Talent with Talent
You're a Toddlin' Town
The man who would be nicknamed Lucky was born Lucius Venable Millinder in Anniston, Alabama August 8, 1900, but it was exposure to his folks new home in Chicago that would provide more than luck to Lucky Millinder's musical development. He actually started as the announcer presenting bands in the auditoriums where dances were held, and this led to becoming a dancer and front man in 1931. This was the year when he changed his name from Lucius Venable to Lucky Millinder; and eventually fronted a New York Orchestra in 1932. He allowed himself to be hired around until he took the helm of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band from 1934 until 1938 -- and became a maverick for hire again, even for a time working for Bill Doggett. He would eventually work with George Stevenson, Panama Francis, Joe Britton, Buster Bailey, Earnest Purce, and Danny Barker.
He was able to form his Lucky Millinder Orchestra in 1940 where he had a regular stay at New York's Savoy Ballroom. One has to remember what is so amazing about this man's ability to gather talent, is that this bandleader, neither sang, nor played an instrument, let alone write any compositions, yet his orchestra went to the studio multiple times with various stars. Around this time he had Bill Doggett on piano join him, and for a little bit in 1942, master trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie (on their better sellers: When the Lights Go On Again-All Over the World, as well as alto saxist, Tab Smith; he would later add Bull Moose Jackson to his lineup.
By the mid-forties his big band, which was drifting more sytlistically towards what would be known as Rhythm and Blues, and moving away from the Cab Calloway and Count Basie jazz format, was backing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who not only sang, but played guitar, for her hits, Rock Me and Savoy on Decca. His work with Wynonie Harris' Mme Blues and Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well were also successful.
R & B Or Not To Be
1950 started a prolific period for Lucky Millinder's ensemble, and Decca released some more of the year's before studio sessions with Rosetta, Big Fat Mame, Trouble In Mind, Shout Sister Shout, and That's All. By spring of the beginning of this decade, his group was touring all the large R&B auditoriums: DC's Howard, Baltimore's Royal, Chicago's Regal, and Philly's Uptown. He featured with him on tour, Wynonie Harris, Big John Greer and Annisteen Allen, and all the while they had a relative hit RCA release throughout Dixie with, I'll Never Be Free. He does D Natural Blues, Little Girl Don't Cry, Tomorrow, and I Ain't Got Nothing To Lose for RCA. In April they switch to Cincinnati's King Records and by summer while RCA is releasing vocalist Paul Breckinridge's version of Trevor Bacons' Sweet Slumber, and Annisteen Allen singing, Let It Be, King puts out Big John Greer crooning, Let It Roll Again and My Little Baby. Fall saw songs pile up along with the leaves with King Records future A & R man, Henry Glover singing Who Said Shorty Wasn't Coming Back along with Clap Your Hands.
The song that would become a hit for Louis Prima, Oh Babe is recorded this winter by Wynonie Harris along with Silent George; while Myra Johnson belts out Teardrops From My Eyes and Lee Richardson begs, Please Open Your Heart. He provided a venue for showcasing another talent this year, Ruth Brown.
It Was a Very Good Year
By 1951 they have expanded to gigs at Los Angeles' Elks Club, Kansas City's Black Orchid, Cleveland's Gleason's as well as big theaters on the East Coast. The wax keeps drippin' money with Ms. Allen singing The Jumpin' Jack, Bongo Boogie, and Mr. Trumpet Man; John Carol joins her and sings, what would be a minor hit that summer, I'm Waiting Just For You; while he does the sole work on Chew Tobacco Rag and Georgia Rose. Just about the end of the summer, their outfit gets a long contract with Club Harlem in Philadelphia while King records is doing so well with his product, they add another shift -- and this during the usual slow months! Fifty One was truly a blessed year for them as various bookings came their way.
During the next year, Lucky would start one of his other professions, disc jockey with his own "Lucky's Lounge" New York Saturday Night broadcast from WINS, while buyers get Ram-Bunk-Shus (Also Bill Doggett King-1957), and Loaded With Love (sung by Corky Robbins and Johnny Bosworth). August of that year folks heard Hey Jackson's vocals on Heavy Sugar and Lord Knows I've Tried, which sells well, and a little later Pigmeat Peterson is featured on Backslider's Ball and Please Be Careful. In an interesting interlude, Lucky assists in surprising Billy Ward of the Dominos at the Manse Hotel in Chicago.
1953 would be the last year of the constant flood of session work before a two year lapse, but it is one in which they appear with the Clovers and at a benefit for Harlem's Amsterdam News at the Apollo. Sarah McLowler, who started her career with Lucky, is now making a name for herself on her own. The start of the year was with the release of Corky Robbins and Johnny Bosworth's Old Spice and When I Gave You My Love. The next year was one of several changes for the band, which still was working the dance halls, but by the time they get a major debut at the famous Apollo Theater, they had some players come and go. One former singer, Leon Ketcham is there with his Orlando Trio at their first big night along with The Revelaires, Coles and Atkins, and Joe Louis. Towards the end of the year a portent would be in the form of Alan Freed coming to his WINS radio station and bringing the budding new up and comer, Rock and Roll. It was a good year, too, as Lucky Millinder's Orchestra became the house band of the Apollo.
Although he had been out of the studio for a couple of years, he signed anew in 1954 with King records for what would become his last sessions, and they were Cathy Ryan singing, Ow, It's a Sad Sad Feeling,, and I'm Here Love; and Bubber Johnson provides the vocals on Goody Good Love, but the poor reception gives Lucky a wake-up call that the kids are buying something else. A highlight of that year was his reorganized Orchestra's opportunity playing for a huge event thrown for record industry moguls and hosted by Alan Freed. He had left the Apollo in anticipation of his new studio enterprise. Times must have gotten even tougher until his death in NYC --less than a month in after his sixty-sixth birthday on September 28, 1966 -- as eventually he added liquor salesman to his resume. This document should be dusted off, and put out for all the world to see: a musical man who was very much front-stage while, contributing to the background of Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues and all that followed.