Viola Wells was born Viola Gertrude Wells Evans on December 14, 1902 in Newark, New Jersey, the first child of Robert Olivia Simmons and Earle Henry Wells, who had moved to Newark from Surry County, Virginia. When her mother died from giving birth to her sister Estelle, she briefly went to live with her maternal grandparents Rev. Morgan and Annie Simmons in Virginia, who only liked to listen to secular music. In contrast, his son “Uncle Charlie” was popular locally for his song and dance routines.
Returning to Newark in 1910 after her father remarried, she started to sing in her church’s Salika Johnson choir under the direction of her music and piano teacher, Ruth Reid. This choir performed in cities outside of New Jersey and WOR Radio in Newark invited her to sing on air to raise money for the first Black YMCA. Wells also sang in her high school glee club and competed in talent shows. At nineteen she married her first husband, tap dancer Howard Nicholas.
Her career began singing in traveling shows, once filled in for Mamie Smith and was on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit by 1921. Viola frequently sang at local Newark jazz clubs, eventually moving to Harlem and finding singing engagements in nightclubs there. The Twenties saw her touring throughout the US with different bands and in the 1930s, her first big break came while touring with the Banjo Bernie Band from Baltimore and then with Ida Cox.
As the 30s came to a close she moved to Kansas City, where she ran a nightclub and headed a band. Moving back to Newark in the Forties, she met and married guitarist Harold Underhill and began singing at various New York City clubs, sometimes under her married name. She replaced Helen Humes as a singer in the Count Basie Orchestra. During that period in her career she was often billed as The Ebony Stick Of Dynamite and sang at United Service Organizations (USO) shows on military bases.
She retired from music in 1946 due to diabetes and in an effort to spend more time with her family after her father was murdered. Brought out of retirement by blues historian Sheldon Harris who helped revive her career in the 1960s, Viola recorded on the album Encore For The Chicago Blues released in 1968 by Spivey Records. She also produced a blues album in 1972 called Miss Rhapsody and toured with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in the 1970s.
Vocalist Viola Wells received many honors in her later years, including the key to Newark. She passed away on December 22, 1984 in Belleville, New Jersey. The book Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-50 by Barbara J. Kukla is dedicated to her.
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Dámaso Pérez Prado was born on December 11, 1916 in Matanzas, Cuba to a school teacher and a journalist. He studied classical piano in his early childhood, later playing organ and piano in local clubs. For a time, he was pianist and arranger for the popular Cuban band Sonora Matancera and worked with Havana casino orchestras for most of the 1940s.
In 1949 he moved to Mexico to form his own band and record for RCA Victor. Specializing in mambos, the upbeat adaptation of the Cuban danzón, Perez stood out with their fiery brass riffs, strong saxophone counterpoints and his signature grunt ¡Dilo! (Say it!). In 1950 arranger Sonny Burke heard Qué Rico El Mambo while on vacation in Mexico and recorded it back in the United States as Mambo Jambo. The single was a hit, which caused Pérez to launch a US tour, his appearances were 1951 sell-outs and he began recording US releases for RCA Victor.
Prado composed several famous songs Caballo Negro, Lupita, and Mambo no.8 among others, reached #1 with a cha-cha-chá arrangement of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, held the spot for ten consecutive weeks and sold a million copies. The song went on to be danced to by Jane Russell in the 1954 movie Underwater!, and in 1958 his final #1 hit Patricia scaled the Jockeys and Top 100 charts and was introduced onto the Billboard Hot 100.
His popularity outside the Latino communities in the United States came with the peak of the first wave of interest in Latin music during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He performed in films in the United States, Europe and Mexico until his success waned, his association with RCA ended and music made way for rock and roll and pop music.
The early Seventies saw Prado returning to Mexico City to continue a healthy career in Latin America. He toured and continued to record material released in Mexico, South America and Japan. Revered as one of the reigning giants of the music industry he was a regular performer on Mexican television, was featured in a musical revue titled Sun, and his final United States concert to a pack house was in Hollywood in 1987.
During his lifetime, at one time or another, Ollie Mitchel, Alex Acuña, Maynard Ferguson, Pete Candoli, Beny Moré, Johnny Pacheco, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaría, Luisito Jorge Ballan Garay lll performed as part of his orchestra. His music has appeared in the films La Dolce Vita, Goodbye Columbus, Space Cowboys and on television shows The Simpsons, and HBO’s Real Sex series.
With persistent ill health plaguing him for the next two years, pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Pérez Prado passed away of a stroke in Mexico City, Mexico on September 14, 1989, aged 72.
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Robert Alexander Scobey, Jr. was born on December 9, 1916 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. He began his career playing in dance orchestras and nightclubs in the 1930s and by 1938 was working as second trumpeter for Lu Watters in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band. 1949 saw him leading his own band under the name Bob Scobey’s Frisco Band and the following year secured a three-year residency at the Victor & Roxie’s, which expanded their popularity.
Clancy Hayes joined the band to sing, play banjo bringing his own compositions such as Huggin’ and a Chalkin‘. The collaboration recorded over two hundred tracks until he left in 1959 to follow a solo career. The Frisco Band broadcasted in 1952 and 1953 on Rusty Draper’s television show. In 1953 Louis Armstrong sang with the band and the following year blues singer Lizzie Miles began recording and touring with the band, a relationship that lasted three years.
Beginning in 1955 Scobey and his band played San Quentin Prison, the roadhouse Rancho Grande, recorded for Verve Records and RCA Victor,. and toured colleges and universities, recorded many student favorites on the album College Classics.
Bob opened the Club Bourbon Street in Chicago, Illinois in 1959, and began suffering with stomach issues while touring in 1960. Trumpeter Bob Scobey passed away of cancer on June 12, 1963. His wife produced a biography titled He Rambled!, arranged for his band to form again and record some blues songs, and saw to the reissuing of his albums.
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Russell Jacquet was born on December 4, 1917 in Saint Martinville, Louisiana, the elder brother of tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. He had stints with Floyd Ray and Milt Larkin before he studying music at Wiley College and Texas Southern University.
Moving west he played with his brother’s band for a time, later forming his own group, that became the house band at the Cotton Club from 1945 to 1949. After that residency ended Russell rejoined his brother’s group. He would later play with several small groups in Oakland, California, as well as in Houston, Texas with Arnett Cobb. He also performed with his brother on a few dates in New York City.
Trumpeter Russell Jacquet passed away on February 28, 1990 in Los Angeles, California. He left a small catalogue of recordings as a leader during his Cotton Club years and four as a sideman with his brother, recorded between 1951 and 1969 on Clef, Argo and Prestige record labels.
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Paul Lingle was born on December 3, 1902 in Denver, Colorado and began learning to play the piano at age six. He first played professionally in the San Francisco, California area in the 1920s. He often accompanied Al Jolson in the late Twenties, including for his film soundtracks.
In the 1930s Paul worked mainly on radio, and also played with the Al Zohn band. He tuned pianos early in the 1940s and worked as a soloist in local San Francisco clubs, accompanying visiting musicians such as Lead Belly and Bunk Johnson.
Lingle released almost no recorded material during his lifetime, doing only one session for Good Time Jazz in 1952. This session for Good Time Jazz produced eight recorded numbers. After his death, Euphonic Records released several volumes of private recordings which were critically acclaimed.
Pianist Paul Lingle performed locally until his death on October 30, 1963 in Honolulu, Hawaii, relocating there in 1952.
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