Most of of us consider Rudy Vallée to be the first true crooner, with Bing Crosby closely following as the first modern version. But if you dig into the early years, you’ll find that a guy named Gene Austin just might have been the original crooner. And whether that’s true or not, the fact remains that he led a fascinating and eventful life that included singing stardom.
Born in Texas in 1900, Lemeul Eugene Lucas was raised in Louisiana where he took his stepfather’s surname, becoming Gene Austin. Although he had some musical experience while growing up, he joined the Army as a teenager and soon found himself part of the force sent to capture Pancho Villa. He was then stationed in New Orleans, where he occasionally took part in the city’s music scene, but before long he was on his way to combat in World War I France.
In the post-war years Austin spent some time in Baltimore pursuing studies for a possible career as a dentist, but soon dropped out to follow his muse. He began by playing and singing in piano bars while writing music on the side. (Even though he was a little iffy on the fundamentals he would end up publishing over a hundred songs.) He also built his experience by being part of a vaudeville act for a while, and in the early 1920s turned to radio and the making of records.
The decade of the 1920s would see Austin become a true star, with best-selling records on songs like “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” “My Melancholy Baby,” “Carolina Moon,” and “Sleepy Time Gal.” His biggest hits would be on “Ramona” and the song that would become his signature tune, “My Blue Heaven,” which is considered to be the gold standard. His success continued into the 1930s with the addition of occasional movie spots and tour appearances, but even though he did well his momentum began to slow by the post-war years. He had a brief resurgence in the 1950s, fueled by TV appearances like the video below (with Red Skelton) but it didn’t really last. He died in 1972, still writing music almost to the end.
Gene Austin – “My Blue Heaven”
There’s not much information around about how bandleader ‘Lucky’ Millinder got his nickname. It’s possible that it was just a natural progression from his given name of Lucius, but you could make a case that there might be another reason. Even though he sang a little, Lucky Millinder did not play an instrument and couldn’t even read music, and yet he led one of the most popular R&B orchestras around during the big band era. Sounds like a guy with more than his share of luck.
Born in Alabama as Lucius Venable, he grew up in Chicago during the early jazz age, which meant he was exposed to some of the best music around. But even though music was everywhere in the late 1920s, his path to a show business career began as a dancer, not a musician. Still, he was personable and charismatic, and was sharp enough to learn the in and outs of the business, so within a few years he’d managed to work his way into a spot as a bandleader.
He was still calling himself Lucius Venable at first, but soon changed his name to Lucky Millinder and continued to gain experience. In 1934 he took over leadership of the well-established Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and by 1940 had formed a band under his own name. It was a solid outfit with dazzling stage presence, ‘lucky’ horseshoe emblems on the stands, and a prancing and dancing Millinder fronting the group.
For more than a decade the band was one of the most popular groups around, mostly R&B themed but also very much at home with traditional music. In fact, the band’s biggest selling record was its #1 hit on the sentimental war-time song “When The Lights Go On Again,” but most of its success was based on the kind of music exemplified by singers like Wynonie Harris and the band’s biggest star, the legendary Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They and many other R&B singers and musicians gained valuable exposure during the decade that Millinder’s group held sway, but the band’s popularity faded in the 1950s. Millinder himself spent his later years as a DJ and liquor salesman, dying at age 56 in 1966.
Lucky Millinder Orchestra – “When The Lights Go On Again”
For today’s edition of Country Catalyst, the Special Feature that spotlights a classic song in the hope that it might bring more folks to country music, we have a tune that was a huge hit for two different singers, decades apart. And to add to the mix, the song’s composer — who had the first hit — didn’t do it until he’d talked his record company into reissuing his record five years after he first made it.
Singer/songwriter Ned Miller was in the early stages of his long career when he wrote and recorded “From a Jack to a King” in 1957, but he was already finding some success as a songwriter. It was that skill that would produce hits like Gale Storm‘s “Dark Moon” and Jimmy C. Newman’s “A Falling Star,” and Miller would eventually have some solid records of his own too, but his early efforts were disappointing in terms of sales.
It didn’t help that he often suffered from stage fright and found it difficult to do the live shows that helped promote a performer’s records. Still, he believed in “From a Jack to a King” and talked his record company into reissuing the single in 1962. For whatever reason, it hit the target with music fans this time around and shot up the charts, becoming his first (and biggest) hit record. He followed with a number of good-sellers, but as his career progressed he found continuing success mostly as a songwriter.
Meanwhile, “From a Jack to a King” proved to have a long life, and was recorded by everyone from Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis. But the biggest hit of all occurred when country star Ricky Van Shelton, who’d already enjoyed several #1 records by then, recorded his version of the song and it shot to the top of country charts in early 1989.
Ned Miller – “From a Jack to a King”