Nellie Lutcher (October 15, 1912 – June 8, 2007) was an African-American R&B and jazz singer and pianist, who achieved prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She was most recognizable for her distinctive voice, particularly her phrasing and exaggerated pronunciation, and was credited as an influence by Nina Simone among others.
She was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the eldest daughter of the 15 children of Isaac and Suzie Lutcher. Her father was a bass player, and her mother a church organist. She received piano lessons, and her father formed a family band with Nellie playing piano. At age 12 she played with Ma Rainey, when Rainey’s regular pianist fell ill and had to be left behind in the previous town. Searching for a temporary replacement in Lake Charles, one of the neighbors told her there was a little girl who played in church who might be able to do it.
Aged 14, Lutcher joined her father in Clarence Hart‘s Imperial Jazz Band, and in her mid-teens also briefly married the band’s trumpet player. In 1933, she joined the Southern Rhythm Boys, writing their arrangements and touring widely. In 1935 she moved to Los Angeles, where she married Leonel Lewis and had a son. She began to play swing piano, and also to sing, in small combos throughout the area, and began developing her own style, influenced by Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and her friend Nat “King” Cole.
She was not widely known until 1947 when she learned of the March of Dimes talent show at Hollywood High School, and performed. The show was broadcast on radio and her performance caught the ear of Dave Dexter, a scout for Capitol Records. She was signed by Capitol and made several records, including “The One I Love Belongs To Someone Else” and her first hit single, the risqué “Hurry On Down”, which went to # 2 on the rhythm and blues chart. This was followed by her equally successful composition “He’s A Real Gone Guy”, which also made # 2 on the R&B chart and crossed over to the pop charts where it reached # 15.
In 1948 she had a string of further R&B chart hits, the most successful being “Fine Brown Frame”, her third # 2 R&B hit. Her songs charted on the pop, jazz, and R&B charts, she toured widely and became widely known. She wrote many of her own songs and, unlike many other African-American artists of the period, retained the valuable publishing rights to them.
In 1950, Lutcher duetted with Nat “King” Cole on “For You My Love” and “Can I Come in for a Second”. The same year, her records began to be released in the UK and were actively promoted by radio DJ Jack Jackson. She headlined a UK variety tour, compered by Jackson, with great success, later returning there to tour on her own.
With an orchestra for the first time, Lutcher recorded “The Birth of the Blues” and “I Want to Be Near You” in 1951, but she was losing her appeal with the record-buying public and Capitol dropped her the following year. She went on to record, much less successfully, for other labels including Okeh, Decca and Liberty, and gradually wound down her performance schedule.
By 1957 she had joined the board of the Los Angeles Musicians Union, but continued to perform occasionally until the 1990s, in New York and elsewhere. She also invested successfully in property.
She was the sister of saxophonist Joe “Woodman” Lutcher and aunt of Latin jazz percussionist Daryl “Munyungo” Jackson.
Here’s an original 78 recording of Neliie Lutcher singing her hit song, “Hurry On Down” Although the recording is scratchy, there’s a certain charm in hearing it that way.