Swing revisited

Apr 19, 2006 at 12:00 am

In the 1920s, McKinney's Cotton Pickers epitomized swing.

In the 1970s, the New McKinney's Cotton Pickers played Carnegie Hall and, recalls Dave Hutson, one of that band's founders, whooped the headlining Tommy Dorsey band of the time.

And Sunday, the New McKinney's Cotton Pickers reunite to celebrate the serendipity that carries music across eras.

Originally from Toledo, the group was recruited to play Detroit's Arcadia Ballroom in 1926. A success with the city's jazz age dancers, they moved to the illustrious Graystone Ballroom and were broadcast widely on powerhouse station WJR.

Jazz historian Gunther Schuller pronounces them the most consistent band of the time, in some respects the best.

Hutson thinks that sells them short. The then-dissonant harmonies of the band's musical directors Don Redman and Benny Carter, Hutson argues, made them the first swing band, the turning point after which "some bands became very hip swinger bands and other bands became sweet Mickey Mouse bands."

The Cotton Pickers disbanded in the Depression and were largely forgotten except for swing enthusiasts like latter-day WDET jazz host Hutson. Then in his 30s, he struck up the acquaintance of the sole survivor of the Toledo guys, banjoist and singer Dave Wilborn, then in his 60s.

"He was a lonely, forgotten, single old man, working as a janitor somewhere, and I guess I just brought him back to life," Hutson recalls.

With arrangements culled from old discs and played by some of Detroit's finest, the band with Wilborn as its centerpiece expected a gig or two. "It all got out of hand, and we got famous, at least for a few years," says Hutson, now in Oregon. They went from local success in 1971 to triumphs in New York and Europe.

The new band went into decline following Wilborn's death in 1982. He sang the signature tune, "I Found a New Baby," with its final lines of "that's all" — and collapsed from a heart attack onstage.

But that's not quite all after all.


The New McKinney's Cotton Pickers reunion includes such regulars and semi-regulars as Hutson, Jim Dapogny, Ernie Rogers and Tom Saunders; 12:30-3:30 p.m., Sunday, April 23, at the Troy Elks Club, 1451 E. Big Beaver Rd., Troy; call 248-478-0172; tickets $22.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]