Hurry On Down
The musical career of Nellie Lutcher
The oldest surviving child of Isaac and Susie Lutcher, Nellie set her sights on a music career when she was still in rompers. Tempted by the family piano that her mother managed to buy on “time,” Nellie developed an ear for music before she could read or write. By the time she was eight years old, Nellie was earning $2 a month as assistant pianist at the New Sunlight Baptist Church. Sitting on a stack of books in order to reach the keyboard, Nellie began her music career playing hymns during Sunday school. Nurtured by her mother’s and father’s love of music, Nellie’s natural gifts as a musician were developed by her mentor and teacher, Eugenia King Reynaud.
“I always take the train cause I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere.” — Nellie Lutcher
Isaac and Susie Lutcher provided a safe and disciplined home for Nellie and her nine brothers and sisters. Isaac worked at the Houston Packing Company to support his family, and Susie stayed home to care for her children, occasionally taking in washing to supplement the family income. Nellie’s talent and love of music came to her naturally. Isaac, affectionately known as Skinner, was a talented musician himself, playing string instruments, specializing in the bass violin. Performing locally on weekends and holidays with Clarence Hart’s Imperial Jazz Band, Isaac introduced Nellie to the art form she grew to love — jazz. Filled with music and dancing, the Lutcher home also produced Joe, Nellie’s younger brother, who played saxophone, James who played trumpet “a little while,” and Charlie, who briefly played bass violin like his father Isaac before becoming the first black disc jockey in Lake Charles.
Although Susie Lutcher was not keen on Nellie’s picking up the jazz that her father loved, with a little encouragement from Isaac, she came to appreciate Nellie’s God-given talent and managed to ignore those who said that “jazz was the work of the devil” and that Nellie “was going straight to hell” for playing jazz music. Although the chronology is a little fuzzy, Nellie came into her own as a pianist by the time she was twelve. Continuing to play hymns at church on Sunday, she began to play with the Imperial Jazz Band, and, once the community heard of her talent, she began playing at local house parties and at the Majestic Hotel. In a personal interview with Elaine St. Mary in 1987, Nellie reminisces about her experiences entertaining guests at the Majestic playing “The Blue Danube Waltz”:
“I can see myself going there now as a little girl because Mrs. [Emma] Michie, who was a very charming, wonderful lady … used to send for me. My, we didn’t even have a telephone at the time, but she would send one of the guys from the hotel. … and said ‘Tell Susie you want Nellie to entertain our guests.’ Well now at that time I must have been about … 12 and 13 … years old. Maybe a little younger than that even. But I would sit there and I could play well enough to play for her guests.”
Nellie’s path was already fixed when well-known Southern blues singer Ma Rainey came through Lake Charles somewhere around 1924. Gertrude Pridgett Rainey and her husband William toured the South with their song and dance act as a part of “Tolliver’s Circus, The Musical Extravaganza,” and “The Rabbit Foot Minstrels,” traveling entertainment that frequently passed through Lake Charles. Ma Rainey, considered by blues historians to be the “Mother of the Blues,” had mentored legendary Bessie Smith from 1912-15 when Smith traveled with the Raineys. On one of their trips through Lake Charles, Ma Rainey, scheduled to perform at Buster Mancuso’s Palace Theatre, found herself without a piano player. Mancuso, who had heard Nellie play at the Majestic Hotel, recruited her, age twelve, for the performance. Before her mother would give her permission for Nellie to play, she consulted Mrs. Reynaud, who agreed that Nellie played well enough for the performance. Nellie was hooked.
By the time Nellie was fourteen, she was certain that music was her destiny. Replacing the pianist in the Imperial Jazz Band, Nellie left school, confident that the skills she had developed from her exemplary teachers at the Second Ward School would stand her in good stead. In her interview with St. Mary, she reflected on her school experience:
“I had some excellent teachers at the Second Ward School … Including Bessie Dickerson, an English teacher who placed a great deal of emphasis on diction. Then there was my music teacher, Mrs. Reynaud, who also taught me mathematics. And she was a mathematician like you wouldn’t believe. And there was Irma Curry, my science teacher, who was excellent. These teachers believed it was their duty to see that we were well educated, and they worked hard to fulfill this duty. They demanded our respect, just as our parents did, and we gave it to them.”
Once Nellie left school behind, she spent the next five or six years traveling in Texas and Louisiana with the Imperial Jazz Band and the Southern Rhythm Band. No longer satisfied with playing lines set down by other musicians, Nellie began experimenting with her own arrangements — something she had been trained to do as a young girl by her father who encouraged improvisation. Her early training, however, was strictly traditional. She noted in an interview with Whitney Balliett, jazz critic for The New Yorker, that improvisation was not a gift her music teacher had:
“Mrs. Reynaud couldn’t improvise one note. If there was a fly … on the music sheet, she’d play that, too. She wanted me to have correct fingering, and she wanted me to learn to read. She discovered right away that I knew how to fake things, and she watched my ear all the time … She touched my life forever with her marvelous way of teaching … But she couldn’t play anything that wasn’t already written down.”
In a 2003 interview with Leslie Berman, Nellie gives her father credit for passing along his musical gifts to her:
“Eugenia Reynaud taught me to read music. Oh yes, she taught me. I could play maybe a little tune like they say play by ear, but she taught me to read music. So I learned how to read. My father was a musician too. Now papa taught himself. So I kind of give credit to my father because I think I inherited his musical talents and abilities because he was a very good musician. … He was a self-taught person. At least I got some training in school but papa just was like a lot of musicians used to do.”
Bill Millar wrote that Nellie’s skill and experience shifted her into a new place where she was able to “alter a melody in subtle, ingenious and unexpected ways.” As lead pianist for the Southern Rhythm Band, her income increased with her skill, and she was soon drawing a percentage of the door. After a short hiatus from the band during which she returned to Lake Charles to care for her mother who was ill, in 1935 Nellie, only 22 years old, moved to Los Angeles, where the promise of greater opportunity called.
Reaching for the Moon
During the twelve years between Nellie’s arrival in Los Angeles and her “discovery” in 1947 by Dave Dexter of Capitol Records, Nellie continued to develop her craft. Within a few days after arriving in California and moving in with her mother’s sister, Nellie landed a job at the historic Dunbar Hotel.
The posh hotel opened originally in 1928 to a crowd of over 5,000 people as Hotel Sommerville, built to provide accommodations for African-Americans who had no comparable place to stay. Sold after the stock-market crash of 1929, the hotel re-opened as the Dunbar Hotel, named after African-American poet Paul Dunbar, and quickly became the haunt of jazz and blues musicians and aficionados. Surrounded by jazz clubs for three decades, the Dunbar was the center of nightlife for blacks and whites alike well into the 1950s. Accommodating such guests as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, the Dunbar flourished until integration removed the barriers preventing African Americans from seeking other accommodations in the downtown areas. Nellie arrived at the Dunbar in 1935 while it was still in its heyday.
Earning only two dollars a night, Nellie played at the Dunbar Hotel lounge from eight in the evening until the lounge closed at two in the morning. Often leaving the Dunbar at 2 a.m., she would go to one of the local breakfast clubs where she would play until five or six in the morning to supplement her wages. Nellie’s run at the Dunbar lasted only eight weeks, after which time the Dunbar opted not to continue hiring musical performers. Despite its appeal to the African-American literati and jazz and blues glitterati, Nellie has the distinction of being the only performer who actually worked at the Dunbar.
Nellie’s life changed dramatically between 1935 and 1936. Promoting herself only as a jazz pianist, Nellie discovered that playing in lounges required that she sing as well. Having never been a vocalist, Nellie resisted singing at first. Encouraged by the Dunbar Hotel patrons, Nellie eventually acquiesced and began to sing — and sing she did. She recounts her first singing experience in her interview with Berman:
“My cousin brought me to the Dunbar Hotel and I played for them. And they liked my piano playing and they said ‘What about singing?’ And I said, ‘I don’t sing. I just play the piano.’ They said, ‘I’m sure they’d [folks] like you to sing.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not a singer.’ I really had not concentrated on singing. I had not given it a thought. But when I got the job, sure enough they started requesting singing. I said, ‘Well, I’m not a singer. I don’t sing. I just play the piano.’ I could play almost anything that was popular at the time … What did it [made me sing] was when somebody would go get a glass and put some change in it like maybe a quarter or two quarters or something like that, and said, ‘Now, sing us a song.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I still don’t sing.’ They’d say, ‘Well, sing something.’ I don’t remember, but I think at that time, if I’m not mistaken … the tune was ‘The Object of My Affection.’ That was one of the songs I liked very, very much and that I knew. So anyway, I did that. Whatever I did they liked it and they started requesting. They seemed to like it so well that I started concentrating on singing. And then I started styling songs and that is how I arrived as a singer.”
But adding singing to her repertoire was not the only — or most significant — change in her life. Following her to California, Leonel Lewis, also from Lake Charles, pressed his suit and persuaded her to marry him. Having been married very briefly before leaving Louisiana, Nellie did so with trepidation. Their marriage was short-lived, lasting only four years, but her son Talmadge, born in 1936, brought a new kind of joy to her life. Nellie recounts Talmadge’s birth in her interview with Berman:
“Talmadge was a premature baby. He weighed 2 1⁄4 pounds at birth. And I was playing music because I was expecting to go the normal nine months, but for some reason here he comes. He came out two and a half months premature. Thank God he lived because he turned out to be a good baby and a good child. It encouraged me to keep on with my career … That marriage [to his father] later petered out and wasn’t a success. I just stuck with it and concentrated on Talmadge and raising him.”
Before the disintegration of their marriage, Nellie and Leonel shared their home with itinerant musicians — Lloyd Wilson, Art Tatum, Lottie Moser, Lorenzo Flennoy, and others. The Cole brothers, Nat “King” Cole and his brother Eddie, rehearsed at the Lewis house. Waves of different styles of music swept through the neighborhood — jazz, blues, and boogie.
As musicians trooped in and out of her house and as her marriage eventually ended, Nellie continued to develop her own style. Millar says that “during the ten or so years in the semi-obscurity of Los Angeles clubdom, Nellie explored the infinite flexibility of the blues, the bittersweet melodies of the torch song, showy Broadway tunes and jazzy novelties in keeping with the swing era.” The venue for Nellie’s art was kaleidoscopic. Working with Dootsie Williams and the Chocolate Drops, she played the Trocadero; she worked the the Swanee Club with Ivie Anderson and the Little Club with Lena Horne. Playing the Club Alabam for a while, Nellie eventually landed a three-year stint at the Club Royale, giving her a kind of job security that enabled her to further hone her skills. Nellie said of her stint at the Royale, “It’s very difficult to develop a style when you’re always traveling. It was at the Royale that I had the chance to really work on what I did.”
Charles Brown, blues pioneer, characterized Nellie as one of the greats in the development of jazz: “Nellie set the pace for a lot of people. She was ahead of Nat Cole … Lutcher is really in a class of her own. There is no one like her. She plays uniquely and has a graceful way of playing piano that no one can compete with.”
Brown’s opinion of Nellie is high praise. Credited with creating the music that “would become rhythm and blues,” As noted on the website “All About Jazz,” Brown is considered “one of the principals in bringing about a shift in the mainstream of African-American music, one that would bring vocalists to the forefront and largely eclipse the instrumental art of jazz.”
Impervious to the ups and downs of a music career, Nellie continued to work for small wages, often earning only $125 a week. In order to keep her job in some places Nellie was required to “kick back” a portion of her wages to club management. Nellie admits to being discouraged during those lean years, but she worked tirelessly for more than ten years to support herself and Talmadge and to create her unique style. Nellie says in the St. Mary interview that the time she spent moving from club to club gave her the opportunity to perfect her style and arrange many of the popular songs for herself.
Hurry On Down
Nellie’s “discovery” or “big break” was a serendipitous radio broadcast in 1947. Nellie credits Talmadge with motivating her to promote herself for the annual March of Dimes benefit show which was to be broadcast on radio from Hollywood High School. Insisting that his mother was “as good as anyone else” on the list of performers slated to perform at the benefit show, Talmadge persuaded his mother to send a telegram to Frank Bull, Los Angeles disc jockey, who was going to serve as radio announcer for a portion of the broadcast. When Bull received the telegram, he read it aloud during his regular radio show and invited Nellie to perform.
Nellie recounted that there were so many people in attendance that she could hardly move. Scheduled to perform last, Nellie was told that there was time enough for only one song. She sang, “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else.” Listening to the broadcast was Dave Dexter, talent scout for Capitol Records. Impressed with her performance, he contacted Nellie and arranged for her to record some test records for Capitol. Nellie notes that her brother Joe had taken Dexter some of her homemade demos before she sang on the March of Dimes broadcast:
“My brother had taken him some records, some little homemade records we made, but they didn’t come out too well of course, but what do you expect from a homemade record! But he [Joe] was trying to help me … But anyway, he took these records out to Mr. Dexter, some of the things we had done at home on our little recorder.”
Following the March of Dimes broadcast, Nellie’s career blossomed. Able to select her own musicians, Nellie, with Ulysses Livingston on guitar, Billy Hadnott on bass, and Lee Young on drums, recorded four songs in one day: “The One I Love Belongs to Someone Else,” “The Lady’s in Love with You,” “Hurry On Down,” and “You Better Watch Yourself, Bub.” Between recordings for Capitol, Nellie sang in clubs in New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, managing her own bookings. With the flood of requests from promoters across the country, Dexter suggested that Nellie sign with agent Carlos Gastel. Since Gastel had a reputation of dealing with his clients honestly and fairly, Nellie signed with him. Gastel booked Nellie into bigger clubs like Manhattan’s Cafe Society Downtown, headlining with entertainers like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.
Coinciding with her club popularity and her thriving record sales was the American Federation of Musicians strike. James Petrillo, head of the union, was concerned about loss of compensation to musicians because of increased popularity of jukeboxes. Determined to ensure fair wages for musicians, Petrillo called for the strike to begin January 1, 1948.
Just a month before the strike was to begin, Dexter brought Nellie back to a recording studio in Chicago, where she recorded 24 songs. Her rendering of “Fine Brown Frame” was a best-seller. A favorite of Nellie’s, “Fine Brown Frame” was a standard part of her New York repertoire, but Nellie had to work to convince Dexter of its viability as a seller. Nellie recalls the popularity of this piece:
“When I went to New York, I included ‘Fine Brown Frame’ as a part of my repertoire. And the people when I left New York started running to the record shops … requesting ‘Fine Brown Frame’ … So the record shop owner would say, ‘We don’t have a record. We have Buddy Johnson’s record, but we don’t have a record by Nellie Lutcher.’ So they would say, ‘She’s doing it at the club. She’s doing it at the Cafe Society.’ So this went on and they kept getting these requests so finally Mr. Dexter called me and said, ‘Nellie, we’re going to have to record.’ … [o]ne of the first tunes that we did [when I got to Chicago] was ‘Fine Brown Frame,’ and before it was even released they were getting orders for it.”
Nellie’s popularity in clubs grew, and in 1950 she and Nat King Cole teamed up to record “For You My Love” and “Can I Come In For A Second.” “For You My Love,” rated No. 8 on the rhythm and blues chart, was to be Nellie’s last American hit. Nellie continued to work clubs across the country and managed to work in a visit to her hometown in 1950. Following the success of “For You My Love,” Nellie’s work enjoyed much popularity in England, and in September of 1950, she traveled to Liverpool to entertain her British fans.
Despite the gradual decline in popularity of rhythm and blues music, Nellie continued to record for Capitol Records until 1952 — five years after her “discovery.” She constantly experimented with her style and continued to build her repertoire. In 1952, at what must have seemed like the end of her recording career, Nellie was feted by the popular television program “This is Your Life.” Nellie was presented the key to the City of Lake Charles by the mayor Tom Price, an important recognition of her work.
With the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, Nellie’s position in the performing and recording world shifted as did those of many other rhythm and blues artists. Although Nellie signed with Liberty Records and later Imperial Records, she was not to have another hit song. Still performing in clubs and for special musical occasions, Nellie turned her attentions to ensuring that her son was well-educated, enrolling him in a prestigious and pricey private school, the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina. Nellie also ensured her own future by building a secure financial base for herself, investing in California real estate. In 1968, Nellie was elected to the board of directors of the Musicians’ Union Local 47. Her election marked the first board seat held by an African-American woman.
Enjoying a career that spanned some 80 years and yielded 40 or 50 records and countless performances, Nellie continued to play and sing until just a few years before her death. Appearing at the 1993 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at age 80, she stopped in Lake Charles briefly to visit friends. She said to writer Fran Dickey, “I’m happy with my career. I’m happy that the people really made me do what I did because they kept asking me to sing. They don’t ask for something unless they really want it.”
In her personal interview with Berman in 2003, in response to the question, “What made you decide to stop [your music career],” Nellie reflects on the inevitable exploitation of artists:
“I just decided … Well, there was a change in the recording business. In the recording business, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who made money and didn’t get the money, and I’m one of them. So, I resent that. I resent it with a passion, the fact that I contributed with originality and style.”
Despite her natural resentment of being exploited by an industry that makes enormous profit from musicians, Nellie was quick to express gratitude to the people who helped her achieve her goals:
“I thank the public at this stage in my life for making it possible for me to get the recognition I deserved because I am not called what you say a ‘trained singer.’ I just sing what I feel. And when I started to sing I did it at a time when it was the right time to do it, so I’m grateful and I appreciate your kindness.”
Song is Ended, but the Melody Lingers On
Although Nellie lived four more years after the 2003 Berman interview, she makes it clear in their conversation that her life was influenced by a personal theology, shaped by her Baptist roots and the Catholic traditions of Southwest Louisiana. In explaining Lent as she perceived it as a Baptist child growing up in Catholic Louisiana, Nellie notes that “the Catholic religion back then that was it … When you were Catholic and during Lent season everything was just mum. They really observed it.”
Acknowledging that the Lenten season represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion, Nellie shares her personal theology:
“I learned later, and I don’t remember where I got this from, but every individual, every person, who was born into this world goes through this particular period Jesus went through. We all have six weeks of adversity — every individual. I don’t know where I read it but I learned it from somewhere. . . .[And] I am just coming out of mine now.”
Nellie Lutcher passed away on June 8, 2007, in Los Angeles, surrounded by family and friends who loved her, secure in the knowledge that she had made a significant contribution to the world of rhythm and blues and that her memory will linger on.
Excerpted with permission from a catalog that accompanied an exhibit at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum in Lake Charles in 2008 titled “Hurry on Down: A Celebration of the Life of Nellie Lutcher.” The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities provided grant funding for the exhibit.
Delma McLeod-Porter, Ph.D., is director of the Write to Excellence Center and professor of English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.