Theodore “Red” Saunders was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1912. His mother died in 1913, so his sister brought him up to Chicago to live with her. At the age of 13, Red took his first drum lesson while attending school at St. Benedict’s. Three years later he’d get his first gig, playing with Stomp King. A few years later he was drumming for Ira Coffey’s Walkathonians. What’s a Walkathonian? Why, that’s a musician who plays for walkathons, which in the thirties was not a way to raise money for charities, but rather a contest in which the last couple standing won a prize after walking a loop ad nauseum. The events used to draw big crowds, believe it or not. A 1933 gig in Atlantic City was disrupted by the all-white Musicians Union local, who did not want a black orchestra supporting white walkers. Red found a gig with Curtis Mosby’s Harlem Scandals revue and did not look back.
Red continued to tour with different acts for the next couple of years, until he found himself back home and in the orchestra for the Delisa Club, a happening venue that billed itself as “The Harlem of Chicago.” By July, the leader had left and Red filled the vacancy. With the exception of a couple of short periods away, he stayed there until the club closed in 1958.
Red recorded with a number of labels and acts throughout the 1940’s, including many sides with his own orchestra. These are pretty hard to track down online, but one of his early songs on Okeh was available, and it’s a hoot. Here’s “Boot ‘Em Up.”