Jazz legend Ben Tucker spread the beat to the Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJune 8, 2013 

Ben Tucker’s death last week was the only sour note he ever hit.

He was a smiling goodwill ambassador of jazz music and the coastal area he adopted as home 42 years ago, when he moved from New York to Savannah.

He led a revival of the rich jazz tradition in Savannah, which spilled across the river into the Lowcountry. Newcomers to Hilton Head Island eagerly joined the beat, and Beaufort’s Bill Barnwell, with his club in Burton called the Jazz East, welcomed the company.

Tucker might be the most recorded bassist of all time, having played with everybody who is anybody. His song “Comin’ Home Baby” was a big hit for Mel Tormé and Herbie Mann.

That’s what Tucker brought to the First Sunday Jazz Concerts staged by the fledgling Hilton Head Jazz Society in the mid-1980s. He and the ancient bass he called “Bertha” were regulars until two weeks ago all over Hilton Head. He was part of the Monday night jam sessions upstairs at Fratello’s, the weekend sets at Gene Wiley’s Golden Rose, and the live music scene at the Old Post Office Emporium. Most recently he performed at the Jazz Corner, where he was named to the ring of honor.

In Savannah, Tucker was a shrewd businessman and a civic and charity leader. He owned the jazz club Hard Hearted Hannah’s, named for a 1923 song with funny lyrics: “An evening spent with Hannah sittin’ on your knees, Is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs. She’s Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA.”

Hannah’s was best known for pianist Emma Kelly, the “Lady of 6,000 Songs,” with Tucker playing bass.

The music ended abruptly Tuesday. Tucker was killed when the golf cart he was driving was hit by a car on Hutchinson Island. In a bond hearing for the driver, it was said the car was going 90 mph two seconds before the crash.

“By day, he wrapped his hands around his golf clubs, including a killer putter,” wrote Savannah Morning News editorial page editor Tom Barton. “By night, those hands cradled and plucked his well-worn, upright bass. He never seemed to slow down or waste a minute. Even at 82. Lucky guy.”

‘BERTHA’

Tucker was a twin from Nashville who taught himself to play bass. He came to Savannah to buy a radio station, using royalty money from his association with the smash hit, “Sunny.” It was a rare gig for an African-American, and it wasn’t easy for him down South.

Trombonist Teddy Adams soon came back to his native Savannah, and he and Tucker created a band called the Telfair Jazz Society. Then they started the Coastal Jazz Society, a group of jazz fans that attracted as many members from Hilton Head as Savannah. Then they concocted the Savannah Jazz Festival.

Tucker and Adams were joined by other noted Savannah musicians who helped establish jazz on Hilton Head: Sam Gill, Huxsie Scott, Joe Jones, Jim Belt and Gina Rene. They found a warm welcome from performers including Terri Rini, Sam Atkinson, Fred Germanncq, Joe Hanselercq and Bob Masteller.

Masteller, who now owns the Jazz Corner at the Village at Wexford, said Tucker brought international recognition and big-name performers to the area.

“He had a magnetic personality, and he built a huge fan base,” Masteller said.

Younger musicians — singer Terry Grant of Hilton Head; bassist Delbert Felix, a St. Helena Island native; and Savannah native Levon Stevens — looked up to Tucker and felt his personal support.

“I liked to be on the stage with him,” Grant said, “because it meant people would pay attention to the music.”

Pianist Bob Alberti of Sun City Hilton Head played the Sunday brunch at the Westin on Hutchinson Island with Tucker for the past 14 years. “He developed a knack for being able to continue playing while a steady flow of people came up to greet him during songs,” Alberti said.

‘COMIN’ HOME BABY’

Word of Tucker’s death quickly wrapped around the world with headlines in most every port.

At home, he’ll have a funeral like none other.

Delbert Felix and Alberti have the honor of playing in an all-star band with Adams and others at the 11 a.m. service Monday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ascension on Wright Square in Savannah. They will perform three of the most popular of Tucker’s 300 compositions: “Right Here Right Now,” “Devilette” and “Comin’ Home Baby.”

The service will conclude with “Soon and Very Soon” followed by a parade led by Jeremy Davis and the Fabulous Equinox Orchestra that will march New Orleans-style to Ellis Square, where a public jam session is to run from 1 to 8 p.m.

The line will originate from the pews of the church with “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Ben Tucker’s life may have ended on a sour note, but his homegoing sure won’t.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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