It would not be fair to claim that Nellie Lutcher ever retired. For the ebullient pianist who wrote and sang "He's a Real Gone Guy" and "Hurry on Down" in her glory days, the term semi-retirement would, she grants, be more accurate.
What seems most noteworthy now is that for the first time in many years she is actively seeking work.
When the hit records of her songs broke through, Lutcher moved into the upper echelons of show business. Chic clubs on the Sunset Strip, Cafe Society in New York, the Paramount Theatre on Times Square and the Apollo uptown--she had all the work she could handle.
Then came the rock era and, for Lutcher, the well dried up.
"I remember when I made the decision to quit the road," she said. "I was booked into a room outside Montreal, a club that had established itself through rock. All the owners knew was, if you had a name they would book you. It was the worst possible situation; people were talking louder than I was singing. So I told my agent to just forget me."
By that time--the mid-1960s--her recordings had dwindled to a precious few. Somehow, though, Lutcher's name has remained fresh in the minds of nightclub owners and customers alike. In 1973, Barney Josephson, at whose Cafe Society she had worked in the old days, offered her a job at his Cookery in New York. Since then there had been the occasional club date or festival in California, but nothing of consequence until, through an agent friend named Alan Eichler, she was booked into the Vine Street Bar & Grill and more recently the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill.
"Things seem to have turned around," she said. "I'm ready to go wherever there's an audience that will listen."
Lutcher's success as a singer on hit records was by no means preordained. She thought of herself as a pianist who came to California to advance herself as a composer and arranger.
Home was Lake Charles, La. "I was the third of 15 children. My mother wanted to be a pianist, but with that big family she didn't have time to fool around with it, so she was thrilled when I began studying. I was 6, and within two years I was good enough to play in church, where my teacher herself played.
"My Dad played bass in a band led by Clarence Hart, a saxophonist. One of his good buddies was the legendary trumpeter Bunk Johnson, who came from New Iberia, La. Bunk played in the band, and was in it when Hart asked my Dad if I could join him on piano. My mother didn't dig this at all, but Dad said he didn't think they should hold me back, so at 15 I began playing little weekend dance dates with Hart."
She toured with the Southern Rhythm Boys, from New Orleans. "We got as far as Mississippi; then things got rough and the band broke up. That's when I started thinking about moving to California. My mother had relatives out here, and Hart had moved here.
"I thought about Mary Lou Williams and how successful she'd been, not only playing piano but composing and arranging. I wanted to better myself the same way."
Soon after arriving in Los Angeles she was hired to play at the Dunbar Hotel, then a cynosure for black entertainers. "I got $2 a night but you made great tips then. I did one or two vocals, but never thought about studying voice.
"I credit the public for everything that's happened to me. People kept saying 'We want to hear you sing!' They even put a glass on the piano for tips. I didn't consider myself a vocalist; I called myself a song designer."
After the Dunbar there were all the jobs she could handle. "Every obscure bar in town had live music. I kept going from one group to another; spent the World War II years with Dootsie Williams in San Diego--we played popular songs and sang quartet vocals."
The jobs slowly became longer lasting and more prestigious--a year or two at the Club Bali on the Sunset Strip, from there to the Club Royale at Florence and Broadway. "The leaders were two brothers, Wilbur and Doug Daniels, who'd worked on 52nd Street with the Spirits of Rhythm."
The owner wanted Lutcher to take over as leader, but characteristically she bridled. "I didn't want it to appear as if I had undermined these guys, but the boss said he was firing them anyway, so I hired some men and took over.
"What a great job! I was there three years, with vacations and bonuses. Dexter Gordon worked with me; Lester Young's brother Lee played drums for me.
"I finally began to concentrate on my singing, and wrote a few songs. And one night Frank Bull, a deejay on KFWB, gave me a good spot performing live on a benefit show."
This was a catalytic moment of the kind that has changed many careers. Dave Dexter, a jazz-oriented young executive at Capitol Records, heard the broadcast. He also heard some songs submitted by Nellie's brother, Joe Lutcher, which she had sung on demos.
Dexter asked to meet the singer and a contract was drawn. On April 10, 1947, Lutcher recorded four songs, of which "Hurry On Down" was the biggest hit, ultimately selling close to a million copies. Under Dexter's guidance, there were 40 more numbers produced before the 1948 Musicians' Union ban on recording, which kept her out of the studios for a year.
"He's a Real Gone Guy" was a product of the second session; its mixture of a blues feeling and humor, with Lutcher's inherently witty piano style a perfect complement for her voice, also led to near-million sales. Recorded just under the wire was "Fine Brown Fame," which had already been a hit for the Buddy Johnson band, though in due course it became inextricably associated with Lutcher.
Today, as yesterday, Nellie Lutcher's attitude, reflecting her warm and generous personality, is a refreshingly cool breeze. It's good to know that the real gone gal is coming back again.