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Born Irving Lee Dorsey in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dorsey moved to Portland, Oregon when he was ten years old. He served in the United States Navy and began a career in prizefighting. Boxing as a light heavyweight in Portland in the early 1950s, he fought under the name "Kid Chocolate" and was quite successful. Dorsey met songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint at a party in the early 1960s, and was signed to the Fury record label. The song that launched his career was inspired by a group of children chanting nursery rhymes - "Ya Ya" went to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961.