Though he had studied to be a doctor, Orrin Tucker ended up as a singer and bandleader. He was leading a successful, though not well-known, orchestra in 1939 when his female vocalist, Wee Bonnie Baker, recorded an old WWI tune called “Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!” With the help of her sexy sighs and coos, Tucker suddenly found himself with a hit record and one of the hottest bands in the country. Tucker, though, didn’t let fame go to his head. He realized his limitations and knew his orchestra’s strength, and that strength was in playing dance music for the middle-aged crowd. That he continued to do, very successfully, long after many of his contemporaries had called it quits.
Tucker learned to play saxophone as a youth and formed his ﬁrst band while in college. An agent from Chicago saw the band and invited them to play in New Orleans. Borrowing money from a bank, Tucker funded the band’s trip, though they had no way of getting back. Luckily, while in New Orleans, they were invited to perform in Kansas City, where they found their own agent.
Playing mostly local theaters, Tucker built a series of boxes for his musicians that featured lighted notes of different shapes and colors for different sections that would ﬂash accordingly during each song. For the band’s stein song he used a set of three-sided mugs on which could be painted, in ﬂuorescent paints, letters that could spell out the name of the town or the theater in which they were playing. Such gimmicks quickly helped make the orchestra’s name.
During the early years, Tucker was sole vocalist until Louis Armstrong pointed him to Bonnie Baker in 1936. Baker’s cute voice was just the thing to help push the group over the top. Columbia Records signed them in 1939, with “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” being one of songs in their ﬁrst recording session. It remained their most popular number, reaching the number two spot on the pop charts. Other vocalists over the years included Helen Lee and Scottee Marsh.
During WWII, Tucker served in the Navy as a Lieutenant, Junior Grade. He remained active in the music business until health problems forced him to slow down during the 1990s. Orrin Tucker lived to be 100, passing away in 2011.