From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Richardson, Saunders, Jr. ("Smoke") and Family

(born: 1906  -  died: 1963) 

One of the most recognized musicians in Lexington, KY was Saunders "Smoke" Richardson. He was born in Covington, KY, the son of Julia Mae Thompson Richardson (1883-1934) and Saunders Richardson Sr. (1879-1935).

Kentucky has been home to his family for several generations. His mother was from Covington, his father from Lexington. They lived on Price Street in Lexington in 1902; Saunders Sr. was employed as a porter [source: p. 463, The Lexington City Directory and Rural Postal Delivery Routes for 1902-1903, Volume 1]. His brother Robert Richardson was born in Lexington September 5, 1902 [source: Kentucky Certificate of Death Registered No. 1149]. By 1904, the family lived in Covington, and Smoke's sister Elza was born at home on Washington Street, June 19, 1904 [source: Kentucky Certificate of Live Birth Registrars No. 30A]. Two years later, Saunders "Smoke" Richardson, Jr. was also born in Covington.

By 1909, the Richardson family was living in Lexington at 323 Race Street, and Saunders, Sr. was a bartender [source: p. 516 in Lexington City Directory, 1909. volume v]. He was also an umpire for the colored baseball games in Lexington [source: "The Lexington Hustlers..." in  "Colored Notes," Leader, 6/1/1913, p. 7, col. 6; and "The Cumminsville, O., ..." in "Colored Notes," Leader, 6/1/1914, p. 5, col. 5]. In 1920, Saunders, Sr. owned a soft drink store, his son Robert working with him as a salesman while Elza and Saunders Jr. attended school [source: U.S. Federal Census]. His wife Julia may have been part owner of the store: the store name is given as J. Richardson Company, groceries, on p. 648 in The Lexington City Directory, 1923.

A couple years later, while Julia and Saunders Sr. continued with the store, their son Robert became a tailor, daughter Elza a school teacher, and son Saunders Jr. a musician [source: pp. 661 & 662 in R. L. Polk & Co.'s Lexington (Kentucky) Directory, 1925].

It was during this time that Saunders Jr. left Kentucky. The following information comes from Saunda C. Richardson Coleman, daughter of Saunders Richardson Jr. and Carol Mills Richardson. "Around his junior year of high school, Smoke Richardson quit school and started playing music professionally; he played the baritone saxophone. He got the nickname Smoke because he smoked cigarettes all the time. He went to New York City for a brief period and studied under musician Coleman Hawkins. He was back in Lexington by the 1930s. His specialty was big band music, and he was pretty much a local entertainer."

In 1928, the Richardson family lived at 301 E. 4th Street. Julia and Saunders Sr. worked at the store along with Robert, who was a clerk; Elza was still a school teacher, and Saunders Jr. was still away in New York [source: p. 451 in Polk's Lexington (Kentucky) City Directory, Vol. XIV, 1928]. Saunders Jr. was back in Kentucky by 1930; he is listed in the city directory as a musician on p. 491 (Polk's Lexington (Kentucky) City Directory, Vol. XV, 1930). He is not listed in the 1931-32 directory with his parents, who had a confectionery business at 146 W. Vine St.; his brother Robert was a cook at Drake Cafeteria and lived at 515 E. 2nd Street; no occupation is listed for Elza, who lived with her parents [source: p. 425 in Polk's Lexington (Kentucky) City Directory, Vol. XVI, 1931-32].

In the previous directory, Saunders Jr. is listed as a musician and the husband of Louise [source: p. 418, Polk's Lexington City Directory, 1931]. There is no further mention of Louise in the Richardson household in subsequent directories. A few years later, Smoke's family suffered a loss when Julia M. Thompson Richardson died, December 19, 1934; she was the daughter of Robert Thompson from Fayette County and Julia Johnson Thompson from Kenton County [source: Kentucky Certificate of Death Registered No. 1110].

Four months later, Saunders Richardson Sr. died on April 13, 1935; he was the son of Henry Richardson from Fayette County and Mary E. Smith Richardson from Montgomery County [sources: Obituary in "Colored Notes," Leader, 4/16/1935, p. 10, col. 6-7; and Kentucky Certificate of Death File No. 332]. Both Saunders Richardson Sr. and Julia Thompson Richardson are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Lexington. It was during this time of loss that Saunders "Smoke" Richardson Jr. and His Orchestra began playing for events at the University of Kentucky [source: "Final dance of semester will be held Saturday," The Kentucky Kernel, 8/9/1938, front page, column 4].

The University of Kentucky was a segregated school attended by white students, but African American bands were often hired to entertain at social events. The group also played at Kentucky State College for Negroes (now Kentucky State University) and at high school events in Lexington and surrounding counties. In 1940, Smoke Richardson and his brother Robert were living with their sister Elza at the home place, 301 E. 4th Street; Elza was a maid, Robert a waiter at a hotel, and Smoke a musician [source: U.S. Federal Census].

The eldest sibling, Robert Richardson, died from tuberculosis on December 14, 1947 [source: Kentucky Certificate of Death Registered No. 1149]. After his brother's death, Smoke continued to live at 301 E. 4th Street with his sister Elza [source: p. 552 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXX, 1953]. He provided music for events such as the Zeta Tau Alpha annual houseparty at the University of Kentucky [source: p. 124 of the 1958 Kentuckian]. His music can be heard on an untitled 78 rpm album that has four songs on each side: a copy of the album was at the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum on Georgetown Street in Lexington, KY. [The museum is closed and the album was returned to Saunda Richardson Coleman, the daughter of Smoke.]

By 1960, Smoke Richardson and His Orchestra had been the house band at Circle H for several years {the establishment had been named the Circle Bar} [source: The Kentucky Kernel, 11/17/1958, p. 11]. Also by 1960, Smoke Richardson was the husband of Carol Mills Richardson; they lived at 301 E. 4th Street with Elza Richardson, who was the executive director of the Phyllis Wheatly {Colored} Branch of the Lexington YWCA [source: pp. 556 & 557 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY) City Directory, vol. XXXVI, 1960]. Elza Richardson had been a maid at the colored YWCA in 1942 [source: p. 331 in Polk's Lexington City Directory, 1942]; she was the assistant director in 1952 [source: p. 394 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXVIX, 1952]; and she became the executive director in 1956 [source: p. 511 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXXIII, 1956].

Elza Richardson had started at the YWCA as early as 1940 [source: p. 528 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXII, 1940-41]. In 1945, she was a cook at the Lexington Signal Depot [source: p. 317 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXV, 1945], and she was still there in 1947 [source: p. 465 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXVI, 1947].

In 1958, she was an elevator operator at Kaufman Clothers [source: p. 441 in Polk's Lexington (Fayette County, KY.) City Directory, vol. XXVII, 1948-49]. Three years later, she was the assistant director at the Phyllis Wheatly {Colored} Branch of the Lexington YWCA. Elza O. Richardson died January 26, 1983 [source: Kentucky Death Index], outliving her brother Smoke by 20 years. Saunders "Smoke" Richardson Jr. died September 12, 1963 in Fayette County [source: Kentucky Death Index]. One of his last performances was at the patients' picnic at Eastern State Hospital in June 1962 [source: Kentucky's First Asylum, by A. W. Deese, p. 313].

This entry was suggested by Saunda C. Richardson Coleman.

*Robert Thompson (maternal grandfather)

*Julia Johnson Thompson (maternal grandmother)

*Henry Richardson (paternal grandfather)

*Mary E. Smith Richardson (paternal grandmother)

*Saunders Richardson Sr., 1879-1935 (father)

*Julia Mae Thompson Richardson, 1883-1934 (mother)

*Robert Richardson, 1902-1947 (son)

*Elza Richardson, 1904-1983 (daughter)

*Saunders "Smoke" Richardson Jr., 1906-1963 (son)

*Saunda Carol Richardson Coleman (daughter of Saunders "Smoke" Richardson, Jr.)

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Kenton County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Fayette County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Montgomery County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Covington, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Lexington, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Outside Kentucky Place Name

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Richardson, Saunders, Jr. ("Smoke") and Family,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 24, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-01-18 19:22:16