When "The Greatest Band of All Time" Lived in Houston

The Milt Larkin Orchestra, date unknown. Larkin's picture is at the top above the orchestra.
The Milt Larkin Orchestra, date unknown. Larkin's picture is at the top above the orchestra.

The hottest dance band out of Houston in the late 1930s and early ‘40s was the Milt Larkin Orchestra, led by a collection of former Phillis Wheatley High School horn players who swung to that “big foot” rhythm. Just 26 when he started the band, Larkin was still much older than teenage sax players Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who would come to define the honking, squealing “Texas tenor” sound. Prone to youthful braggadocio, the Larkin Orchestra dubbed itself “The Greatest Band of All Time.”

One title that Milt’s crew — which also featured electric organ pioneer Wild Bill Davis, sax great “Texas Tom” Archia and keyboardist/arranger Cedric Haywood — could certainly back up was being among the greatest bands that were never recorded. Larkin’s sense of timing stayed up there on the bandstand, as the native of Navasota first had to sit out two prime studio years (1942-44) because of a recording ban from the musicians’ union. Then, finally free to cut some tracks, Larkin was drafted into the Army.

“I was among the big three when I went into the service,” Larkin told the Houston Oral History Project in 1988, putting his band up there with Duke Ellington’s and Cab Calloway’s outfits. “I think I was a little bit ahead of Count Basie at the time. I was in demand from coast to coast.”

But Larkin’s legacy today is that of a tutor whose students went on to bigger things.

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“All the bands were after the guys I had,” Larkin recalled. “Lionel Hampton took Jacquet and when he left Lionel to go with Cab [Calloway], Arnett Cobb took his place in Hamp’s band.”

Wild Bill Davis became an attraction with Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, Archia shone in Roy Eldridge’s band, and Vinson enjoyed success as a singer (“Cherry Red”) after a stint in the band of former Duke Ellington trumpet player Cootie Williams. The Larkin Orchestra seemed destined to be much more than a Triple A farm club for the majors when heavyweight champ Joe Louis saw them in Kansas City and hired them for a stint at his Rhumboogie Club in Chicago. The two-week gig backing T-Bone Walker turned into nine months headlining to packed houses, as the “rhythmic tornado from Texas,” as Down Beat called them, brought swagger to swing.

“When I started getting popular, Petrillo stopped recording,” Larkin said of the American Federation of Musicians president, who fought for musicians to start receiving royalties from labels.

The labels knew the musician’s strike was coming so they stockpiled sessions before the July 31, 1942, deadline and maintained a steady flow of releases for about a year and a half. They weren’t looking to sign new acts. After their extended Rhumboogie run, the Larkin band was booked at the Apollo, backing singer Ella Fitzgerald. But then came the draft letter. “The Army destroyed my career,” said Larkin.

The bandleader spent his time in the service playing valve trombone in Sy Oliver’s Army band, which already had ten trumpet players. But although he kept his chops up, Larkin came back to a changed music scene in 1947. Big-band swing was on the way out, while bebop was slidin’ in. And singers, not bandleaders, were receiving top billing, thanks to the mania surrounding Frank Sinatra’s rise.

Larkin tried to rebuild his orchestra, with Houston associate Don Robey sending him a guitar player from Memphis named B.B. King, but without records, no one knew who the Milt Larkin Orchestra was. Going on the road didn’t make financial sense, so Larkin settled in New York City, where he ran the Celebrity Club house band, featuring another Texas tenor of note, Buddy Tate of Sherman.

Although Cobb earned the nickname “The Wild Man of the Tenor Sax” while with Hampton’s orchestra, it was his predecessor Jacquet who had the most enduring impact of a Larkin alum. His 64-bar solo on Hampton’s 1942 hit “Flying Home” laid the blueprint for the R&B sax style that King Curtis, Lee Allen and Clifford Scott would take to the top of the pop charts in the ‘50s.

The song was first recorded by Benny Goodman’s sextet (co-written by Goodman’s vibraphone player Hampton) in 1939 and featured electric guitarist Charlie Christian as lead soloist. After Christian died in 1942 of tuberculosis (at only age 25), Hampton re-recorded the song with Jacquet playing the sax solo.

In an interview for Michael Segel's book on jazz saxophonists, The Devil’s Horn, Jacquet said of his famous solo: “When people heard it, they’d turn around and look for someone to dance with. It made you feel happy, like you’d found some money or something.”

Hampton met Jacquet, who had moved to Los Angeles at the suggestion of trumpet-playing older brother Russell, just as he was in the process of leaving Goodman’s band to start his own orchestra. After a jam session at Nat King Cole’s place with Jacquet on alto sax, Hampton told the diminutive Jacquet, “If you can do that on tenor, you’ve got yourself a job.”

Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet (b. 1922) was a black Creole whose family moved from Louisiana to Houston soon after he was born. With his father on tuba, brother Linton on drums, Russell on trumpet and Jules on sax, the Jacquets had a family band when Illinois was young.

Jazz great Lionel Hampton (left) and Larkin Orchestra alum Arnett Cobb onstage at New York City's Aquarium club, c. 1946
Jazz great Lionel Hampton (left) and Larkin Orchestra alum Arnett Cobb onstage at New York City's Aquarium club, c. 1946

Illinois studied at Wheatley High under Percy McDavid, who had also taught Cobb, Vinson and Archia a few years earlier. (McDavid went on to become music supervisor for Los Angeles’s public high schools.) A relative late bloomer who didn’t pick up a trumpet until he was 16, Larkin studied under McDavid’s brother, which is how they all knew of each other. Larkin organized a band around all that young talent and got booked by Robey into the Harlem Grill on Houston’s Heinz Street. They quickly graduated to the Eldorado Ballroom, where they would battle the sensational Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra (with Sy Oliver on trumpet) to a draw when they came to town.

Milt Larkin retired from the music business and moved back to Houston in 1977. There he founded the Get Involved Now organization, which brought music to people unable to leave their homes because of disabilities or old age. He called his charity band the Milt Larkin All-Stars, with Arnett Cobb, who moved back to Houston in 1959, on the sax.

From the original Milt Larkin Orchestra, both Vinson and Cobb died at age 70, in 1988 and ’89, respectively. Archia returned to Houston in 1967 and died there ten years later. Bandleader Larkin passed away in 1996 at age 85. The youngest member, Jacquet, was the last to go — in 2004, at age 81.

Too bad they never recorded together, but considering the magnitude of those players, the Larkin Orchestra was, at the very least, the greatest swing band ever to come out of Texas.

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