Blue Rhythm : The Lucky Millinder Story ©2000JCMarion


Lucius "Lucky" Millinder was born in 1900 in Anniston, Alabama. He grew up in Chicago, and began his musical career there first as a stage announcer at neighborhood dance halls and ballrooms. By 1932 he was fronting an orchestra in New York City. In the mid thirties he was leader of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and by the mid 1940s was a leader of a big blues playing orchestra under his own name. He remained an uncommon front man because he was a non instrument playing leader, one who could put together talent and produce the sound he was searching for. He finally realized success in the mid forties with singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Decca recordings "Rock Me" / "Savoy" on #18353 and "Shout Sister Shout" / "I Want A Tall Skinny Papa" on #18386, and Wynonie "Me. Blues" Harris on "Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well on #18674. After Tharpe left the band Millinder had a female vocalist for a short time named Ruth Brown who went on to huge success with Atlantic Records in the 1950s. After he left Decca he recorded for RCA Victor with such recordings as #3351 - "D Natural Blues" / "Little Girl Don't Cry", and #3496 - "Tomorrow" and "I Ain't Got Nothing To Lose".

By the year of 1950, Millinder remained on the periphery of the great R & B movement that was setting the stage for the rock 'n roll explosion. In early 1950 Decca was pushing two re-releases of Millinder featuring Rosetta Tharpe - "Trouble In Mind" and "Big Fat Mama" on #48053 , and "Shout Sister Shout" and "That's All" on #48057. In March of that year the Millinder band was on a tour of the big R & B theaters such as the Howard in D.C., Royal in Baltimore, Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Regal in Chicago. Also on the bill were Annisteen Allen, Big John Greer, and Wynonie Harris. A recent RCA recording "I'll Never Be Free" on #3622 is reported as doing well in the South. In mid April the band leaves RCA and signs with King Records of Cincinnati. By July the first release for King is out featuring vocalist Big John Greer - "Let It Roll Again" and "My Little Baby" on #4379. In July RCA releases one by Lucky Millinder from off the shelf - #22-0088 : "Sweet Slumber" voc by Paul Breckenridge (reprising Millinders hit of the tune with vocalist Trevor Bacon) and "Let It Be" voc by Annisteen Allen. In October King releases #4398 - "Clap Your Hands" and a tune with a great title - "Who Said Shorty Wasn't Coming Back" with vocal by Henry Glover (soon to become an ace producer and A & R man for King Records). By year's end King had two more sides by the Lucky Millinder band. "Oh Babe" (a pop hit for Louis Prima) with vocal by Wynonie Harris, and "Silent George" with vocal by Myra Johnson was released on #4418; and "Teardrops From My Eyes" and "Please Open Your Heart" with vocals by Lee Richardson on #4419.

In 1951 the Millinder band continues to find steady work at R & B dance venues across the country such as L.A.'s Elks Club, The Black Orchid in Kansas City, Gleason's in Cleveland, and some of the larger theaters in the East. The records on King keep coming also - "The Jumpin' Jack" / "Mr. Trumpet Man" voc-Annisteen Allen on #4436; "Chew Tobacco Rag" and "Georgia Rose" voc-John Carol on # 4449; and "I'm Waiting Just For You" voc-John Carol and Annisteen Allen, and "Bongo Boogie" with Annisteen Allen on vocal on #4453. By mid June "I'm Waiting" is showing up on the best seller charts in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Louisville. In late August the Millinder band opens an extended engagement at Philadelphia's Club Harlem. The continuing good sales of "I'm Waiting" (Millinder's first big hit on King) is one of the main reasons for King Records to add a second shift at its pressing plant to keep up with public demand for the record. This is considered unusual for the summer months, a time of lower record sales. The beat goes on for the band as bookings increase even more on the strength of the hit on King, and 1951 is a good year for the Lucky Millinder Orchestra.

During the spring of the following year, King #4534 is released - "Ram-Bunk-Shus" (to be recorded five years later by Bill Doggett, a one time pianist for Lucky, also on King), and "Loaded With Love" vocal by Corky Robbins and Johnny Bosworth. During his spare time Lucky Millinder becomes a disc jockey for radio station WINS in New York City. His program is called "Lucky's Lounge" and is on every Saturday night from 8 to 9 pm. In August King #4557 comes out featuring "Heavy Sugar" and "Lord Knows I've Tried" with vocal by Hey Jackson. Later in the year, Lucky is one of the invited celebrants at a surprise birthday party for Billy Ward leader of The Dominos, held in Chicago at the Manse Hotel. In October "Lord Knows I've Tried" is reported to be selling well in the Midwest especially in Milwaukee and St. Louis. Late in the month King #4571 is released which featured "Backslider's Ball" and "Please Be Careful" with vocal by Pigmeat Peterson.

At the beginning of the year of 1953, King #4589 is released - "Old Spice" and "When I Gave You My Love" with vocal again by the duo of Corky Robbins and Johnny Bosworth. Another vocalist who started out with Millinder does well as a solo performer as Sarah McLawler gets national recognition. The band does two big appearances during the year - a week during the summer with The Clovers, and the year end holiday benefit held at the Apollo Theater for New York's Amsterdam News. The records for King become few and far between, but the band plugs on with many in person appearances as a danceable swinging unit. In February of 1954 the band has many personnel changes and makes its debut at the Apollo in New York, with Joe Louis, Coles & Atkins, and The Revelaires. Another former Millinder vocalist is Leon Ketcham who is with a new group called The Orlando Trio. The second half of 1954 was taken up by the great changeover of R & B into rock "n roll as Alan Freed moves to New York and starts with Millinder's former radio station WINS. During the latter part of the year Lucky takes over the leadership of the house band at the Apollo Theater.

Even though the records by Lucky Millinder have been scarce in the last two years, 1955 begins with Lucky signing a new recording contract with King Records. He plans to relinquish his duties at the Apollo and organize an all new orchestra for the King sessions. In March of that year Alan Freed hosts a big gala in New York for record trade executives and radio personnel. Lucky Millinder and his new band provide the live entertainment. In April the new aggregation has their first release - King #4792 : "Ow !" / "It's A Sad Sad Feeling" with vocal by Cathy Ryan. They follow that with #4803 - "I'm Here Love" voc-Cathy Ryan and "Goody Good Love" voc-Bubber Johnson. By now it is apparent that the Lucky Millinder Orchestra does not connect with the new teenage record buying public. Millinder bows out of the quest for the next hit record in the mid fifties. In 1959 Lucky is still at it with a new independent label Todd Records and records "Let It Roll"and "Trouble In Mind". The new label will be distributed by Dot Records

Many of the big names from the early days of the R & B explosion have run into the same situation, as they become invisible to the legions of fans that have discovered this music. Millinder's hit records were few, but the vast array of musicians that were part of his various bands, from Dizzy Gillespie to Tab Smith and many in between, made his bands a great incubator of talent in the jazz and the R & B fields. After the mid fifties he remained largely unknown to the general public, and passed away in relative obscurity in 1966. He played no instrument, sang no songs, never became a noted composer, but he was in his own way, a musician of undeniable talent. He put bands together, got the vocalists the right songs, and presented the entire package. Lucky Millinder - another essential part of the story of American music of the 20th century and beyond.

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