Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919
Publication Year: 2004
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Series: Music in American Life
George W. Johnson has always seemed to me an intriguing character. The first black recording “star,” he is almost completely forgotten today. Colorful stories swirled around his life. Had he been born a slave? Was he really discovered panhandling on the streets of Washington, D.C.? When did he begin recording, and how popular...
Nobody does it alone. Like the artists profiled here, I have been helped by many hands along the way. Whether it was checking their local libraries, raiding their own files (or, in one case, giving me their files), making copies of articles or tapes of otherwise unobtainable recordings, taking pictures of important sites, or simply...
Introduction: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed?
One of the most honored television documentaries of the late 1960s was a CBS News Hour written by Andy Rooney and Perry Wolff called “Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed?” That title kept coming back to me during the years in which this book was being researched. African Americans made significant contributions to the...
Part One George W. Johnson, The First Black Recording Artist
1 The Early Years
The New York City courtroom is packed and buzzing with anticipation. Finally the judge gavels for order. He nods at the bailiff who begins to read, “the State of New York versus George W. Johnson . . . the charge, murder in the first . . .” Suddenly the room erupts, and the judge gavels repeatedly. “Order, order! Order, or I’ll clear this courtroom.” He glares down at the prosecutor, a small...
2 Talking Machines!
After the exhibition of his first crude tinfoil apparatus in 1878–79, Thomas Edison virtually abandoned the phonograph to work on the electric light. He did not return to work on it until 1886, when the expiration of his major commitments to the electric light, and the hot breath of competition from other inventors working on...
3 The Trial of George W. Johnson
In December 1899 New York City’s many newspapers were filled with screaming headlines about the Insurrection in the Philippines, as well as lurid coverage of several murders and trials, most of them involving the rich and famous. The trial of the Tenderloin’s “Whistling Coon” was not front-page news. It did, however, rate...
Part Two Black Recording Artists, 1890–99
4 The Unique Quartette
The Unique Quartette was the first black quartet to record commercially. Their story, as well as their sound, was almost lost in the mists of history. With public archives and present-day record companies virtually ignoring this earliest era of recording, it is nothing short of a miracle that a handful of the fragile wax cylinders made by...
5 Louis “Bebe” Vasnier: Recording in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans
The Louisiana Phonograph Company has always held a special fascination for researchers due to the musical fertility of the Crescent City. What treasures might have been recorded by an enterprising firm that was active in New Orleans, the “cradle of jazz,” in the 1890s, just at the time first glimmerings of “America’s native music”...
6 The Standard Quartette and South before the War
The story of the Standard Quartette is closely intertwined with that of South before the War, a highly successful theatrical spectacle that toured the United States for most of the 1890s. The quartet was a featured act during at least three seasons of the long-running show, and the cylinders they made while with the show may well...
7 The Kentucky Jubilee Singers
This black chorus was formed in the mid-1870s, a period when scores of jubilee troupes were criss-crossing the country exploiting the vogue for spirituals ignited by the sudden and phenomenal success of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers. George C. D. Odell, a leading chronicler of the New York stage, reported that by...
8 Bert Williams and George Walker
Bert Williams is often referred to as the first black “superstar” of the twentieth century. He achieved enormous success in vaudeville and on the Broadway stage, and was popular with black and white audiences alike. But we need not remember him only by old photographs and the memories of those who saw him. Often overlooked...
9 Cousins and DeMoss
The recordings by Cousins and DeMoss represent a bit of a mystery. They appear to give us a glimpse inside the world of black vaudeville in the late 1890s, but we must say “appear to” because the identities of the two artists have not been conclusively proven. There are no first names on the label, and no catalog listing or advertising...
10 Thomas Craig
Berliner disc catalogs from 1898 and 1899 list two selections by an obscure artist named Thomas Craig, intriguingly billed as “the colored basso.” No information was provided about him, but like nearly all black artists who recorded during the phonograph’s first decade, he in fact had an active stage career around the turn of...
Part Three Black Recording Artists, 1900–1909
11 The Dinwiddie Quartet
Dinwiddie County is a poor, rural county in the southeast corner of Virginia, near the North Carolina border. Named for Robert Dinwiddie, lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1752 (when it was formed), it was the site of some notable military actions during the Civil War. By 1900 its population was about 15,000, mostly..
12 Carroll Clark
Carroll Clark was one of the most prolific black recording artists of the early 1900s. Between 1908 and 1924 at least forty sides by him were released on five principal labels, with reissues on many other labels. His specialties were plantation and dialect songs about the Old South, which he rendered with uncommon sensitivity. He...
13 Charley Case: Passing for White?
Charley Case has one of the more fascinating stories among early recording artists. A popular monologuist whose droll, low-key style and offbeat observations about human nature are reminiscent of Bert Williams, Will Rogers, and in more recent times Bill Cosby, Case had a very successful career in vaudeville. He toured the major...
14 The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Popularization of Negro Spirituals
The saga of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers is one of the most remarkable chapters in the annals of African American music. This unassuming chorus from a small southern college was the first performing group to bring black music suitable for the concert stage to an American public that had previously seen the race mostly though...
15 Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette
Why, you might ask, would a wealthy, white, southern businessman, former Confederate soldier, and apologist for slavery be the subject of a chapter in this book? Polk Miller was a remarkable man. He organized, toured with, and recorded with a black quartet. Those recordings, made in 1909 and very nearly not released, provide...
Part Four Black Recording Artists, 1910–15
16 Jack Johnson
It may seem a bit odd to find a profile of the first black heavyweight boxing champion in these pages. Jack Johnson was one of the most inflammatory black men in America in the early 1900s, lionized by most blacks and despised by many whites. It is not generally known—and biographies omit to mention—that he visited the...
17 Daisy Tapley
The contralto Daisy Tapley may have been the first African American woman to record commercially in the United States.1 We must say “may have been,” because we cannot be sure who is on all the lost brown wax cylinders of the 1890s. The elusive Kentucky Jubilee Singers cylinders (1894), if they truly existed, may have...
18 Apollo Jubilee Quartette
There is little we can do other than speculate about the identity of the mystery group called the Apollo Jubilee Quartette. Columbia released a single disc by the quartet, in August 1912, but said little about them. It is no mystery, though, why Columbia wanted some jubilee selections in its catalog. In February 1910 Victor had...
19 Edward Sterling Wright and the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Public speaking was a respected and popular profession in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a time when bettering oneself through education was just beginning to become a widespread pursuit. Private lectures were patronized both by the snobbish elite who wanted to show off their education and by lower classes...
20 James Reese Europe
One of the most influential and revered black musicians of the 1910s is, paradoxically, one of the less remembered today. Murdered at the age of thirty-nine, James Reese Europe was in the early stages of a brilliant and colorful career that might well have earned him a more prominent place in history books had he lived into the...
21 Will Marion Cook and the Afro-American Folk Song Singers
Will Marion Cook was one of the most respected black composers of the early 1900s. His career extended from the beginnings of the black musical theater at the turn of the century to the spread of jazz in the 1920s, and he was a key figure in both. His name is frequently cited in histories of black music in America. As with a number...
22 Dan Kildare and Joan Sawyer’s Persian Garden Orchestra
The name of pianist Dan Kildare is virtually unknown to most collectors of early jazz and black music, despite the fact that he was the second black bandleader to record for a major label in the United States (Jim Europe was the first, a few months earlier). A colleague of Europe’s, and a central figure in New York’s fabled Clef Club...
23 The Tuskegee Institute Singers
The historic 1909 Victor recordings by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet were instrumental in bringing Negro spirituals to the twentieth-century American public. In their wake white artists began to include such music in their concerts, and recordings of black “concert” music slowly began to turn up in record company catalogs...
24 The Right Quintette
The recordings of the Right Quintette provide a rare glimpse into the thriving New York cabaret scene of the 1910s. This very successful act was fortunate enough to be able to record performances that seem to have mirrored their lively stage style. The quintet was formed by veteran singer James Escort Lightfoot in 1912...
Part Five Black Recording Artists, 1916–19
25 Wilbur C. Sweatman: Disrespecting Wilbur
Although he doesn’t get much respect from jazz historians today, Wilbur Sweatman was one of the great pioneers of recorded African American music, during the transitional years from ragtime to jazz. Legend has it that he made the first recording of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on a locally made cylinder around 1903. He made...
26 Opal D. Cooper
The thriving black musical scene in New York in the 1910s produced a number of less-known entertainers who left their voices on record. One of these was Opal Cooper, a banjo player and vocalist whose career exemplifies the itinerant life of a cabaret musician. Recording as early as 1917, he later became one of the expatriate...
27 Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Among African Americans who recorded prior to 1920, two of the best remembered are the team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. In their day they were major stars of vaudeville and the Broadway stage, but probably the chief reason their names live on is the extraordinary success (as a composer) and longevity of Eubie Blake. Blake...
28 Ford T. Dabney: Syncopation over Broadway
One of the most successful black bandleaders and composers of the 1910s was Ford Dabney. A close associate of Jim Europe, he was a principal composer and conductor both for dance sensations Vernon and Irene Castle, and for Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who featured his orchestra for eight years at his popular...
29 W. C. Handy
W. C. Handy, “Father of the Blues,” is one of the best-known black Americans of the twentieth century and his “St. Louis Blues” is one of its best-known songs. Less well known are the struggles he endured, the important role that records played in popularizing his innovative music during the 1910s, and the story of his own recordings...
30 Roland Hayes
Of all the fields of music and art in the early 1900s, none was so thoroughly closed to black Americans as that of classical music. Blacks could succeed in popular music and theater. Comedy was open to them, as was, to a certain extent, poetry and literature. They could sing their spirituals. But the classical concert stage was the...
31 The Four Harmony Kings
Male quartets specializing in close harmony were quite popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Today we think of this style of singing as “barbershop,” but there were many variations at the time and almost every type of music was performed by quartets. African Americans were well represented in the field. As one early study...
32 Broome Special Phonograph Records
One of the more exciting recent developments in the study of early black recordings is the discovery of the first black-owned and -operated record label. That label was long assumed to be Black Swan Records, founded in 1921 by Harry H. Pace, the publishing partner of W. C. Handy, which made its name in the field of jazz and...
33 Edward H. Boatner
George W. Broome’s Broome label preserved the artistry of several black musicians who were pioneers in introducing African Americans to the world of concert music during the first half of the twentieth century. One of these, Edward Hammond Boatner, was best known as a composer, arranger, and choral director. He was...
34 Harry T. Burleigh
Harry T. Burleigh was perhaps the most prominent figure in the world of black concert music in America during the early twentieth century. He is known today primarily for his arrangements of Negro spirituals, which are still used, but he was also a composer of art songs and, in his day, a baritone of considerable renown. He is also...
35 Florence Cole-Talbert
One of the first wave of African American women to achieve success in the twentieth- century concert hall was Florence Cole-Talbert, a young soprano from Detroit who was active from the mid-1910s to 1930. Many of her fellow vocalists and instrumentalists were never recorded due to the reluctance of the record companies at the...
36 R. Nathaniel Dett
One of the most eminent black musical figures of the early 1900s was pianist, composer, and academic Robert Nathaniel Dett. Best known as a choral conductor and composer of piano pieces, he spent much of his life advocating the preservation of black folk music, both in its original form and by incorporating it into newly...
37 Clarence Cameron White
Black concert music and recitals during the early 1900s constituted a small but growing field, separate and segregated from the much larger white concert world. It had its own “stars,” among them tenor Roland Hayes, baritone Harry T. Burleigh, pianist R. Nathaniel Dett, and a bevy of black sopranos, including E. Azalia Hackley...
Part Six Other Early Recordings
38 Miscellaneous Recordings
In a field ignored as long as that of early black recording artists, it is inevitable that there would be oddities, lost recordings, and more than a few mysteries. I am not certain whether all of the following recordings—or even some of the artists—actually existed. We explore their stories in the hope that future research will turn up...
Appendix: Caribbean and South American Recordings
Select CD Discography