Born: August 8, 1900 | Died: September 28, 1966 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
He played no instruments, sang no songs, never became a noted composer, but in his own way, a musician of undeniable talent. He put bands together, got the vocalists, the right songs, and presented the entire package. Lucky Millinder was a genuine showman who was very much in the spotlight, while, contributing to the background of Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues and all that followed.
The man who would be nicknamed Lucky was born Lucius Venable Millinder in Anniston, Alabama August 8, 1900, but it was exposure to his folks new home in Chicago that would provide more than luck to Lucky Millinder's musical development. He actually started as the announcer presenting bands in the auditoriums where dances were held, and this led to becoming a dancer and front man in 1931. This was the year when he changed his name from Lucius Venable to Lucky Millinder; and eventually fronted a New York Orchestra in 1932. He allowed himself to be hired around until he took the helm of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band from 1934 until 1938, a very good outfit.
He was able to form his Lucky Millinder Orchestra in 1940 where he had a regular stay at New York's Savoy Ballroom. The band was hugely popular in Harlem in those days and some of the players that passed through the ranks were Lockjaw Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Cat Anderson. Around this time he had Bill Doggett on piano, and for a little bit in 1942, Dizzy Gillespie on their hit “When the Lights Go On Again-All Over the World,” he would later add Bull Moose Jackson, and Lucky Thompson to his lineup. By the mid- forties his big band, which was drifting more stylistically towards what would be known as Rhythm and Blues, and moving away from the Cab Calloway and Count Basie jazz format. Their forte was backing singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Wynonie Harris.
1950 started a prolific period for Lucky Millinder's ensemble, and Decca released some more of the year's before studio sessions with Rosetta, “Big Fat Mame,” “Trouble In Mind,” “ Shout Sister Shout,” and “That's All.” By spring of the beginning of this decade, his group was touring all the large R&B auditoriums: DC's Howard, Baltimore's Royal, Chicago's Regal, and Philly's Uptown. He featured with him on tour, Wynonie Harris, Big John Greer, Annisteen Allen., and for a spell a young Ruth Brown. They had regional hits on both the RCA and King Records labels at the same time. By 1951 they have expanded to gigs at Los Angeles' Elks Club, Kansas City's Black Orchid, Cleveland's Gleason's as well as all the big theaters on the East Coast. By the end of the summer, their outfit gets a long contract with Club Harlem in Philadelphia while the King Records productions are doing well on the charts.
During the next year, Lucky would start one of his other professions, disc jockey with his own Lucky's Lounge New York Saturday Night broadcast from WINS, while fans continue to earfuls of his constant hits on the radio.
1953 would be the last year of the constant flood of session work before a two year lapse, but it is one in which they appear with the Clovers and at a benefit for Harlem's Amsterdam News at the Apollo.. The next year was one of several changes for the band, which still was working the dance halls, but by the time they get a major debut at the famous Apollo Theater, they had various singers and players come and go. Towards the end of the year an omen would be in the form of Alan Freed coming to his WINS radio station and bringing the budding new up and comer, Rock and Roll. But though slowing down, the Lucky Millinder's Orchestra became the house band of the Apollo, a choice gig.
Although he had been out of the studio for a couple of years, he signed anew in 1954 with King records for what would become his last sessions, but the poor reception gives Lucky a wake-up call that the kids are buying something else. A highlight of that year was his reorganized Orchestra's opportunity playing for a huge event thrown for record industry moguls and hosted by Alan Freed. He had left the Apollo in anticipation of a new studio enterprise, which did not materialize. He did continue with some moderate hits on King, and then signed on with Todd Records. The change in public tastes caused Lucky to fade from the limelight and slip into a period of obscurity. Times must have gotten even tougher until his death in NYC, less than a month in after his sixty-sixth birthday on September 28, 1966.
Source: James Nadal