorsey continued working pretty steadily, often appearing on tour and making guest shots, but he also had stretches where he had to go back to the auto-shop business. His last charted song was “Night People” in 1978, and he died in 1986, mostly remembered for the tune that still stirs working people everywhere.