He was killed in a car crash Tuesday at age 82.
Tucker was driving a golf cart across a road on Hutchinson Island when a car slammed into him at a high speed, said Savannah-Chatham County police spokesman Julian Miller. Tucker was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The driver of the car that struck him was charged with vehicular homicide and other criminal counts.
The news stunned musicians and jazz enthusiasts in Savannah, where Tucker had been a musical fixture for roughly four decades. Tucker made his living playing upright bass — an instrument he’d named Bertha and claimed was 240 years old — in all sorts of settings from jazz festivals to wedding receptions, from nightclub gigs to bar mitzvahs.
“One of the most interesting things about playing with Ben was he was so beloved by so many people in Savannah who had met him at his club or whose weddings he had played,” said Howard Paul, a jazz guitarist and president/CEO of Benedetto Guitars who played and recorded with Tucker for more than 20 years. “You could count on being interrupted at least three times in a song because Savannahians would walk up and shake his hand while we were playing.”
Before he moved to the Georgia coast, Tucker had some success as a songwriter — perhaps most notably with “Comin’ Home Baby,” a song co-written with jazz vocalist Bob Dorough, which was recorded by Mel Torme, Herbie Mann and more recently Michael Buble. By the end of the 1960s, he had toured with Lee and performed and recorded with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon, Buddy Rich and Jones.
Paul was a young Army lieutenant scheduled to deploy to Operation Desert Storm when he arrived in Savannah 22 years ago. A friend sent him to a nightclub Tucker operated at the time, and the bassist invited him on stage to play that night and all week.
“He was on the music scene for so many years and performed with many of the greatest names in jazz, yet he spent so much time with local musicians and children as well,” Paul said. “I think he grew up in an era of jazz musicians where they felt obligated to give back.”
The Savannah Morning News reported Tucker was also a former owner of radio stations WSOK-AM and WLVH-FM.
Police said the crash that killed Tucker, who was also an avid golfer, remained under investigation. The driver of the car that hit Tucker’s golf cart, identified as 52-year-old Robert William Martin of Spicewood, Texas, was being held without bond in the Chatham County jail on charges of vehicular homicide, racing and reckless driving. It was not immediately known Tuesday if Martin had an attorney.
Julius “Boo” Hornstein, a Savannah psychotherapist and jazz writer, befriended Tucker and worked with him for years in the Coastal Jazz Association, which organizes the Savannah Jazz Festival.
Hornstein said Tucker took excellent care of himself for a man in his 80s and kept a steady gig playing Sunday brunch at a Savannah hotel, where he had been scheduled to perform the night of his death.
“He was a working musician right to the end,” Hornstein said. “He was so instrumental in the music life of Savannah.”