James Melvin Lunceford was born in Fulton Mississippi in June 6, 1902 to James Riley and Ida Lunceford. When he was a boy his musician mother and father moved to Denver where he studied music under Wilberforce Whiteman, the father of well-known band leader Paul Whiteman. The family moved to Memphis, and when he was of High School age he attended Manassas High School. By the time he was old enough to attend college he could play guitar, trombone, saxophone, flute, clarinet, and piano. He knew how to arrange as well as compose songs. He attended Fisk College and as a 4 letter athlete graduated in 1927 with a degree in English.
After Fiskhe came back to Memphis and became an English teacher, football coach, and band leader. Using some of his HS band students he started the Chickasaw Syncopations dance band. Then in December, 1927, they made a single 78 record, but without Lunceford. These students were very good because they had a teacher who really knew his music. Nine members of this band would all attend Fisk and graduate with degrees. Jimmie Lunceford knew what kind of musicians he had at Manassas so when his students went to Fisk, he resigned his teaching job and took a job as a head waiter at Fisk in order to keep his band together. During their time at Fisk the band continued to play at small clubs as they honed their sound.
Upon graduation he picked up other Fisk graduates, making them the only dance band of the day to have every member with a college education. Upon graduation the band played the college circuit to sold out crowds at Rutgers, Purdue, and Fisk. In 1934 the band recorded for Victor and went on to record on Decca, Columbia, and the Majestic labels. His Swing Era band was just as popular as Count Basie, Charlie Barnett or the Dorsey Brothers. He was very innovative by using different arrangers rather than just one. In 1942 his band was voted as the number 1 black band in the nation. In one night of playing in Old Orchard ME his band grossed $3,700 dollars ($57,000 in 2018 dollars).
Jimmie married Christine Tullie, who was prominent in Memphis African-American society and a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Their romance began in 1928 while they were both attending Fisk, and after marrying they resided at 1491 Felix. Jimmie bought an airplane, learned to fly and his wife Christine also got her pilots license. They flew to all engagements in a 4 seater Fairchild while the band chose to travel by train.
The Lunceford Band were regular performers at New York’s renown Cotton Club. Some of his best recordings were, My Blue Heaven, Margie, Ain’t She Sweet, Blues in the Night, Rhythm is our Business and Posin’, and all can be enjoyed now on YouTube.
In 1925 when he came back to Memphis he had a radio program at a Memphis radio station called the “Beale Street Hour “. His peers all said he had the most disciplined band of any band of the day, black or white. His compositions were known for their tight phrasing, and the performances for their precision.
Jimmie Lunceford was one of these guys who you wanted to follow. He never raised his voice, he didn’t have to because he was so highly respected by his band members and his peers. He was an exemplary musician and a credit to his race. Although he was inducted into the Memphis Blues Music Hall of Fame in recent years, his story is that of a forgotten, yet one time famous Memphian.
To his credit, five of his original nine members stayed in the band with him until his death on July 12,1947 at 45 years of age.He and the band were playing at the Bungalow ballroom in Sea Side Oregon when he suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack. After a funeral service in New York at the bequest of his wife, he was brought back to Memphis and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.