Zutty Singleton was a master of his art and after Baby Dodds was the finest of the New Orleans drummers. He played with a springy, joyous beat that ultimately gave him more flexibility than his contemporary.
He was born Arthur James Singelton in Bunkie, Louisiana, on 14 May 1898. His nickname was bestowed upon him while he was still a babe-in-arms: the name indicating the happy countenance that he was to retain for the rest of his life.
He played drums from a very early age, working professionally for the first time when he was 17 years old. He served in the army during World War 1 and shortly thereafter worked with numerous bands in New Orleans, including those led by Oscar 'Papa' Celestin, 'Big Eye' Louis Nelson and Luis Russell, before joining the educational hothouse that was Fate Marable's riverboat band. Through the riverboat experience his reputation spread to St. Louis where he played in Charlie Creath's band and married Charlie's sister, the pianist Marge Creath.
After a spell back in New Orleans, Zutty's next port of call was Chicago where he was hired by headlining leaders such as Doc Cooke, Dave Peyton and Jimmie Noone before teaming up with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. He also played in a trio with Jelly Roll Morton and Barney Bigard. New York beckoned and there he played with another top flight band, that led by Carroll Dickerson. He freelanced extensively in New York throughout the 1930s, playing on numerous recording sessions, including dates with Sudney Bechet, Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.
In the early 1940s, Zutty continued his varied recording career, frequently leading his own band, and also playing behind disparate frontline artists such as T-Bone Walker and Charlie Parker. He worked in films and on radio; appearing on-screen in Stormy Weather (1943) and New Orleans (1946), and on Orson Welles's radio show. Reportedly, he was deeply distressed when he was not invited to join the all-star band formed to back Armstrong in the mid-40s, but he remained highly active, working with Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Wingy Manone, among many. Early in the 1950s, Zutty spent some time in Europe in bands led by Mezz Mezzrow, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page and Lillian Armstrong. Once again, several fine recording sessions resulted. During the rest of the 50s and on through the 60s, Zutty worked mostly in New York, which is where he had made his home. During the latter part of this period he made several records on which he was the featured performer, mostly for Fat Cat's Jazz. Towards the end of the 60s, Zutty appeared in the remarkable French documentary film, L'Aventure du Jazz (1969), the soundtrack of which was released on LP, playing unaccompanied drum solos.