From Obscurity to Rythm and Blues Sensation 🎹🎶
Two years after the Great Fire in Lake Charles, a spark flared again that spread across the entire nation—Nellie Lutcher was born in 1912 and her life and talents shined bright both nationally and internationally for nearly a century. A trend-setter and boundary-pusher, Nellie Lutcher’s life changed the course of musical history forever.
Did you know? There is going to be a Better Block event for the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District on Oct. 25-26, 2019.
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Isaac Lutcher, a packing plant worker who played a mean bass, and his wife Susie, a church organist who also took in laundry to supplement the family income, welcomed Nellie into the world on October 15, 1912. Nellie was the oldest of 10 living siblings. She attended Second Ward Elementary School and the New Sunlight Baptist Church right here in Lake Charles. Nellie’s love of music started from day one. When she started taking lessons, she was too short to reach the keys if the piano in her living room so she had to sit on the family Bible to practice.
Her talent didn’t stick to the living room for long. Nellie’s reputation spread like wildfire and before long she was playing for audiences in Southwest Louisiana. Before long Carolyn Woolsey, local historian and co-founder and president of Itinerant Theatre gave a lecture on Nellie at a Roots Revival event in 2016 saying, “She was playing ‘The Blue Danube’ for huge white-only black-tie audiences one night, and sitting in for Ma Rainey at Buster Mancuso’s when the regular piano man went sick. Little Nellie had never played blues before, but she did fine.” She was only 12 years old at the time.
It’s possible Nellie did so well playing the blues because she was such a fan—according to Woolsey’s lecture, while her mother and beloved piano teacher, Mrs. Eugenia Raynaud, wanted to focus on classical music, “When Nellie was a kid, she would sneak in as much radio-listening as she could at friend’s houses. There was no radio at home, plus, Mrs. Reynaud and Mother Susie Lutcher only wanted young Nellie to concentrate on classical music. So, Nellie snuck in that formative radio-listening time. She particularly liked the staccato-trumpet playing style of Mr. Earl “Fatha’ Hines. The young, note-bending Louis Armstrong also influenced Nellie,” said Woolsey.
Before long, Nellie’s father recruited her to tour with his band, the Southern Rhythm Boys. She toured with them from the time she was 14 until she was 23 years old. While with them, she honed her skills as an improviser, arranger and performer. She also learned the difficulties of touring and performing as an African-American in the 1920s.
Nellie eventually decided that if she was going to make it in the music industry, she had to move to the big city—Los Angeles—in 1935. Making it as a musician was hard in those days, too, particularly as an African-American woman. There were even times where Nellie had to pay venues to let her play them, though she did accompany the immeasurably talented Lena Horne. It wasn’t until a talent show in 1947 that Nellie finally caught her big break. The talent show was aired on the radio and Nellie’s playing caught the ear of a record executive from Capital Records, Dave Dexter. She was now 35 years old.
After that, her reputation grew. Said Woolsey, “She crashed the party, and she crashed it big, going from paying to play, to $20 a night with a cut to the house, to $125 to $250 to $3,500 per night.” Nellie’s connection to a record label also afforded her new opportunities, like an incredibly successful tour in the United Kingdom, where she was the top of the bill at the Liverpool Empire making $2,000 a week. Nellie even collaborated and sang a duet with Nat “King” Cole. Her influence continued to permeate the industry, according to Woolsey. “Her style of scat inspired the likes of Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau. Nina Simone lists her as an inspiration.”
Nellie’s biggest hits included "Hurry on Down" and "He's a Real Gone Guy," as well as "Fine Brown Frame” all of which reached number two on the rhythm and blues charts. She recorded with an orchestra in 1951 and produced "The Birth of the Blues" and "I Want to Be Near You" but to a slightly less successful end. She was featured as a subject on the popular reality documentary series This Is Your Life in 1952, Nellie refused to compromise the unique sound and music she created so as music shifted toward rock and roll style, her music gradually fell out of favor. But Nellie never gave up.
Nellie’s contributions were not overlooked, particularly in her hometown. Woolsey recounted, “She was given the Keys to the City in 1952 but also by Mayor William Boyer in 1977. In 1987 she served as Grand Marshall of the Contraband Days Parade. In 2007 Lake Charles renamed a portion of Enterprise Boulevard “Nellie Lutcher Parkway, and declared one day “Nellie Lutcher Day”. A month of festivities followed… In 2015 the Nellie Lutcher Cultural District came into being.” Nellie was also recognized by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1992 with the Pioneer Award.
Nellie’s illustrious career spanned over eight decades before her death in 2007 at the age of 94. She summed up her experience best at the age of 80 during an interview with writer Fran Dickey while visiting friends and family in Lake Charles saying, ““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.”
They wanted it, and she had it.
Nellie Lutcher Cultural District
The City of Lake Charles has taken an active role to officially designate the Enterprise Boulevard area as the Nellie Lutcher Memorial Cultural District, which will help redevelop the entire area. Her legacy and musical talents are making Enterprise Boulevard a destination for music and entertainment. In addition, a Better Block event is being hosted on October 25-26, 2019. The Nellie Lutcher Better Block Event is “dressing up” Nellie Lutcher Memorial Parkway between S. Division St. and Broad St. with murals, refreshed crosswalks, temporary storefronts, and playgrounds, temporary outdoor seating – the works. Think of it as a movie set – with props. There are vendors that will sell their wares, and there will be food trucks and live entertainment from musicians. Everything from pop-up businesses to temporary murals will help the community envision what could be. Everyone who attends gets to play a role in the experience – even paint on the temporary murals!