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Lutcher, Nellie

If Una Mae Carlisle was Waller’s squeeze, and Julia Lee seemed more like his older sibling, then Nellie Lutcher was his peppy kid sister. We celebrate Julia Lee for her directness, even in metaphor-driven, double-entendre blues lyrics. Nellie Lutcher’s greatest asset, contrastingly, is her playfulness.

Nellie Lutcher’s most playful - and best-known song - is “Hurry On Down” which she recorded for the first of several times on her premiere recording session in 1947. “Hurry On Down” and her career as a recording artist in general came about after she had been working hard in dozens of joints in Los Angeles’s black neighborhoods for a decade.

“My life turned around in 1947,” she told Whitney Balliett, “I’d been plugging along in Los Angeles for ten years when – wham! - Dave Dexter heard me on a March of Dimes radio show. I did ‘The One I Love (Belongs To Somebody Else)’, ‘Hurry On Down,’ and ‘He’s a Real Gone Guy,’ both of which I wrote. When I woke up, I found that I had a couple of hits. A couple of weeks later, he signed me to a contract.”

A few sessions later, she had her third big hit, “Fine Brown Frame”; that year, Billboard magazine named her second out of the four “Top Female Vocalists on Race Records” (she came in after Julia Lee and before Dinah Washington and Rose Murphy).

Nellie Lutcher was born on October 15, 1912, and not in 1915, as some older sources say, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a small town under the geographical and cultural sway of New Orleans. (In 1947, she would immortalize the town in “Lake Charles Boogie.”) Lutcher’s father drove a truck and played bass in the Imperial Jazz Band.

She grew up equally under the influence of both the local church and the nearby all-black theater, and like Lee, she had formal piano lessons and serious training. Her piano professor, Mrs. Reynaud (a very Creole-sounding name) was such an accomplished sight reader that, “if there was a flying sitting on the sheet music, she’d play that too.”

By the 1920s, Nellie herself was serving as pianist with The Imperial Jazz Band, for a time their trumpeter was none other than the not-yet-legendary Bunk Johnson. In 1933 she worked with The Southern Rhythm Boys, under the direction of clarinetist Paul Barnes, another important early New Orleans jazzman.

After hearing from several friends and relatives that things were easier for black people in California, Lutcher moved to Los Angeles in 1935. She landed a gig at the Dunbar Hotel, leading her own trio (rather than serving in the rhythm section of a larger group) and it was at this time that she first began to sing.

Lutcher quickly ingratiated herself into the city’s vibrant black music scene, which, though barely recorded during the swing era (Los Angeles was just another “territory” then), would play a key roll in the development of rhythm & blues. She became friendly with the Cole brothers, bassist Eddie and pianist Nat not long after they arrived from Chicago. Had more record companies been paying attention to Los Angeles, Lutcher would have doubtless not had to wait until she was 35 to make her first disc.

Capitol Records was the first nationally-distributed major label to profit from the local talent on Central Avenue, starting with Nat King Cole; by the time Lee and then Lutcher were signed to the label, Cole was already attracting white listeners as well as black. At the last minute, she found her way onto a benefit concert for the March of Dimes, which was also broadcast; thankfully, Dave Dexter heard Lutcher singing “The One I Love” on the program and immediately arranged for her to record the Isham Jones standard for Capitol.

The label already had Julia Lee under contract, but it was plain that Lutcher could have greater pop appeal; besides which, it was easier to get her into the studio, logistically speaking. With Lee, Dexter seems to have been more of a documentarian, letting her put down repertoire that she had already been singing for years for patrons in Kansas City. With Lutcher, contrastingly, Dexter took a more proactive role as a hands-on producer and A&R man.

Lutcher also had the good sense to sign with Cole’s manager Carlos Gastel, who already had a track record for making stars out of black and jazz talent.

Lutcher occasionally did a Lee-style double-entendre blues, like her 1947 “There’s Another Mule In Your Stall” but she sings it playfully, bouncing up and down in her characteristic flea-on-a-hot-brick style.

On the whole, Our Nellie is much more wholesome, less grown-up and more child-like than Aunt Julia; in 1950 and 1951, Lutcher two additional songs about inviting company over (the era’s equivalent of eVites) that could function as sequels to “Hurry On Down”: “Pa’s Not Home – Ma’s Upstairs” and “Can I Come In For a Second.” The first is more about the tender trap than an erotic romp, even though she promises her boyfriend that her parents aren’t around (“the front door’s locked and the back won’t budge / so why are we chewing on chocolate fudge?”), it turns out that Ma and Pa are in on the fix, hoping that she can ensnare him into a proposal.

“Can I Come In For a Second” reverses the equation: here, it’s the young man who is begging and pleading to be invited inside after a date. The track is done as a duet between Lutcher and her old friend Nat Cole, and illustrates the differences between the two: The King is smooth and cool to the max, even when playing the horny young swain, and Lutcher is frisky and girly and squealy even when shutting the door in his face.

When he tells her he wants her to put her heart into a kiss, she positively shrieks, “that’s the only way I kiss!” The song is one of the few with both music and words by Sammy Cahn (although the bridge seems inspired by “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree”), and I don’t doubt that Sammy penned the hysterical dialogue between the two as well. He: “I have a lot of investments to consider…I brought you home in a taxi.” She: “If that wasn’t a bus it was the biggest taxi I ever saw!”

“Little Sally Walker” is Lutcher’s own transformation of a nursery rhyme (earlier swung by Al Cooper and The Savoy Sultans) into a modern love ballad, complete with a new verse. Lutcher constantly combines the childish element with the sexual one: she had likely been singing “Princess Poo-Poo-Ly Has Plenty Papaya” since 1939, when it was recorded by Abe Lyman and his Californians.

In 1947, “Princess Poo-poo-ly” was recorded again, first by the song’s publisher and credited composer, Harry Owens (he published it with his own name as author, but supposedly it was written by Doug Reynolds and Don McDiarmid, according to McDiarmid’s son). The song begins “Princess Poo-Poo-Ly Has Plenty Papaya / She loves to give it away,” and it’s possible to take this either as a sexual euphemism or enjoy it just for sheer silliness. It works either way, especially in Lutcher’s performance, the fun is keenly enhanced by the way she plays with words, the rhythmic repetitiveness of all those “P” sounds.

Her timing is, as always, impeccable, especially in the coda, especially in the composer’s vaudeville asides (similar to Noel Coward’s in “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?”): “she loves to give it away – I mean papaya - she loves to give it away – got plenty of it - she loves to give it away – crazy girl!”

"Princess Poo-Poo-Ly” is one of many examples of Lutcher splitting the difference between scat singing and traditional lyrics; she favors songs that turn words into pure sonics, like the geographically-motivated “Chi-Chi-Chicago” and “I Wish I Was In Walla-Walla”; then there's “Pig Latin Song,” which beings “I-way ove-yay ou-yay oney-hay.” “Lutcher’s Leap” is a wordless scat epic, possibly inspired by Gene Krupa’s “What’s This” and Nat Cole’s response, “That’s What.”

In “The Dog Fight Song,” she not only repeats the names of the two doggies, “Ming Toy” and “Prince,” over and over in a childish / canine way, but supplies plenty of doggy sound effects, yelps and barks and bow-wows. In “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” she launches into a particularly exuberant, chirpy scat episode which evolves into a series of imitations of the various instruments in the titular ensemble.

This is distinctly inspired by Fats Waller, who launched a tradition of doing untraditional things with his voice (such as like rapidly alternating between baritone and falsetto registers), and has little in common with Lutcher’s contemporaries in early R&B, like Nat Cole and Louis Jordan.

Like Waller, Lutcher has a serious side as well; she’ll sing the occasional standard, like “My Man,” without joking it up.

Lee’s most incongruous recording was a boogie-woogie treatment of the traditional Italian song “Oh Marie” and Lutcher, for her part, made what was, for her, a “straight” version of “Cool Water.” She sings the cowboy classic surprisingly convincingly, even though it’s not exactly easy to imagine Miss Lutcher crossing the barren waste on a horse named Dan.

Along with the famous “Hurry On Down” two of her more fascinating pieces are “A Maid’s Prayer” and “Kiss Me Sweet."

Lutcher and Lee don’t seem to have been rivals, nor did Lutcher necessarily ascend as Lee’s star went the other way; the glory years for both were the immediate postwar period. Maybe there was only room in the market for one of them, and Lutcher and Lee somehow just cancelled each other out (and leave us not forget that Rose Murphy was also recording by 1947).

Both lost ground when the 1948 recording ban hit, at which point Capitol tried the curious move of bringing in a third femme Fats follower, none other than Cleo Brown herself, for a single session. As with Lee, Lutcher was undergoing a process of diminishing returns: two sessions in 1949, two in 1950 and in 1951. Still, her discs were disproportionately successful in England, where she made a very well-received appearance in September 1950.

The bulk of Lutcher’s sessions employed just a rhythm section, in contrast to the all-star horn men who guested with Julia Lee’s Boyfriends. In 1951, Dexter tried stirring the mixture by backing Lutcher with Billy May’s full orchestra, this being several weeks before May conducted his first date accompanying Nat Cole in a similar manner.

The results were successful artistically though made little impact commercially. Especially swell are two ‘20s standards, “Mean to Me” and “Birth of the Blues,” which feature May’s already-perfected slurping saxophone sound, and make for a wonderful cushion of sounds behind Lutcher. “Let The Worry Bird Worry For You,” despite an ungainly title, is a worthy new swinger by Jule Styne and Leo Robin (from Two Tickets To Broadway).

The oddest track is “I Want To Be Near You,” a vigorous march in which May makes the ensemble sound like a college football brass band, 76 trombones waiting for Meredith Willson, complete with a chanting choir clapping their hands on the beat deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas style. Even in this most Caucasian context, a production which sounds like an idea that Mitch Miller might have come up with, Lutcher makes everything swing.

Capitol followed this semi-success with a less interesting date in which Lutcher was backed by Hal Mooney, a journeyman arranger who was then Kay Starr’s regular accompanist. The model seems to have been Nat Cole’s many dates with string section, but the charts weren’t nearly up to what Nelson Riddle was writing for Cole.

Following this, between 1952 and 1954, Lutcher relocated to OKeh Records and then Decca, and made some very agreeable small group sessions that are fully on a par with her best Capitol work. Lutcher is particularly winning on a 1953 LA session which begins with “Whee Baby,” a bluesy novelty by Peggy (not Julia) Lee, in which the musical director was Lee’s ex-husband, guitarist Dave Barbour. For a date on Okeh, Columbia’s “race” subsidiary, it sounds exactly like a Capitol production.

If the Okeh date has overtones of Peggy Lee, Lutcher’s two Decca dates bring to mind Louis Jordan; Jordan’s producer, Milt Gabler, was likely involved, even though the first session transpired in Los Angeles. The highlights are a pair of standards by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, a fine “Blues In The Night” and a marvelous recasting of Arlen and Mercer’s “Out of This World” into a Tympany Five-style shuffle rhythm; the ‘20s standard “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze” is also re-animated with fast-moving Latinate percussion.

Her original, “It’s Been Said” quotes “As Time Goes By” (“Woman needs man and man must have his mate”) but is otherwise exactly the kind of thing Jordan was doing all along, even though there’s no mistaking Lutcher’s trademarks: the trilly scatting and emphasis on repeated phrases in a fast, telegraphic tempo (“It’s a fact, it’s a fact, it’s a natural fact”). Lutcher recorded it twice, and on the second time (a date produced by Sy Oliver), the band chants behind her; the combination of the speedy tempo, the somewhat surly singing group, and the overall spirit of the piece is very similar to Jordan’s 1949 “Safe, Sane, and Single.”

As with Lee, the entire Nellie Lutcher Bear Family package is well worth owning – there truly isn’t a bad track among the 105 included on the five discs. You might expect her to now enter a period of artistic decline, but she doesn’t. Lutcher’s last major recording project was an excellent album of standards for Liberty Records (included on the last disc of the Bear Box), in which her still-excellent vocals are framed by marvelously sympathetic arrangements by Russ Garcia, in ensembles that vary from octet to full big band.

Lutcher’s 1956 album, titled Our New Nellie, doesn’t include any of her trademark novelties, blues, or rhythm songs, but she completely transforms the 12 standards into Lutcher material with her zesty rhythmic style. Russ Garcia clearly was a fan, and he made the brass and reed orchestrations bounce right along with her. From the mambo treatment of “Ole Buttermilk Sky” to the distinctive Garcia trombones (not to mention Red Norvo’s vibraphone) on “Blue Skies,” this is not a fading, former hit-maker of the previous decade, enjoying a last hurrah. Rather, this is a formidable artist, a quintessential pianist-singer at the very peak of her powers.

The last few tracks on the Bear set are, although not bad, distinctly anti-climatic: there’s a session for Imperial Records in which she remade “Hurry on Down” and “He’s a Real Gone Guy”; by now she was singing them so fast that they move like a silent movie projected at an exaggeratedly fast speed. There’s a dreary ballad called “If Your Face Was As Beautiful As Your Soul” but, compensatingly, also a explosive original well titled “I’ll Never Get Tired.”

On titles like this, Lutcher is a veritable virtuoso of energy and rhythm. She never gets tired - she’s like a double shot of espresso set to music - and neither does her style.

Lutcher’s last session was a quartet of titles for a record label that her drummer, Lee Young, was trying to start in 1963; one is a de-waltzed retread of Irving Berlin’s “Reaching For The Moon” in the teeny-bop manner of Bobby Darin’s “Nature Boy.” They’re very professional, but Lutcher herself disavowed them. Her chart-topping days were long behind her, but Lutcher was never down and out. She continued to work, what’s more, she was elected to an office of The Los Angeles Local of the American Federation of Musicians. She also owned and operated an apartment building on South Van Ness Avenue.

Lutcher played the Cookery on University Place in New York, in 1973 and 1980. On the latter occasion, like Cleo Brown, she was profiled by Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker, and also appeared on Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. She actually lived long enough to see her music enjoy a brief vogue again in England in the 1990s, at which time her duet with Nat King Cole, “For You My Love,” was reissued as a CD single. She was also alive to enjoy the appearance of the comprehensive Bear Family box, Nellie Lutcher And Her Rhythm.

She died on June 8, 2007, a few months short of her 95th birthday. Even in death, Nellie Lutcher remains a real gone gal with a fine, brown frame.

Contributor: Will Friedwald