Lucky Millinder and his orchestra – Savoy Ballroom, Harlem – July 10, 1945 – One Night Stand Program – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Lucky Millinder this weekend – with his orchestra, performing at The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and broadcast by NBC/Armed Forces Radio on July 10, 1945.
One of the key figures in the burgeoning Jump-Blues movement during the war and post-war years Millinder, along with contemporaries Louis Jordan, Joe Liggins, Roy Milton and others, pioneered a genre of music that gave its equal nod to Jazz while keeping its foot solidly in Blues. Many of these leaders spent time within the ranks of Count Basie’s band, and looking at the lineups for these Jump-Blues outfits, a veritable who’s who of Jazz figures who went on to achieve legend status (such as Dizzy Gillespie), spent formative years in the Millinder, Liggins, Jordan and Milton organizations.
Lest you think Jazz and Blues (and it’s eventual hybrid, Rock n’ Roll) weren’t compatible siblings in the beginning, you just have to check out the lineups and sessionographies to know that ain’t so.
Lucky Millinder was an interesting figure. Although he could not read or write music, did not play an instrument and rarely sang, his showmanship and musical taste made his bands successful. His group was said to have been the greatest big band to play rhythm and blues, and gave work to a number of musicians who later became influential at the dawn of the rock and roll era. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986.
In the 1920s he worked in clubs, ballrooms, and theatres in Chicago as a master of ceremonies and dancer. He first fronted a band in 1931 for an RKO theater tour, and in 1932 took over the leadership of Doc Crawford’s orchestra in Harlem. He also freelanced elsewhere.
In 1933, he took a band to Europe, playing residencies in Monte Carlo and Paris. He returned to New York to take over the leadership of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, which included Henry “Red” Allen, Charlie Shavers, Harry “Sweets” Edison and J. C. Higginbotham, and which had a regular slot at The Cotton Club.
In 1938 he teamed-up with pianist Bill Doggett to front Doggett’s group. By 1940 had formed a completely new orchestra, which included Doggett and the drummer “Panama” Francis. Around this time he discovered the established gospel singer and guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, with whom his ensembles performed for many years and first recorded with on four cuts for Decca in 1938.
He established a residency at New York’s Savoy Ballroom and won a contract with Decca Records. Dizzy Gillespie was the band’s trumpeter for a while and was featured on Millinder’s first charting hit, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)”, which reached number 1 on the R&B chart and number 14 on the pop chart in 1942. The follow-up records “Apollo Jump” and “Sweet Slumber” were also big hits, with vocals by Trevor Bacon.
By the mid-1940s the band was drifting towards what came to be known as rhythm and blues. Other band members around this time included the saxophonists Bull Moose Jackson, Tab Smith and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and the pianist “Sir” Charles Thompson. In 1944 Millinder recruited the singer Wynonie Harris, and their recording of “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well” became the group’s biggest hit in 1945, staying at number 1 on the R&B chart for eight weeks and also reaching number 7 on the US pop chart. After Harris left for a solo career, Millinder followed up with another hit, “Shorty’s Got to Go”, on which he took lead vocals. Soon afterwards, Ruth Brown became the band’s singer for a short period before her own solo career took off.
To get an idea what Lucky Millinder’s band was sounding like during the pivotal 1945 period, check out this performance from the One Night Stand series via Armed Forces Radio and originating with NBC Radio from July 10, 1945.