Tuesday, January 8, 2019

JD's History/Music Corner: Jimmie Lunceford and his Dance Orchestra, Phil Spitalny's All-Girl Orchestra, LaVern Baker

More history/music posts from g+!

Let's talk about Jimmie Lunceford and his Dance Orchaestra!

So Jimmie Lunceford and his Dance Orchestra are the stars of this ten minute Vitaphone short. Lunceford, one of the highest profile black bandleaders of the 1930s, had formed his first band when he was an athletic instructor in Memphis Tennessee, called the Chickasaw Syncopators. He was the first public high school band director of any ethnicity in Tennessee. They did a lot of joshing and joking around and ended up playing the famed Cotton Club in Harlem in 1934, raising Lunceford's profile to national status. Although their presentation was loose and jokey, behind the scenes it was a disciplined organization that held together when plenty of big jazz outfits did not. After a European tour crashed and burned in 1939 For Obvious Reasons, the band fell on hard times and was dumped by their label a year later. You can see a reunion on film in 1941's Blues In The Night.

In 1947, Lunceford was (along with many other performers in the orchestra) poisoned by a restaurant owner angry that he had to serve the black members of the band. Lunceford died and the authorities wrote it off to heart problems. He was 45.

In this short you can hear the novelty song "Nagasaki", which portrayed the Japanese port city as a wild party town: "Hot ginger and dynamite / there's nothing but that at night / back in Nagasaki / where the fellas chew tabacky / and the women wicky wacky woo". Let's just be generous and say that it was written without a deep understanding of the night life of Nagasaki. However, the song was a well-known slam-dunk method of getting people onto the dance floor, at least until 1945, For Obvious Reasons.


Let's Talk About Phil Spitalny's All-Girl Orchestra!

Phil Spitalny's orchestra was always introduced on the radio as "Phil Spitalny's All-Girl Orchestra featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin!" It was the Hour of Charm, hosted by Arlene Francis between 1934 and 1948. The only other "all-girl orchestra" of the time was Ina Ray and her Melodears, of course.

Before the All-Girl Orchestra, Spitalny composed and recorded many pop songs under the collective name "Phil Spitalny's Music". That's what this recording is.

You can see the All-Girl Orchestra featured in Here Come The Coeds, the 1945 Abbott & Costello film - you know the one, where Lou Costello gets hit on the head and wakes up thinking he's a woman basketball player?

Eventually Spitalny, who had emigrated from the Ukraine when it was still part of the Russian Empire, married Evelyn, she of the magic violin.


Let's Talk about LaVern Baker!

Let's talk about LaVern Baker.

Her birth name was Delores Evans. She began her singing career in Chicago clubs right after World War II, where she was billed as "Little Miss Sharecropper". After a few early releases she ended up at Atlantic Records where in 1955 she recorded her first hit, Tweedle Dee.

When Georgia Gibbs recorded a note-for-note cover of the song, it reached number 1. Gibbs, who was not black, was somewhat notorious for these exact covers - she had also covered Etta James "Wallflower" as "Dance With Me Henry". Baker sued Gibbs and petitioned Congress to change the copyright laws to make exact covers into copyright violations. Both attempts were unsuccessful. One apocryphal story has Baker taking out life insurance when she was about to fly to Australia, and naming Gibbs the beneficiary. "If something happens to me," she supposedly said, "you're out of business." (Gibbs, who had grown up a Jewish orphan, had little clout of her own. She stated, later in life, that she had no control over her material and had only followed the dictates of her label.)

Nevertheless Baker continued on with a string of successes. Her voice bridges the gap between the gospel-trained Aretha Franklin and the big-band styles of rhythm and blues performers before her, combining a touch of vibrato with intimate tones. You've heard "Jim Dandy" and "See See Rider" but might not have heard her extremely raunchy 1965 "Think Twice" with Jackie Wilson - too rude to be released, it was suppressed for many years. It's a delight (full of slurs in a format that you're not used to hearing them in though) and it's below.

After her marriage to comedian Slappy White ended in 1969, she went on a USO tour to Vietnam, where she took ill with a serious pneumonia. While recovering at the US naval base in the Phillipines, she was offered a job as the entertainment director at the Marine Corps NCO club there. She took the job and remained in the Phillipines for 22 years. In the intervening time her influence over rock and roll and R&B was cemented and when she returned to America in the 1980s, she was recognized on Broadway and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; the second woman inducted, after, naturally, Aretha Franklin.

She died in 1997 at the age of 67; like so many performers of the era, she died poor, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Local activists and enthusiasts raised money for a headstone which was erected in 2008.

You can buy two LaVern Baker albums for $4 on Amazon: http://a.co/18dd0tZ