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Orrin Tucker dies at 100; bandleader owned L.A.'s Stardust Ballroom

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Orrin Tucker, a bandleader whose orchestra achieved national prominence with a 1939 recording of "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!" and who decades later owned a big-band venue on Sunset Boulevard, has died. He was 100.

Tucker, who was a longtime resident of South Pasadena, died April 9 in the San Gabriel Valley, said his daughter, Nora Compere.

After forming the band in 1933, Tucker was its primary vocalist until jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong suggested that a petite singer named Evelyn Nelson would be a good fit for the group, according to biographical references.

When Tucker met her in 1938, he said, "Would you mind if I change your name to the 'shy voice of Wee Bonnie Baker'? She said that would be fine," Tucker later recalled.

Rummaging through old sheet music, he found a copy of "Oh Johnny," a hit song from 1917, and decided to record it with Baker.

"So melting and cajoling were diminutive Bonnie's 'Oh's' " that the record "was soon jerking juke-box nickels faster than the fading 'Beer Barrel Polka,' " Time magazine said in early 1940.

World War II interrupted Tucker's big band career, and he served as a Navy pilot instructor from 1942 to 1945. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor.

With a new band after the war, he played major U.S. hotels and clubs. The band's theme song was a Tucker favorite: "Drifting and Dreaming."

Tucker would end up making more than 70 records, including six that sold more than a million copies apiece, according to the All Music online database.

After playing himself in the 1975 TV movie "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom," Tucker leased a skating rink that same year on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and turned it into the Stardust Ballroom.

His orchestra was the star attraction, but economics made him realize that ballroom dancing had "a dwindling popularity," he told The Times in 1981.

On weekends, patrons would swing and samba, but many nights Tucker would rent out the space for roller skating or other functions such as women's boxing.

In 1982, he closed the ballroom and moved to Palm Springs, where he sold real estate. He performed into the 1990s and last appeared on a cruise ship.

He was born Robert Orrin Tucker on Feb. 17, 1911, in St. Louis, and grew up in Wheaton, Ill.

As a boy, he became fascinated by a saxophone in a Sears Roebuck catalog and taught himself to play one.

A pre-med student, he attended Northwestern University and North Central College in Illinois. While in college, Tucker formed his first band and soon turned his hobby into a career.

"He had good genes and a good outlook on life," said his daughter, who joked that ice cream may have been his secret to longevity. He ate it every day and preferred vanilla with chocolate syrup.

Besides his daughter, Nora, of South Pasadena, Tucker is survived by Aline Cameron Tucker, whom he married in 1975, and a grandson.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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