When Irving Dorsey and his brothers were growing up, their dad, New Orleans soul-funk singer Lee Dorsey, filled the family garage with boxing equipment such as sand bags.
“Our father tried to make boxers out of us,” Irving Dorsey recalls with a mix of pride and bemusement.
Lee Dorsey rose to fame with classic songs including “Ya Ya,” “Ride Your Pony” and “Working in the Coal Mine.” But before he hit the charts, Dorsey—whose musical success helped launch the careers of other New Orleans R&B icons such as the Meters and Allen Toussaint—did plenty of literal hitting as an amateur boxer and ostensible prizefighter.
Details about Dorsey’s boxing career remain slim, however. The singer died of emphysema on December 2, 1986 at 61, and existing biographies of him only discuss his pugilistic exploits in passing.
His Wikipedia entry, for example, asserts that after serving in the Navy toward the end of World War II, Dorsey “began a career in prizefighting” based in the Pacific Northwest. (Although Dorsey was born in New Orleans, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, when he was a youth.)
“Boxing as a light heavyweight in the early 1950s,” the online encyclopedia continues, “he fought under the name ‘Kid Chocolate’ and was quite successful.” Allmusic.com, meanwhile, claims that Dorsey was “a successful light heavyweight boxer.”
But scant proof of such a famed professional boxing career exists. Contemporary reports in the Oregonian newspaper make only fleeting mention of Dorsey as a boxer, most of which bury him deep on an undercard of larger fights.
The website boxrec.com confirms that Kid Chocolate was one of Dorsey’s boxing aliases—the other is “Honeychile”—but it also states that Dorsey fought only a single professional bout, in which he was knocked out in the first round.
But Irving Dorsey, Lee’s son, says his father was indeed a successful fighter, one who could floor many a man with a single wallop.
“I saw him hit bigger guys and they were on the ground,” Irving says. “He was so short and light, but one punch and they were flat on their butts.”
So why the incongruity between the established accounts of Dorsey’s supposed prizefighting career and stories of his ability? Dorsey’s perhaps mythical reputation in the Pacific Northwest may have started with the man himself.
In Jeff Hannusch’s chronicle of early New Orleans R&B, I Hear You Knockin’, he writes that after serving in the Navy, Dorsey “knocked around Portland until he got interested in prizefighting.”
“I knew some guys who went to the gym to box,” Dorsey told Hannusch, “so I just started goin’ with ’em. Once I saw I could whip some of ’em, I started gettin’ fights, too.”
Hannusch writes that “Dorsey adopted the colorful moniker of ‘Kid Chocolate,’ and became a respected fighter around the Pacific Northwest during the late ‘40s.”
“I never once got whupped,” Dorsey told the author. “I was fightin’ featherweight and lightweight, 128-131 pounds.” He called himself “a dirty fighter. I been knocked out on my feet, and guys hit me again and brought me back.”
Dorsey explained that he suddenly “got cocky and quit” boxing in 1955, then moved back to his native New Orleans, where he became a popular auto body and fender repairman before hitting the musical big time.
But again, little to no actual record exists to support such claims. If Dorsey did in fact become a successful professional boxer based in the Pacific Northwest, the Oregonian, for example, would mention him often in its sports pages.
But the paper simply didn’t. A database search of the Oregonian turns up only three mentions of Lee Dorsey, all of them between July 10-18, 1951, all of them placing Dorsey on the undercard of a slate of bouts promoted by the locally based National Boxing Club.
The articles state that Dorsey would face Bobby Woods, a modestly successful lightweight also based in Portland.
Curiously, the paper doesn’t feature any post-event coverage, but according to the Humboldt Standard, a publication located near Eureka, Calif., the result of the July 17 fight between Bobby Woods and Lee Dorsey was a second-round knockout by Woods.
That directly contradicts Dorsey’s boast that he “never once got whupped.” It also appears to disprove the notion that the singer-to-be found a fair amount of success in the professional ring.
For his part, Irving Dorsey doesn’t refer to his father’s alleged career as a pro boxer. It was Lee’s success as a Naval boxer of which the son seems proud. Irving says his father was too.
In a Times-Picayune obituary published the day after Dorsey’s passing, writer Vincent Fumar stated that prior to his music days, Dorsey “was a lightweight boxing champion in the Navy.” Fumar made no mention of a pro career.
In the end, if Dorsey did inflate his record, he certainly wouldn’t be the first pugilist to do so. Boxing and self-aggrandizement frequently go hand in hand, and the legendary New Orleans singer can be excused for simply following in that tradition.
“Lee was a sweetheart,” Hannusch told OffBeat recently. “That doesn’t mean he wasn’t the first or last guy/gal to make claims to me that weren’t exactly precise. But I can tell you this—from being a former athlete—that little S.O.B. was cut and in great shape. Despite cigarettes and whiskey, his arms were like steel cables. He looked like he could jump in the ring in 1983.”