Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 6 June '02, Fulton MO; d 13 July '47, Seaside OR) Bandleader. He studied music with Paul Whiteman's father, Wilburforce J. Whiteman, obtained degree from Fisk and was proficient on all the reeds; worked for Elmer Snowden, Wilbur Sweatman in the '20s, formed his own band '27 but fronted it only and did not play (except flute on 'Liza'). Arrangements were mostly by Sy Oliver (who also played trumpet); stars incl. Willie Smith on alto sax. One of the best drummers of the Big Band Era was Jimmy Crawford (b 14 Jan. '10, Memphis; d 28 Jan. '80, NYC), with Lunceford '28--43, freelance career incl. pit band for show Pal Joey, Fletcher Henderson reunion band mid-'57, etc. Trummy Young joined on trombone and vocals '37. Joe Thomas (b 19 June '09, Uniontown PA) played reeds and sang '33--47; Eddie Durham played trombone and solo guitar '35--7. Tommy Stevenson was the trumpet stylist '33--5 (b c'14; d Oct. '44 NYC of pneumonia; later worked for Blanche Calloway, Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams); then Paul Webster '35--44 (b 24 Aug. '09, Kansas City; d 6 May '66, NYC; worked for Lunceford '31, also territory bands, rejoined Lunceford; later worked for Cab Calloway, Barnet etc). Another trumpeter was Eddie Tompkins (b Thompkins, '08, Kansas City MO; d 17 April '43: a 2nd Lt in US Army, he was accidentally shot on a training exercise). Reedman Dan Grissom also sang on ballads; he was called Gruesome by jazz fans, but his singing was commercial and popular.

It was a well-drilled, sharply dressed, sophisticated show band; the vocal groups incl. trumpeter/arranger Oliver, Smith, Thomas and Tompkins, but the whole band could sing like a glee club. They would imitate Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman; Tompkins would imitate Louis Armstrong; the trumpet section would throw their horns in the air and catch them in unison; other bands grumbled about Lunceford's 'trained monkeys', but they could play as well as they could clown. The band was popular and influential beyond the fact that 'Yard Dog Mazurka' led to Stan Kenton's 'Intermission Riff', 'Lunceford Special' to Billy Eckstine's 'Opus X': the Lunceford band should get a lot of credit, along with the white Casa Loma Band at the same time, for demonstrating that the big jazz band could be a virtuoso ensemble, worthy of having good music written for it. Oliver pointed out that pianist Eddie Wilcox was also a fine arranger (b 27 Dec. '07, Method NC; d 29 Sep. '68, NYC); he wrote charts like 'Flaming Reeds And Screaming Brass' before Oliver joined, but Oliver brought his own skills to what the band was already becoming, and his writing was unique. His loping two-beat style filled a gap during a transition period between the 2/4 beat of earlier jazz and the smoother 4/4 that was emerging in the '30s, thus making both jazz fans and dancers happy. The most famous Oliver charts incl. 'Tain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It)' (vocal by Young and band), also 'Organ Grinder's Swing' (a masterpiece of the genre, making a gem out of a dopey tune) and 'For Dancers Only'. He was poached by Tommy Dorsey '39, replaced by Gerald Wilson and Billy Moore (b 7 Dec. '17, Parkersburg WV; worked for Berlin Radio '60--63, lived in Denmark).

Pop Memories credits Lunceford with 22 hit records '34-- 46, more than any other black band of those years except Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway (Count Basie's hits only began '38); nevertheless, Lunceford's band was better than most of its recordings, and as with other bands the best records were not the biggest hits. The period of innovation was over by the time Oliver left; the hits incl. 'Rhythm Is Our Business' '35 and 'Blues In The Night' '42 (vocals by Smith), 'The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down' '37 with Oliver singing, 'I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts Of Town' and 'I Dream A Lot About You' '42--4 with vocals by Grissom, Joe Liggins's 'The Honeydripper' with the Delta Rhythm Boys (vocal quartet recorded for Decca; also with Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, Barnet; Moore toured Europe with them '64; bandleader Liggins's own recording was no. 1 for 18 weeks on the black chart '45), Slim Gaillard's novelty 'Cement Mixer (Put-ti, Put-ti)' '46 on Majestic label, with vocal by Thomas. Lunceford recorded for Decca until '45 except '39--40 on CBS labels; other influential hits were Oliver's 'Cheatin' On Me' and 'Ain't She Sweet' (both sung by Young and vocal trio, latter with interjection 'Solitoodie!') as well as 'Margie', 'My Blue Heaven', 'Four Or Five Times', 'By The River St Marie'; 'I Wanna Hear Swing Songs' (credited to Oliver and Moore), 'What's Your Story Morning Glory' (by Moore, a hit according to George T. Simon). 'Baby Won't You Please Come Home' had a vocal by Thomas; 'White Heat' and 'Jazznocracy' were written by Will Hudson, a white arranger who worked for Irving Mills and co-led the Hudson/De Lange band.

Lunceford did some broadcasting, but never as much as many white bands; despite the band's popularity the lucrative hotel gigs were mostly out of reach for blacks. It was a hard life; Lunceford died suddenly on the road, and the rumour persists that he was poisoned by a bigoted restaurant owner after successfully insisting that the band be fed. The band kept going for a while under Wilcox and Thomas, but lived on in the hearts of jazz fans and dancers of all races. A reunion 'Jimmie Lunceford In Hi-Fi' album mid-'50s on Capitol was very well done; compilations of the originals on Charly UK, Decca USA, Pearl, ASV, series on Classics.