Orrin Tucker

Photo of Orrin Tucker
  • Born

    February 17, 1911
    St. Louis, Missouri
  • Died

    April 9, 2011 (age 100)
    South Pasadena, California
  • Featured Vocalists

    Bonnie Baker
    Bob Haymes

Though he had studied to be a doctor, Orrin Tucker ended up as a singer and bandleader. He was leading a successful hotel orchestra in 1939 when his female vocalist, Bonnie Baker, recorded the World War I tune “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. Much of Tucker’s success was down to Baker’s incredible popularity with audiences. Her departure in 1942 effectively spelt an end to his fame.

Tucker learned to play saxophone as a youth and formed his first band while in college. By the mid-1930s, his orchestra had become a fixture in St. Louis hotels and on the Midwest circuit. In 1937, the band began to attract national attention, with Down Beat describing it as “the perfect hotel combination.” Part of Tucker’s popularity came from his ability to put on a good show. He 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 venue in which they were playing. Such gimmicks quickly helped make the orchestra’s name.

Bonnie Baker Years

During the early years, Tucker provided vocals, accompanied by a male glee club. By 1937, though, he had three girl vocalists. One of those was Baker, who joined the band in St. Louis during 1936, recommended to Tucker by Louis Armstrong. The Bailey Sisters also sang by late 1938. The orchestra made their first recordings on Vocalion in 1938, switching to Columbia in 1939. Recorded in one of their first Columbia sessions in August of that year, “Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!” became a surprise hit, selling over half-a-million copies and propelling both Tucker and Baker into the national spotlight by year’s end. Baker’s cute singing style proved wildly popular, and she became the star of the band, with equal billing to Tucker.

Aside from Baker, Tucker had a great deal of churn in his vocal department. Billboard once remarked that he changed his vocalists as often as most men changed their underwear. The Bailey Sisters left by March 1939, replaced by the Lorraine Sisters, who likely stayed until mid-year but were definitely gone by February 1940. Baker and Tucker remained the two solo vocalists, with Baker the only vocalist on recordings.

In February 1940, Tucker’s glee club consisted of Sam K. Sims, who joined in 1938, Phil Abbott, who joined in September 1939, Carl Leonard Sumpas, who also joined in September 1939, and Gil Mershon. Abbott was said to a “bodyguard” “when necessary,” with no elaboration on what that meant. By February 1941, the glee club had been renamed the Bodyguards and featured Jack Bartell. By January 1942, Eddie Rice was one of the male singers.

Tucker and Baker announced their engagement in fall 1940, though it likely was just a publicity stunt. The two never married, and in interviews Baker typically insisted that she had no romantic interest in Tucker.

In January 1942, Tucker shook up his whole vocal department, releasing everyone, including Baker, who had decided to go solo. According to Down Beat, Tucker hired a girl vocal group from Nebraska to replace Baker, though that appears not to have happened. Billboard reported, correctly, that Tucker had hired Lorraine Benson, an Arkansas girl as Baker’s replacement, with Bob Haymes, brother of the more famous Dick, becoming male vocalist. The change took effect in February.

War Years and Post-War Career

In early 1942, the draft board reclassified Tucker as A-1. Facing induction, he joined the Navy in May, with a reporting date in July. He planned to leave the band intact while he was away, offering Baker the job of leading it in his absence, but she turned him down, making far more money on her own than she could as a substitute bandleader. Tucker also offered movie singer Phil Regan the job, but he declined as well. By mid-June, Tucker was still looking for a way to keep his band going, but in the end he had to disband. Benson remained vocalist until the end.

Given the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade, Tucker led the band on the navy’s 1943 radio program Ahoy America, broadcast from the Navy Pier in Chicago and also featuring singer Mary Ann Mercer. Released from the service in mid-1945, he put together a new civilian orchestra which began working the Midwest that fall. Helen Lee was female vocalist in November. Tucker also sang. Lee, who was reportedly discovered by Tucker at Auburn University, was gone by late January 1946, replaced by the Quintones vocal group.[1] Al Parker also sang as part of the glee club. By April 1946, Scottee Marsh was female vocalist, with the Quintones gone.[2] The band recorded on the Musicraft label that year.

Marsh remained as vocalist through at least September 1948. She fronted the band that summer when Tucker spent several weeks in the hospital with a fever. Without a recording contract in 1947, Tucker’s band dropped off the public’s radar. He recorded two sides each for Universal and Mercury in 1948, with the Bodyguards as vocalists, and one side for the London label in 1949, but his music by that point was somewhat old-fashioned, and the recordings went nowhere. Tucker was never able to recapture the fame he’d had before the war, though he continued working steadily on the hotel circuit for many years. 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.


  1. This version of the Quintones had nothing to do with the original Quintones that sang in the late 1930s and early 1940s. ↩︎

  2. Down Beat didn’t have the decency to print Marsh’s name in their April 22, 1946 issue, simply showing a picture of her titled “Orrin’s Doll,” with a caption that complimented her figure. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. Sachs, Bill. “Magic and Magicians.” Billboard 1 Jan. 1936: 26.
  4. “Bands and Orchestras.” Billboard 15 Feb. 1936: 13.
  5. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 10 Apr. 1937: 16.
  6. “Chop House Keeps Local Boys in Panic.” Down Beat Sep. 1937: 37.
  7. “The Reviewing Stand: Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1938: 22.
  8. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1938: 22.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 5 Nov. 1938: 24.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Empire Room, Panther House, Chicago.” Billboard 19 Nov. 1938: 21.
  11. “Club Talent: Chicago.” Billboard 25 Feb. 1939: 18.
  12. “Chi Hotel Builds Jungle For Krupa's Wild Rhythm.” Down Beat Mar. 1939: 29.
  13. Lesser, Jerry. “Radio Talent.” Billboard 18 Mar. 1939: 8.
  14. “Record Buying Guide.” Billboard 18 Nov. 1939: 64.
  15. Toll, Ted. “Tucker-Baker Hit New High.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1940: 21.
  16. “Tucker, Bonnie Baker at Variety's Ball.” The Milwaukee Sentinel 1 Feb. 1940: 6-D.
  17. “On the Cover.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 1.
  18. “It's 'Queen' Bonnie Baker Now.” The Milwaukee Journal 25 Feb. 1940: 11.
  19. “Who's Who in Music: Orrin Tucker's Band.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1940: 18.
  20. “Night Club Reviews: Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Empire Room, New York.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1940: 28.
  21. “Vaudeville Reviews: Fox, St. Louis.” Billboard 25 May 1940: 22.
  22. “Warner-MCA Tiff Being Ironed Out.” Billboard 25 May 1940: 22.
  23. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 13 Jul. 1940: 24.
  24. Willse, Bill. “Bonnie, Orrin Still Kill 'Em.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1940: 19.
  25. “Wee Bonnie Baker to Wed Maestro.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 18 Oct. 1940: 14.
  26. “Tucker-Baker Hitching.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1940: 8.
  27. “Bonnie Baker Turns Towhead.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 13 Nov. 1940: 10.
  28. Advertisement. “Holiday Greetings.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 15.
  29. “On the Air: Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 1 Feb. 1941: 12.
  30. “Night Club Reviews: Biltmore Hotel, Bowman Room, New York.” Billboard 1 Feb. 1941: 18.
  31. “Ho Hum, Bonnie Leaves Tucker.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1942: 2.
  32. “O. Tucker Shuffles Chirpers Wholesale.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 13.
  33. Humphrey, Harold. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 76.
  34. “On the Stand: Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 21 Feb. 1942: 21.
  35. “Lovely Lorraine Benson, Songbird, and Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 18 Apr. 1942: 69.
  36. “Shaw, O. Tucker Will Join Navy.” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 1.
  37. Humphrey, Harold. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 30 May 1942: 103.
  38. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 6 Jun. 1942: 21.
  39. Humphrey, Harold. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 20 Jun. 1942: 67.
  40. “Gray Rains to Lead Leonard Ork Now.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 11.
  41. “Orks Drop Like Flies.” Billboard 18 Jul. 1942: 19.
  42. “Program Reviews: Ahoy America.” Billboard 23 Jan. 1943: 8.
  43. “New Orrin Tucker Ork in 1st Location At Chase, St. Louis.” Billboard 17 Nov. 1945: 14.
  44. “Henry Brandon Takes Edgewater Beach Spot.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1946: 1.
  45. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 2 Feb. 1946: 38.
  46. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1946: 32.
  47. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO Orpheum, Minneapolis.” Billboard 2 Nov. 1946: 35.
  48. “Music As Written.” Billboard 14 Dec. 1946: 19.
  49. “On the Stand: Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 14 Dec. 1946: 36.
  50. “On the Stand: Orrin Tucker.” Billboard 13 Sep. 1947: 34.
  51. “Heart Attack Fatal To Tucker Manager.” Down Beat 25 Aug. 1948: 1.
  52. “Orrin Tucker Back After Fever Attack.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1948: 1.
  53. “Helen Lee On The Cover.” Down Beat 7 Oct. 1949: 1.