Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series

Part 88 - Billy Banks
Story filed August 9, 2004

In 1932, Irving Mills, the legendary businessman who helped build the Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford Orchestras, heard a singer in Cleveland named Billy Banks. The young singer was performing with various Cleveland jazz groups. Banks, who was born in Alton, Illinois, had moved to Cleveland where his family operated a shoe store. Mills liked what he heard and took Banks to New York City and arranged an engagement for him at Connie’s Inn in Harlem.

Before long, Banks was recording for Brunswick Records. Mills made Banks the front man of a group called the Rhythmakers. The group included such future jazz greats as trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, reedman Pee Wee Russell, pianist Fats Waller, banjoist Eddie Condon, bassist Pops Foster, and drummer Zutty Singleton. In some recording sessions, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and Tommy Dorsey played with the band. With so much rich young jazz talent, the 1932 records by Billy Banks’ Rhythmakers, one of the first racially-mixed recording groups, were billed as "the hottest jazz ever recorded." They recorded "The Scat Song," "Oh! You Sweet Thing," "I Would Do Most Anything For You," "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Yes, Suh!" and other songs, all featuring vocals by Banks.

"The Scat Song" featured a scat vocal by the 24-year-old Clevelander who sang with a high-pitched voice and an intense style.

But, not long after those recordings, Banks returned to Cleveland. While the other members of the Rhythmakers went on to great jazz fame, Banks In 1934 joined the big band of Clevelander Noble Sissle, toured the world with the Sissle orchestra. He made several records with Sissle including "Characteristic Blues."

From 1938 to 1950, Banks was a popular featured cabaret performer at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. According to John Chilton’s Who’s Who of Jazz, Banks did 7,151 consecutive performances at the club.

By 1952, Banks was working in a variety show, touring Europe, including Holland, France and Great Britain, where he recorded with Freddy Randall’s band. After performing in Asia and Australia, Banks settled in Japan.

Banks died in Tokyo in October 1967 at the age of 59. Most jazz historians remember him for the handful of records he made in New York in 1932 with a group of musicians who later became some of the giants of jazz.

Copyright 2004 Joe Mosbrook


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