Luckey Roberts: His Fortune Was in His Fingers

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A celebration of African American musician and composer Luckey Roberts (Charles Luckeyth Roberts, 1887-1968). Roberts was legendary for his epic reach on the piano; one hand could encompass an interval of a fourteenth — nearly an octave and a half. His hands were that large. So, like a jockey, a sumo wrestler, or a basketball player, Roberts’ body type uniquely qualified him for his field. But plenty of people with big hands can’t play instruments or write music. Roberts had the gift. These huge meathooks allowed Roberts, along with James P. Johnson, to develop stride piano playing in the period leading up to the Jazz Age.

Luckey Roberts was originally from Philadelphia. Unique in his business, which took place largely in places like saloons and nightclubs, Roberts remained a teetotalling Quaker throughout his life, which no doubt garnered respect from some, scorn from others. He was a rough contemporary of Scott Joplin and Eubie Blake, and remained a creature of ragtime (as opposed to the later jazz styles) throughout his career. Starting in childhood, he performed in black vaudeville and minstrel shows, such as Gus Selke and His Pickaninnies, and Mayme Remington and Her Ethiopian Prodigies. In his early years he worked as an acrobat and is said to have performed with Prevost, Rice and Prevost, the same act that employed Joe E. Brown as a child. Roberts’ height in adulthood was 4’10”, which made him ideal for this line of work, but during these years he was also working hard at developing his piano skills, and that is where he placed his chips in early adulthood.

Shortly before 1910 Roberts moved to the San Juan Hill section of New York, the historic African American neighborhood that preceded Harlem, located roughly where Lincoln Center is today. His early rags included “Nothin'” (1908), “Ripples of the Nile (1912 — later renamed “Moonlight Cocktail” and used as a theme song by Glenn Miller, “Pork and Beans” (1913), and “Railroad Man” (1916). In 1911 he worked as musical director of the Smart Set company of Homer Tutt and Salem Tutt Whitney. 

During World War One, Roberts toured the Continent with James Reese Europe, then returned to the States, now making the then-exploding Harlem his base. He composed the music for the Broadway shows Go-Go (1923), Sharlee (1923) and My Magnolia (1926), the latter starring Adelaide Hall. In 1924, he toured vaudeville with “Luckey Roberts and His 12 Browns”. In the ’30s, he started his own society band and had his own restaurant in the Washington DC. He performed as part of the backing band on Moran and Mack’s radio show. By the late ’30s he began composing music in an ambitious classical style. In 1939 he played Carnegie Hall with his own orchestra; another of his compositions was played at New York’s Town Hall. In the ’40s he had his own Harlem venue, Luckey’s Rendezvous. In the ’40s and ’50s he made several records in what was by then a throwback style, often in collaboration with contemporaries like Willie “The Lion” Smith or Ralph Sutton.

Thanks to his savvy investments in real estate, Roberts died a wealthy man. There are several additional online biographies of Luckey Roberts; the best one I have come across is Perfesser Bill’s, from whence some of this material was drawn. 

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous