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”
In October of 1942, Billboard magazine — which had been tracking best-selling records since 1936 — added a new chart to its listings, one that it called the Harlem Hit Parade. (It would eventually be renamed the R&B chart.) The very first #1 record on the newly-created chart was “Take It and Git” by Andy Kirk and and His Clouds of Joy.
Andrew Dewey Kirk was born near Cincinnati (across the river in Kentucky) but raised in Denver, a city with a rich tradition in musical education under the long-time guidance of Paul Whiteman’s father. By the time Kirk was in his late teens he’d learned tuba and saxophone well enough to play in a local group, and within a few years had relocated to Dallas and joined a more renowned band, one that called itself Terrence Holder’s Dark Clouds of Joy.
By then it was the mid-1920s and the era of hot jazz was really getting underway, but the band didn’t do as well as some and by late in the decade the guys were ready for a change. Holder was kicked to the curb and Kirk was elected the new leader of the group, now based in Kansas City, and it was renamed Twelve Clouds of Joy. (The ‘Twelve’ would later be dropped.)
Although Kirk was just an average instrumentalist himself, he had some talented musicians on board — including future legend Mary Lou Williams playing piano and doing arrangements — and the band did very well for a couple of years, generating several good-selling records along the way. Things did slow down in the early 1930s but the group relocated to New York and rebounded in 1936 with a pop hit on “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” featuring inventive vocalist Pha Terrell.
The band continued to do well for the next decade, with a lot of solid records in addition to its 1942 chart-topper, and at one time or another employed some of the best musicians around. In addition to Williams (and her husband, John, who played sax), alumni included Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Don Byas, Buddy Tate, and many others. But by the late 1940s Kirk was ready to slow down a little, and he dissolved the band and for the most part devoted himself to business concerns from then on. He did serve as a musician’s union official for a while, and later made an attempt at a comeback, but not too much came of it. He was 94 when he died in 1992.
Andy Kirk And His Clouds Of Joy – “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”
Andy Kirk And His Clouds Of Joy – “Take It and Git”
(Video removed at source.)
I’ve always felt a little sorry for performers who get labeled as a ‘one-hit wonder’, but the story of Barbara George is especially poignant. When her 1961 record of “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” became a giant hit on both R&B and pop charts, she seemed to have an unlimited future. But things didn’t always go well for her, and — like all shooting stars — she disappeared from view much too soon.
Born as Barbara Ann Smith in rural Louisiana during World War II, she was raised in New Orleans where she often sang in her church choir. By the time she was in her mid-teens (and married) she was writing her own music and thinking about a singing career. New Orleans was — as always — filled with music and rich with opportunities for new performers, and within a couple of years she’d managed to take the first step by catching the attention of local R&B star Jessie Hill.
Hill matched her up with local music veteran Harold Battiste, who was in the process of trying to get a new record company up and running. Her very first platter for AFO Records featured a song she’d written herself, “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More).” It soon shot to the top of the R&B charts and it didn’t take it long to cross over and do nearly as well on pop charts. Barbara George was a star.
Unfortunately, it would be her biggest success by far. Subsequent records like “You Talk About Love,” “If You Think,” and “Send for Me (If You Need Some Lovin)’,” didn’t do nearly as well for her even though she changed record companies along the way. Within a few years she’d grown disillusioned by the business and pretty much retired from active performing, although she did make a brief comeback attempt a while later. When she died in 2006 she was a week away from her 64th birthday.
Barbara George – “You Talk About Love”