Tennessee Valley Boy: Jack Luker

He was a friendly, caring guy, but music always came first in his life. – Dave Larsh, musician [1]

Along with Luke Kelly, Forest Rye, and Arlee Barber, Jack Luker had a reputation during the 1940s for leading one of the popular country-western bands in Detroit. Luker’s group, the Tennessee Valley Boys, included guitarists Tommy Odom, Chuck Oakes, and Jeff Durham; rhythm guitarist/singer Lawton “Slim” Williams; bassists Harvey “Flash” Griner and Bill Hayes; fiddle player Frankie Brumbalough, and others.

Jack Luker and band, Detroit, 1940s - Source: Keith Cady

Jack Luker (center, at microphone) and the Tennessee Valley Boys, late 1940s, Detroit. Lawton “Slim” Williams stands second from right. Jeff Durham is seated third from left. Other musicians unknown. Source: Keith Cady, courtesy Lawton Williams

Willie Thomas “Jack” Luker was born in 1917. Luker’s cousin Lawton Williams was from Troy, Tennessee, in the northwest region of the state, so Luker may have come from the same area. His move to Michigan coincided with an influx of Southerners looking for work in the manufacturing industries of Detroit as the United States participated in World War II.

Luker may have planned to find a job in a factory, but he soon began entertaining in nightclubs such as the Park View, Dixie Belle, and Rose’s, all located on West Vernor in southwest Detroit, an area settled by workers from the South. [2] A charismatic, fun-loving man, Luker married and had three children.

Perhaps Luker’s first appearance on records was with Roy Hall’s Cohutta Mountain Boys – which included former members of Luker’s Tennessee Valley Boys (Tommy Odom, Flash Griner, and Frankie Brumbalough) – when the group cut “Dirty Boogie” for Fortune Records in 1949. Issued as Fortune 126, the record label listed personnel for the session, and Luker’s name was associated with rhythm guitar.

Listen to: Jack Luker – My Smokey Mountain Gal

In late 1951, Luker sang on two records for songwriter Lou Parker’s Citation label (catalog numbers 1158 and 1159), based in Detroit’s Music Hall building. The first release, reviewed by The Billboard magazine in its January 26, 1952, edition, “My Smokey Mountain Gal” (backed with “Whispering Lies”) was a bouncy western swing. [3] Luker’s vocal projected his easy-going personality and some joy. The music was played by a hot band, which probably included Roy Hall on piano, along with Flash Griner and Bud White (these musicians also recorded for Parker’s label), and unidentified trumpet player, giving the record a sound reminiscent of Merle Travis’ hit records of the late 1940s. Luker’s second Citation single included a slow heart song called “I Wish That I Could Tell You,” backed with another swinging dance number, “You’re A Little Bit Too Late.”

Jack Luker 8x10 Wanda Records portrait

By the 1960s, Luker moved to Bay City, Michigan, and worked as a school bus driver, farmer and carpenter, while playing music at night and on weekends. Detroit guitarist Dave Larsh said Luker also had a radio show in Bay City during those years.

A Bay City record label named Wanda released what was perhaps Luker’s last recordings on vinyl (Wanda single no. 318). “Fool For Loving You,” another heart song, was backed with a revival of the Light Crust Doughboys’ 1939 “I’ll Keep On Loving You.” Judging by Luker’s recorded performances, he sought out the best musicians to work with on stages and studios.

According to Detroit guitarist Chuck Oakes, Luker retired to Northern Michigan. “Jack Luker later worked in Gladwin at several bars,” said Oakes. He worked at the Club 30 for years. I used to sit in with him and have fun.” [4] (Oakes also spent his retirement years near Gladwin.) In 1982, Luker moved back to Tennessee.

“I heard Jack finally went back to Tennessee and married his first wife all over again,” said Oakes. “He liked hunting and fishing. He went out hunting in the woods and they found him with his hounds out there, propped up against a tree and he was – He done gone.” During a hunting trip with a friend, Luker suffered a heart attack. He lay down beneath an old tree and passed away December 26, 1984.

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Notes

  1. Dave Larsh interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002.
  2. By the late 20th century, the population of southwest Detroit evolved into a community of Mexican immigrants, which brought another cultural change to local restaurants and shops.
  3. “Best Selling Retail Folk (Country & Western) Records” Billboard (Jan. 26, 1952. Vol. 64, No. 4) 33.
  4. Chuck Oakes interviewed by Keith Cady in 2000.

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