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.”
That was recorded in 1951 but wouldn’t be released until the following year, as the B side to Red Saunder’s one and only radio hit. “Hambone” was a collaboration between Red and three Chicago teens—Sammy McGrier, Ronnie Strong, and Delecta Clark; that last singer would later go on to some success as Dee Clark. The “Hambone Kids” performed a kind of percussive dance called the Hambone (or “dancing juba”) that involved rhythmic slapping of the chest, thighs and feet. It was a novelty song, to be sure, but one rooted in a Haitian tradition that went back to the 19th century, popularized by southern kids whose parents had moved them up north to Chicago. This was not the creation of a Brill Building songwriter trying to capitalize on a passing fad.
Of course that did not mean that other record companies couldn’t try their own versions of the song and cash in that way, especially since the song was #20 on the R&B charts and had sold 80,000 copies. Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford did a manic but soulless version that also sold well. So naturally, Okeh (and parent company Columbia) was eager to get the Hambone Kids back in the studio. The next single, “Zeke’l Zeke’l” was a lot of fun, but unfortunately failed to chart.
Columbia re-issued the Saunders version of “Hambone” in 1963 after it had been used as the theme song for a kid’s show, though it was an alternate take that added Dolores Hawkins doing some incredible “YEEEEAAAAHHHH”s (she just whistled on the original take) but subtracted the horn section. See what you think.
Red would continue to record his own songs and sit in with other artists in the studio while keeping his spot at the Delisa. 1953 was an especially good year. Here’s Red playing a simple but very effective beat for Big Joe Turner’s “Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop.”
And here he is backing Gospel dynamo Sister Rosetta Tharpe. As he often would, Red is playing with brushes, but sometimes the beat is so strong you’d swear he was using sticks.
As “Hambone” proved, Red had no problem sharing the beat with other percussionists. This was even more evident when he supported Ghanan drummer/percussionist Guy Warren on his album Africa Speaks—America Answers. It was perhaps the very first example of what would later be called “afro-beat.” Here’s “Monkeys and Butterflies.”
Red Saunders would continue to record throughout the 1960’s, albeit sporadically. His band had a long run at Chicago’s Regal theater, and Red continued to sit in with the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong whenever they needed a substitute drummer. He died in 1981.