MIKE MILLS: 'King of Syncopation' a big part of Itawamba's musical heritage

By Mike Mills

The line between Alabama and Mississippi, not to mention the line between Itawamba, Franklin and Marion Counties, is often blurred, if not downright confusing. Some of the early settlers in Red Bay thought they were in Mississippi and some of the Tremont folk thought they had settled in Alabama. And no doubt some folk around Bexar thought they had found Texas.
The citizens of these neighboring communities share much in common. Black-eyed peas and cornbread are a staple in our diet. We all know a home grown tomato properly sliced and peppered and put on white bread smeared generously with mayonnaise is the best thing either side of the Tombigbee. We all cook with Sunflower Self-Rising Corn Meal and sop our biscuits in Golden Eagle Syrup. And we share a regional proprietary claim to the First Lady of Country Music, Tammy Wynette, formerly known as Tammy Pugh, and of course born near Tremont in Itawamba County, Mississippi.
Much has been written about Tammy Wynette’s humble beginnings near Tremont. Another prominent former sharecropper in Itawamba County was Miss Rosella Presley, from out east of Fulton. According to local sources, Rosella sometimes frequented an Itawamba business establishment known as The Linger Longer where she may have made acquaintance with the father of one or more of her 10 illegitimate children. She never married. Her grandson, Vernon Presley, was born in Fulton, but later moved to the Shakerag community in East Tupelo. He was the father of the King. As in Rock-N-Roll. An art form. (See the internet web-site .)
Tammy and Elvis made it to the top of their chosen art forms with little education, much determination, and a lot of talent. I love both of them as entertainers. And respect each for the gifts they gave the world.
One would suppose Itawamba County ought to be satisfied with being the seminal ground for the King of Rock and the First Lady of Country Music. But no.
A young fellow named James Melvin “Jimmie” Lunceford was born in the Evergreen community in Itawamba County in 1902. According to noted Itawamba historian Bob Franks, Lunceford’s people were initially well to do landowners in the African-American community of Palmetto east of Fulton where his grandfather owned 150 acres off the old Warren plantation. The young Jimmie may have played in the red dirt hills drained by Bull Mountain Creek and Dulaney Branch. Little Jimmie went on to lead one of the greatest jazz bands of his day. He would be known as the King of Syncopation.
Jimmie’s people found a way for him to attain a higher education at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. (While there he dated the daughter of W.E.B. Dubois, a prominent black philosopher and founder of the NAACP.) He majored in music and mastered many instruments.
After graduating from college, Jimmie began teaching music at Manassas High School in Memphis where he organized a group of his students into a band called The Chickasaw Syncopators. This group later evolved into Jimmie Lunceford’s Orchestra which scored big in 1934 at the Cotton Club in Harlem. The band became known for a two-beat swing and polished showmanship and gained a national reputation. For 10 years they were the top attraction at the Apollo Theatre where the band was known as The Harlem Express. His songs have been described as sophisticated, cheerful and boisterous. Major hits include White Heat, Jazznocracy, Rhythm is Our Business, In Dat Mornin’ and Swingin’ Uptown.
In his day, Jimmie Lunceford from outside Fulton, Mississippi was bigger than his contemporaries, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Glenn Miller, who borrowed from the Lunceford style, said, “Duke Ellington is great, [Count} Basie is remarkable, but Lunceford tops them both.” (Quote from Determeyer’s excellent Lunceford biography, Rhythm Is Our Business, 2006.) Unfortunately Jimmie has not enjoyed the lasting fame of many of his contemporaries. His full potential may not have been reached since he died an early death in 1947 when he collapsed while signing autographs in Seaside, Oregon. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
A tip of the hat for this piece must go to Rubye Del Harden who wrote about Jimmie in the 1960s; to Fulton musician and author Bob Gilliland who more recently published a piece about him in Itawamba Settlers; and to Oxonian Scott Baretta who prevailed upon the powers that be to finally establish a Jimmie Lunceford marker on the Fulton Courthouse grounds.
And to bring it on home as they say in the music business, what do we make of a few sections of hilly land east of Fulton which not only grow lush Kudzu and stout Mimosa trees but which also produced some of the finest entertainers in America? Well I think if you or your daddy ever ran barefooted in the sandy red ditch banks of an Itawamba gravel road, or if you got baptized or went skinny dipping in Dulaney branch or if you ever tasted the ice cold waters of Bull Mountain Creek (either straight or improved with local corn products), then you have the makin’s of mastering an art form yourself.
Mike Mills, a native of Itawamba County, is a U.S. District Court judge.

Marker dedication
– Dedication of a Mississippi Blues Trail marker honoring Jimmie Lunceford will be at 12:30 p.m. today in Playgarden Park in downtown Fulton.