During my mid-teen years, when I was first forming my life-long appreciation for big band music (while still keeping an eye on the growth of rock and roll) one of my favorites was a tune that Glenn Miller and his orchestra had made into a big hit a number of years earlier. In fact, it was one of the most popular songs among World War II servicemen.
Although there is a version with lyrics, “Tuxedo Junction” is at its best as an instrumental. It starts deceptively slow, but gradually builds momentum with a driving, contagious sound that’s impossible to resist. It’s a tune that most people identify with Miller’s band, but it didn’t originate with them. That distinction belongs to the song’s composer, Erskine Hawkins, who came out of Alabama in the mid-1930’s at the head of an outstanding swing band.
The song’s title actually refers to a real place — a location near Birmingham, Alabama, that was at the time the location for a popular jazz club. The distinctive tune helped introduce Hawkins and his band to New York, and before too long became a regular part of other bands’ musical programs too. Hawkins’ arrangement of “Tuxedo Junction” was a little different than Miller’s later version, with a different pace and more trumpet leads — but that’s not surprising, given Hawkins’ specialty.
Erskine Hawkins was a talented trumpeter who loved walking the tightrope of high notes, and also loved being known as the “20th Century Gabriel”. Always musically inclined, he began playing professionally while still in college. His biggest influence was Louis Armstrong, and when he ran into his idol while bouncing through some part time gigs in New York, they formed a lifelong friendship.
Back in Alabama, it didn’t take long for young Hawkins to form a talented group and make the leap to New York for good. The band soon found a home at the legendary Savoy Ballroom, and began making dancers – and listeners – happy for a number of years.
For the next twenty years they were a successful swing band, so much so that Hawkins was able to maintain a core of regulars — most from his native Alabama. In addition to “Tuxedo Junction,” they also had hits with “Tippin’ In” and “After Hours,” and were always a crowd favorite wherever they played.
By the 1950’s, most of the big bands were dissolving and Hawkins’ group eventually did the same, but he continued to perform regularly in reconstituted groups for the next couple of decades, as his music evolved into a more R&B sound.
Although Hawkins spent a lot of time in New York and other musical hot spots, he always remembered his roots in Alabama and in 1978 was inducted into the state’s Jazz Hall Of Fame. He died in 1993.
His famous song is still around, and has been performed by many musicians through the years. It’s the theme song of the singing group Manhattan Transfer, and is even the title of a very good jazz website maintained by my buddy George Spink. (Visit Tuxedo Junction.)