While doing research on the life and legacy of percussionist Max Roach, I stumbled on the name of Savannah Churchill, a singer I first heard when I was about 10 years of age from my mother’s collection of shellac records. I would watch in wonder, trying to read the Manor label at the center of the record, as it spun again and again on our aging record player as she sang “Time Out for Tears.” The song was among two or three top tunes Churchill recorded in a rather brief career. But her voice was a remarkable one that must have registered for my mother, who had endured her own share of heartbreak and misery.
To get back to the confluence of Churchill and Roach it occurred most notably in 1945 when she recorded with the Benny Carter Orchestra with Roach on drums. “Daddy, Daddy” was on one side of the 78 shellac and the tune was written by Churchill and Irving Berman, and noted that the trombone solo was by J.J. Johnson, and the orchestra was under her name. Though she was often billed as a rhythm and blues vocalist, her association with phenomenal jazz artists was indisputable.
Born Savannah Valentine Roberts on Aug. 21, 1915 (or 1920) of Creole parents Emmett Roberts and Hazel Hickman in Colfax, Louisiana, she was raised in Brooklyn, NY. Not much is known about her early years, but by 1941, after her husband, David Churchill was killed in a car accident, she embarked on a singing career. (If the U.S. Census Bureau is right, she began singing professionally in 1939, earning $150.)
In 1942, “Fat Meat Is Good Meat,” a risqué tune for Beacon Records, was her initial recording. The following year she was on the Capital label as a vocalist with the Benny Carter Orchestra. Here she had her first hit on “Hurry, Hurry,” a sultry blues number that must have resonated for my mother and other women longing for the return of their lover. Carter’s solo on alto saxophone is a mellow meld with Churchill’s soulful implorations. The song reach No. 3 on the R&B chart.
Savannah soared to the top of the charts in 1946 with “I Want to be Loved (But Only By You),” and it remained there for eight weeks. Billed along with Churchill was The Sentimentalists, later to be renamed The Four Tunes. “One of The Sentimentalists, Pat Best, was a major factor in ‘I Want To Be Loved,’ becoming a big hit,” according to Tony Fourier, who wrote a brief profile on Savannah. “He wrote the song (even though credit is given to Savannah on the label) and coached her in how she should sing it.” Also, related to the reference above to “Time Out For Tears,” which reached No. 10 on the R&B charts in 1948 and “I Want to Cry” both enhanced her popularity.
A woman of stunning beauty, Savannah never denied her African American ancestry, something the census bureau consistently did with the definition of her parents. Given her complexion, she could have easily passed as white and possibly improved her recording and singing career. Nor did she reportedly disavow being branded a “sex-sational” glamour queen, which again she could have capitalized on. This was clearly on the minds of producers who featured her in such films “Miracle in Harlem” (1948) and “Souls of Sin” (1949). She has only a cameo role in “Miracle in Harlem” where she sings “I Want To Be Loved,” accompanied by a trio. Jack Kemp directed the film with future filmmaker William Greaves in a starring role.
“In 1951,” Fournier notes, “Savannah signed with RCA Victor resulting in five releases, all with vocal group backing. The first release was backed by The Four Tunes, who had moved to RCA Victor in 1949. The next three RCA Victor releases were backed by The Striders and the last by a pickup group. In 1951, Savannah, along with The Striders, appeared at the London Palladium.” A year later, she married Jesse Johnson in Franklin, Ohio.
What Savannah did take advantage of, however, was her being identified as a rhythm and blues singer, and this was something given additional prominence with her recording of “Shake A Hand” subsequently recorded by Faye Adams with even greater sales and resonance. After the ending of World War II, Savannah began to travel outside the U.S. to Hawaii, often accompanied by The Striders, a harmonious vocal group.
With the emergence of the Argo label, subsidiary to Chess Records, Savannah was among the artists placed under contract. This was in 1956 the same fateful year her career came to a crashing halt after a drunken man in the balcony where she was performing fell and landed on her. The extent of her injuries were so debilitating that she never fully recovered from them. Despite the injuries, she managed to eke out a few recordings in the 1960s but the rapid deterioration of her health made it increasingly difficult for her to perform.
The onset of pneumonia was too much to overcome and she died in Brooklyn on April 19, 1974. She was 58 or 53.