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.