McKinney’s Cotton Pickers
McKinney’s Cotton Pickers
In 1931 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers were voted the second-most popular jazz dance band in the country, as was determined in a nationwide poll by the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Though the Cotton Pickers placed second to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, the band’s ranking nevertheless reflected the coast-to-coast popularity of the Detroit-based ensemble. “There was a lot of talk about McKinney’s Cotton Pickers up in Detroit,” recalled Ellington in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. “That bunch… made a gang of musical history, and their recordings had everybody talking about them.” Despite its long list of famous personnel-arrangers Don Redman and Benny Carter and trumpeters Joe Smith and Rex Stewart—this once top midwestern regional band has faded from popular history. Recent scholarship by jazz scholars and historians, however, has began to resurrect the legacy of this talented ensemble, which drew thousands of listeners in the years preceding the swing era.
McKinney’s Cotton Pickers emerged from the small African American community of Springfield, Ohio. In
Members included Cuba Austin (drums, tap dancing; joined band early 1920s); Benny Carter (saxophone, arrangements, musical direction; bandmem-ber 1931-32); Adolphus “Doc” Cheatam (trumpet; joined band 1931); Ed Cuffee; Langston Curl; Roy Eldridge (trumpet; bandmember 1934); Wardell Gray (saxophone bandmember 1934); Edward Inge (saxophone joined band 1930); Quentin Jackson (trombone, vocals; joined band 1930); Claude Jones (trombone; joined band early 1920s); Buddy Lee; William McKinney (drums, management; bandmember beginning 1921); John Nesbitt (trumpet, arrangements; joined band mid-1920s); Don Redman (saxophone, arrangements; bandmember 1927-31); Todd Rhodes (piano; bandmember beginning 1921); Prince Robinson; Milton Senior (saxophone bandmember beginning 1921); Joe Smith (trumpet; bandmember 1930-31); Rex Stewart (cornet, trumpet; joined band 1931); George “Fathead” Thomas (saxophone, vocals; band-member mid-1920s-l 930); Dave Wilborn (banjo, joined band early 1920s); and others.
Formed as Synco Trio by William McKinney, Todd Rhodes, and Milton Senior, Springfield, OH, 1921; performed annually at Manitou Beach resort, MI; expanded and adopted name the Synco Band; performed at Arcadia Ballroom, Detroit, MI, 1926; resident band at Graystone Ballroom, Detroit, 1927; recorded for RCA/Victor, 1928-29, and Okeh, 1928; toured West Coast, 1931; formally disbanded, 1934; McKinney led guest bands under the Cotton Pickers name, 1934-1941.
1921 ex-circus drummer and World War I veteran William McKinney, Springfield-born saxophonist Milton Senior, and pianist Todd Rhodes, who had studied at the Springfield School of Music and the Erie Conservatory, formed the Synco Trio. Expanding its membership, the band became the Synco Septette and eventually took the name the Synco Band. The ensemble soon became the most popular show-style band touring Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, and West Virginia. Between 1922 and 1923, the band recruited Springfield banjo player and singer Dave Wilborn, trombonist Claude Jones, and drummer Cuba Austin, who was also a tap dancer. Ceding his drum stool to Austin, McKinney set out to become the band’s full-time manager. Most members welcomed the addition of West Virginia-born Austin, whose skillful musicianship freed the unit from McKinney’s “stiff” rhythmic technique.
Over the next few years the Synco Band toured widely, including dates in Charleston, West Virginia, where, in 1924, the “ragged” ensemble performed for England’s visiting Prince Edward III, who sat in with the group on drums. The band’s annual summer resort engagement at Manitou Beach, in southern lower Michigan, became crucial to its development. Away from the demands of downtown ballrooms, the stint at the resort allowed more time for members to rehearse and work on new arrangements. During one of the band’s Manitou engagements of the mid-1920s, the unit added trumpeter John Nesbitt and vocalist-saxophonist George “Fathead” Thomas. One of the only members with formal skills, Nesbitt spent hours writing arrangements and teaching his fellow bandmates to read music.
Like many bands of the period, the Synco Band was a combination dance and show band with a repertoire centering around tap dancing and comedic stage routines that often included the wearing of paper hats and the use of whistles. Despite its reliance on such histrionic novelties, the unit did not lack musical ability. Bill Coleman recalled, as quoted in McKinney’s Music, that the Cotton Pickers ensemble “was the first Negro orchestra to blend high-class playing and musicianship with showmanship. The dancers loved them and so did all the people’round the edge of the dance-floor. The band had fantastic numbers. They would suddenly put on moustaches, funny hats, women’s dresses, and false faces, but they’d continue to play very rhythmic music.”
After performing in the Ohio cities of Toledo and Dayton, the Synco Band would travel north to play dates in Michigan, notably venues in Flint, Bay City, and Saginaw. In 1926 the group took a job at Detroit’s Arcadia Ballroom, a fifteen hundred-seat establishment on the main artery of Woodward Avenue. The band’s immediate success brought them several contract extensions, which resulted in a nearly five-month stay at the ballroom. From Arcadia the Synco Band moved north along the avenue to one of the city’s most prestigious jazz dance establishments, the Graystone Ballroom. Under the proprietorship of the National Amusement Corporation (N.A.C.)—owned by its president, Charlie Horvath, and French-born bandleader Jean Goldkette—the Graystone, with its marble fountain, lavish garden, and spring-supported dance floor, accommodated two thousand dancers. Invited to perform at the Graystone in 1927 by Goldkette, the band was met by immediate acclaim.
At the insistence of the Graystone’s management, the Synco Band took a new name. In an era when dance bands and nightclubs were imbued with plantation and riverboat themes of the antebellum South, the band was given the name McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Despite opposition by bandmembers who disdained the moniker’s racist connotations, the name persisted, and the band took up residence at the Graystone as the N.A.C.’s first featured black orchestra.
The Cotton Pickers’ recruitment of saxophonist-arranger Don Redman in 1927 marked one of the most significant events in the history of the unit. Just as he had almost single-handedly transformed the band of his former employer, Fletcher Henderson, Redman’s tenure with the Cotton Pickers, 1927 to 1931, brought the ensemble its greatest period of critical and commercial acclaim. A native of West Virginia, Redman was a child prodigy who went on to become a brilliant, conservatory-trained multi-instrumentalist. His work with the Henderson band produced the model jazz arrangements of the period. As Richard Hadlock wrote in Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Redman consigned “to paper what King Oliver and Louis Armstrong had already proved could be created by ear—thematic variations performed by two or more horns in close harmony without loss of rhythmic freedom.” Along with arrangements contributed by trumpeter John Nesbitt, Redman built the Cotton Pickers’ band book (collection of arrangements) into one of the finest in the country. Less than five feet tall but possessed of a charismatic stage presence, Redman replaced the dour McKinney as the band’s master of ceremonies.
Through the connections of Goldkette, the Cotton Pickers acquired a recording contract with RCA/Victor. In July 1928 the band boarded a train for its Chicago recording session. In Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, drummer Cuba Austin recounted how “the boys were wild with excitement about recording, and on the train to Chicago for (our) first date there was a lot of drinking, laughing, talking, and everybody was in great spirits. We were just walking and cutting up the length of the train through the entire night—most of us didn’t even go to bed or get any sleep.” The next day in the studio, the band’s timekeeping practice of foot-tapping frustrated engineers who worked to deaden the noise. To remedy the problem, the engineers placed pillows under the feet of the musicians. Despite several ruined takes caused by the pillows slipping out from under the feet of bandmembers, the Cotton Pickers produced a number of excellent sides: “Four or Five Times,” “Milenberg Joys,” “Cherry,” and “Shim-Me Sha-Wabble.” Nesbitt’s arrangements of “Put It There” and “Stop Kidding,” wrote Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams in the liner notes to the compilation Big Band Jazz, were the products of “an unflagging imagination… brilliantly unusual numbers filled with ingenious elaboration.”
According to Schuller and Williams, the fast tempo and use of various time signatures in “Stop Kidding” was the result of “prodigious rehearsing” and was “(in 1928) beyond the means of almost all other jazz orchestras.” Three months later, in October 1928, the band took part in a New York session for the Okeh label under the pseudonym the Chocolate Dandies. With guest guitarist Lonnie Johnson the band cut the sides “Paducah,” “Star Dust,” “Birmingham Breakdown,” and a new version of “Four or Five Times.”
In 1929 the band’s popularity inspired RCA/Victor to arrange a recording date in New York City. Because of intense demand for the Pickers at the Graystone, however, Redman was prohibited by Goldkette from taking the entire band to New York. Needing a steady four-four banjo beat for the sessions, Redman took along Dave Wilborn. In New York Redman filled out the band with a stellar list of talent that numbered saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, pianist Fats Waller, and trumpeter Joe Smith. “Compared to the [Fletcher] Henderson band of 1929,” wrote John Chilton in The Song of the Hawk, “this edition of the Cotton Pickers was a superior unit. The tonal blends are better, as is the section phrasing and the use of dynamics; above all, the band has more rhythmic vitality than Henderson’s.” From these sessions came “Miss Hannah,” “I’d Love It,” “The Way I Feel,” and one of the band’s biggest hits, “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.”
Not long after the New York recording date, Joe Smith officially joined the Cotton Pickers. A former sideman with Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson, Smith possessed a smooth trumpet style. As Gunther Schuller observed in Early Jazz, “Joe Smith is one of the most interesting trumpet players of the twenties in that he combined sovereign technical mastery with a sensitivity and lyrical style unknown in those early rowdy days of jazz.” In A History of Jazz, Barry Ulanov noted the importance of Smith’s membership in the Cotton Pickers, asserting, “When Joe Smith joined, the band assumed importance, ranking with the bands of Duke [Ellington] and Fletcher [Henderson].”
In November 1930 Smith borrowed the car of drummer Kaiser Marshall, the band’s temporary replacement for the ailing Cuba Austin. On his trip from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Bridgewater, Connecticut, Smith took along singer George Thomas. Behind schedule, he increased his speed as he attempted to pass through the closing gates of a railroad crossing. He lost control of the car and crashed. Though Smith escaped the accident unharmed, Thomas died in a nearby hospital. The death of Thomas left an indelible impact on Smith, who eventually entered New York’s Bellevue psychiatric facility, where he died in 1937. As author Kaiser Marshall explained in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya,” I really think that it was that accident that put Joe where he spent his last few years, as Joe and Fat Head [Thomas] loved each other.”
Though the entire band was devastated by Thomas’s death, they kept a scheduled recording date for Victor, using replacement musicians Rex Stewart on trumpet and Benny Carter on sax, as well as free-lance vocalists. Thomas’s place was filled by two new members, singer-trombonist Quentin Jackson and saxophonist Edward Inge. Performing intermittently with the band, Smith left in 1930 and was temporarily replaced; he rejoined in 1931.
Due to the severe economic impact of the Depression, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers’ Detroit fans found it difficult to patronize big halls and nightclubs. In contrast to Detroit’s industrial blight, though, Los Angeles’s film industry supported a number of bustling nightclubs. To take advantage of this vibrant West Coast scene, William McKinney booked the Cotton Pickers for an engagement at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City. On the way west, the band played several other dates, including stops in Kansas City, where it battled the band of Bennie Moten.
The Cotton Pickers’ stay at Sebastian’s and several other California clubs, from April through July of 1931, caused mass dissension among members. Low wages, poor management, and long hours of travel began to take their toll. Temporarily pacified by a vacation in Salt Lake City, Utah, the band resumed its western tour, appearing at cities along the California coast. The band’s protestations, however, flared once more as it was booked into a last-minute string of one-nighters. As it traveled by car to play stops in cities across the Midwest and the upper South, the band, accustomed to traveling by bus, began to voice its anger over the lack of suitable accommodations. “There isn’t anything that can ruin a band quicker than a booker who keeps jumping it all over the country for one-nighters,” recounted Dave Wilborn, as quoted in McKinney’s Music. “We were all so tired of this endless traveling. Right there the boys voted to break up the band.”
Following the end of that difficult tour, Don Redman left to form his own unit. From McKinney’s ranks Redman’s New York band eventually culled Prince Robinson, Ed Cuffee, Ed Inge, Buddy Lee, and Langston Curl. McKinney’s remaining members soon formed a new orchestra under the direction of Benny Carter, an ace arranger in addition to his role as saxophonist. Members of the 1931 incarnation included cornetist Rex Stewart and trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatam. In December of that year the outfit took part in a battle of the bands with its chief rival, the Duke Ellington Orchestra; a month later the Pickers were in the studio to record once more for Victor.
However, following that date, Victor failed to renew the Cotton Pickers’ contract. Another major setback occurred with the departure of Carter in 1932. Within two years, the band was devoid of its original, Ohio-based members. Lacking an able arranger and suffering from the apathetic management of McKinney, the band performed with numerous guest musicians until its official breakup in 1934. Throughout the decade McKinney periodically resurrected the Cotton Pickers in the form of guest bands, which he booked under the Cotton Pickers name. After 1941 McKinney left music and took a job at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant; he subsequently worked as a bellhop in a Detroit hotel.
The only black regional band to attain national prominence during the 1920s, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers was a product of long years on the road and a musical camaraderie that transformed an unknown band into a top box-office attraction. The ensemble’s “recordings and memories of the period, “wrote Thomas J. Hennessey in From Jazz to Swing,” indicate the Cotton Pickers were a tight ensemble playing straight-ahead dance music that pleased its white dance audience and also impressed scores of Midwestern musicians, “including young instrumentalists like swing drummer Gene Krupa. Indeed, the Cotton Pickers had a mighty impact on the swing musicians who followed them. Remembered Krupa, as quoted in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya, “One night in Chicago… I stood open-mouthed, completely awed and fascinated. I’ll never forget the Cotton Pickers.”
The Band That Don Redman Built (1928-1930), Bluebird, 1990.
Don Redman: Doin’ What I Please, Living Era, 1993.
Great Alternatives, Classics, 1993.
Also appear on the compilations Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties (Smithsonian Collection of Recordings), RCA, 1983; and Early Black Swing, RCA.
Chilton, John, McKinney’s Music, Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1978.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street, Chilton Book Company, 1972.
Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Da Capo, 1988.
Hennessey, Thomas J., From Jazz to Swing, Wayne State University Press, 1994.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Early Development, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It, Dover, 1955.
Ulanov, Barry, A History of Jazz, Viking Press, 1952.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams to Big Band Jazz: From the Beginnings to the Fifties (Smithsonian Collection of Recordings), RCA, 1983.
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