Orrin Tucker & His Orchestra – Perhaps the only living big band leader from the 1920s – 1940s era.

Social History: Orrin Tucker ad His Orchestra – Perhaps the only living big band leader from the 1920s – 1940s era.  He studied to be a doctor, played the saxophone and formed a band in college.  Tucker became a major band for society dance music and was the first band signed by Columbia Records.

Great You Tube video from Aron 1912’s channel.

Bandleader Orrin Tucker (born February 17, 1911) has earned a star on the downtown St. Louis Walk of Fame. Through the ’90s he comfortably coasted on a reputation as a director of polished easy listening big bands, performing and recording live at the nation’s poshest hotels.

In his early days, he claims to have made musical history, leading the first band to be signed and recorded by a brand new record company called Columbia. This was in 1939, the year his recording of “Oh Johnny” sung by pint-sized vocalist Wee Bonnie Baker, became a hit and rested comfortably atop the hit parade for many weeks.

Six decades later, Tucker’s own Bermuda House would manufacture their own product and distribute it over the Internet, but back then keeping up with the demand for his records was apparently similar to having the Columbia record facilities hit by a typhoon.

Production was delayed on scheduled recording sessions with the likes of Harry James and Benny Goodman so that the company could toss money at its pressing plants, infuriating Goodman to the point that he would go red in the face whenever the bandleader’s name was mentioned. Tucker proceeded to cut more than 70 records including six which sold over a million copies each.

Those who remember him from the old days in St. Louis couldn’t be more surprised. As a young man he had studied to be a doctor, but also learned to play saxophone. He formed his first band in college, and was invited by an impressed Chicago agent to play a New Orleans gig.

Like many a gung-ho bandleader, Tucker borrowed from his own bank account to fund the trip, even though he had only enough money to get them there, not back. Luckily, the New Orleans gig led to another one in Kansas City, then expanded to a run of local theaters.

During this period, the bandleader exercised yet another talent. Something of a shade-tree inventor, Tucker built a series of gimmicky light boxes for his musicians. Pictures of musical notes, symbols, and colors for different sections would flash during each song. Other songs were livened up by props, such as beer drinking numbers in which the players held up special Tucker-designed mugs upon which the names of whatever towns they were in could be dabbed with fluorescent paint. Novelties such as this helped build a reputation for the group.

During the early years of the band, Tucker was the only vocalist, until he got a tip one night from a musician that was certainly worth taking advice from, Louis Armstrong. Satchmo was fond of the cute voice of Wee Bonnie Baker, which turned out to be just the thing to help push the Tucker band over the top, leading to the Columbia signing. The female singing star must have been so “wee” that the bandleader thought she might need some protection, so he dubbed a group of background singers the Bodyguards.

Other vocalists who worked with the band include Helen Lee and Scottee Marsh. Winding up with such success as a bandleader might have been a prescription for artistic egomania, but instead Tucker apparently both realized his limitations and that his orchestra’s strength was in providing dance music for the middle-aged crowd. He remained active until health problems forced him to cool it during the ’90s. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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