Nicknamed the “20th Century Gabriel,” bandleader and composer Erskine Hawkins is best remembered today for his composition “Tuxedo Junction,” which proved to be a big hit for own his orchestra as well as those of Glenn Miller and Jan Savitt.
Hawkins, who lost his father in WWI, studied drums and trombone at an early age before deciding to take up trumpet at age 13. While attending Alabama State Teachers College, he became leader of a school band called the Bama State Collegians. The group recorded on the Vocalion label and made two trips to New York—the first in 1934 and the second in 1936.
During the second trip to New York, the Collegians appeared with Chick Webb’s orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom. Hawkins was offered a contract with the Bluebird label and decided not to return to Alabama, changing the outfit’s name to the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. The group proved very popular and had several hit records. Aside from Bluebird, they also recorded for Decca, RCA, King, and Coral. Vocalists at various times included Billy Daniels, Merle Turner, Ida James, Jimmy Mitchelle, Delores Brown, Carol Tucker, and Laura Washington.
Despite the loss in popularity of big band music after the end of WWII, Hawkins managed to keep his orchestra together and afloat until 1953. The group’s later recordings, however, began to take on a R&B flavor. After disbanding his orchestra, Hawkins formed a quartet. He continued recording and performing up through the 1980s. Bad health finally forced him to retire. Erskine Hawkins passed away in 1992 after suffering a heart attack.