Steve Washington

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It is a pity that we may never get to hear examples of this man's early participation with obscure Pennsylvania bands like Humphries' Playboys (with whom he worked in 1931) and Ben Smith's White Hut Orchestra…
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It is a pity that we may never get to hear examples of this man's early participation with obscure Pennsylvania bands like Humphries' Playboys (with whom he worked in 1931) and Ben Smith's White Hut Orchestra (with whom he appeared in 1932). But there do exist a good number of hot records, made in New York and New Jersey during the years 1931-1933, by the Washboard Rhythm Kings, which feature Steve Washington's exciting banjo and robust vocal outpourings. "Hummin' to Myself" and "Holding My Honey's Hand," both recorded July 6, 1932, are good examples of Washington's powerful voice and soulfully candid delivery. A session from the following month yielded "I'm Gonna Play Down by the Ohio," a hot novelty number along the lines of "Mama Don't Allow," during which Washington introduced each instrument in the band by singing in a gritty and rambunctious manner, using phrases like "Oh you dog!" His style of banjo plucking often sounded a lot like the improvisations of a guitarist, rather than the more conventional scrubbing or strumming used by certain other banjo players in early jazz. On the Washboard Rhythm Kings sessions of March and June 1933, Washington, in fact, began to use guitar in addition to banjo, while most of the vocals were now by trumpeters Taft Jordan and Dave Page. Steve Washington and His Orchestra waxed four sides for the Vocalion label on November 22, 1933. Personnel included Sterling Bose, Benny Goodman, Dick McDonough, and Joe Venuti. The leader used only his voice on these sides, proving once again that even the most sentimental songs became strangely substantial when he chose to sing them. Around this time he had moderate success as a solo act in various nightclubs. Then, in 1934, Washington became involved with the Sunset Royal Orchestra, a dance band initially from Florida, led at that time by pianist Ace Harris. Soon this organization, renamed the Sunset Royal Serenaders, was operating under the leadership of Steve Washington. His knack for devising catchy ensemble vocals behind the lead singer was most evident in a remarkable rendition of Irving Berlin's "Marie." The saddest irony is as follows: Washington died of pneumonia sometime during January 1936, in Boston Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, Tommy Dorsey heard the Sunset Royal Serenaders (then led by trombonist Doc Wheeler), in performance at Nixon's Grand Theater in Philadelphia. The song that caught his attention was "Marie." Dorsey either purchased, swapped, or simply swiped Washington's arrangement, only to record a very lucrative hit version of "Marie" in January 1937, one year after the death of the man who had created that catchy vocal routine, destined to go over so well with the paying public. Both Steve Washington and the Sunset Royal Serenaders were quickly forgotten as Dorsey's band prospered. It wasn't until decades later, with the subsequent reissuing of records by the Washboard Rhythm Kings, that new generations began to probe beneath the surface of this enjoyable music. Piecing together these fragmentary bits of information pertaining to Steve Washington's life and work, we may now award him a place of honor among those innovative musicians who struggled to produce more than a little bit of honest jazz during that notably difficult decade, the 1930s.