James Melvin Lunceford was born June 6, 1902, in Fulton, Mississippi, just outside of Tupelo, and raised in Denver. He studied music at Fisk College in Nashville and at the City College of New York. His music career began in 1927 when he returned to Memphis and took a job at Manassas High School teaching English and coaching football. While there, he began what would become the first music program in a city school in Memphis. And from these modest beginnings he would form the Chickasaw Syncopators. It was a group he then molded into professionals, taking them on the road to places such as Cleveland and Buffalo, as well as recording studios. In 1934, Lunceford and his Syncopators entered the pantheon of swing, Harlem’s Cotton Club, where he unseated Cab Calloway’s house band.
In his 2011 book, The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes: “The Lunceford band had Harlem credibility, thanks to the glorious Cotton Club run, and country panache, thanks to the Memphis boys in the band …”
The 1930s and 1940s were full of great working composers and bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Count Basie. But Lunceford, bringing with him a discipline from his days as schoolteacher, led a fastidious group of showmen who looked the part and could swing with the best behind the compositions of arranger Sy Oliver. With the band’s slogan, “Rhythm Is Our Business,” he used a distinctive two-beat rhythm as opposed to the standard four-beat. This deviation would come to be known as the “Lunceford style” and Fats Waller would christen him the “king of syncopation.” To further their appeal, the shows featured choreographed movement and the music and lyrics a sense of humor.
The band was eventually renamed the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and recorded regularly on the Decca and Columbia labels. Wildly popular in the late 1930s, the band’s biggest hits included “My Blue Heaven,” “I Got It,” “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” and “Uptown Blues.” The core band broke up in 1942 over internal conflicts (Lunceford lived lavishly but paid his musicians poorly — at the same time donating large sums to further music education throughout the South). The band leader continued to tour until July 12, 1947, when he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 45 while signing autographs before a show in Oregon. There was speculation that Lunceford was poisoned earlier that day by the owner of a diner unhappy at having to serve a “Negro” in his establishment.
Other members of Lunceford’s group became ill as well.