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Retelling the History of Black Music: When Black Pop Blew Up the First Time

Bessie Smith

Black cultural activity exploded during the 1920s. By the end of that decade, modern black pop had established itself as a cornerstone of American culture.

If you think that Bert Williams and his turn-of-the-century cohorts on the black stage didn’t do much more than sing and dance and tell comic yarns that make us uneasy in our educated, racially enlightened modernity, think again. It may have been all fun and games on stage, but once the curtain dropped it was back to strictly business. (See Retelling the Story of Black Music: Bert Williams, Godfather of the Black Stage & Studio)

They formed self-help organizations, gave nary an inch in negotiations with white theater owners and bookers, and wrote extensively and seriously about the plight of the black entertainer. They attempted to use their skills, their ambitions and their moxie to represent alternative, positive images of black people, and pave the way for future opportunities.

Many of their dreams came true down the line (alas, Williams and Walker wouldn’t live to see those days). A generation after the major Williams-Walker hits, black entertainment was far more prevalent in American culture than anyone might have expected. In the 1920s, America experienced its first wave of black talent bum-rushing the mainstream landscape. The millennial pioneers weren’t directly responsible for that success, but they laid down the foundation of modern black pop culture.

Not only was the early black musical theater the place where performers made their name, it was also a venue for songwriters. Williams and Walker, Hogan, Will Marion Cook, Dunbar, the Cole-Johnson brothers team, and others on the scene wrote material for musicals and vaudeville productions. But Williams and Walker were one of the few theatrical performers to record the big numbers from their shows (Williams recorded more than 60 songs and comic monologues for Columbia and Victor between 1901 and 1922).

Back then, devices for playing recorded music were cutting-edge consumer entertainment technology. Pianos were far more prevalent in homes and drawing rooms. Thus, sheet music sales became the first way for artists to make money from the sale of music products.

At first, black songwriters published their tunes with white companies. The first black to start his own publishing company was Shep Edmonds, a performer/songwriter who took the money from his 1901 hit composition “I’m Goin’ to Live Anyhow, Till I Die”, and formed a firm named for Crispus Attacks, the black man who was the first American to be killed in the Revolutionary War. The Attacks Music Company published several popular Williams-Walker tunes, including “Nobody”, thus ensuring solid value for the relatively small catalog.

Edmonds sold the business in 1905 to Cecil Mack’s Gotham Music Company, another black-owned publishing house. Mack (born Richard McPherson) had racked up some minor hits as a songwriter, and parlayed that paper into buying up a vanity publishing company set up by Cook’s brother, then merged that company with Edmonds’ firm. The renamed Gotham-Attacks Music Company continued to publish Williams’ songs, as well as songs by Mack and other black songwriters. But Gotham-Attacks didn’t have the resources that larger, white companies had to promote its catalog much beyond the northeastern corridor, so many black songwriters took their tunes to one of those firms (including Williams himself, by 1909). By the end of 1911, Gotham-Attacks was no more.

In the millennial heyday of black musical theater, hit songs came from shows, or soon found their way into one (like “Nobody”). In the 1910s that trend waned, as the musical theater wave wound down and bandleaders emerged to lead music ensembles. Foremost among them was James Reese Europe, a Washington, DC transplant who had served as musical director for Mr. Lode of Koal and other major productions.

Europe was a natural born leader, heading not only musical ensembles but also the first major network of New York black musicians, the Clef Club (there was also the Frogs, a similar association for stage performers; Walker was its first president). Under Europe’s direction, the Clef Club won better work and pay for its members (who were denied representation by the white union, the American Federation of Musicians), and established a reputation for high-quality dance music. Its 100-plus members were dispatched to play gigs across the city, and put on twice-yearly fundraising concerts.

In 1913, after stepping down from Clef Club leadership, Europe formed a new band, and landed a major gig: recording the music for the (white) husband-and-wife team Vernon and Irene Castle. They were the first couple to popularize social dance in America, and preferred Europe’s music above all others. In late 1913 and early 1914, Europe’s band became the first black band to record for one of the major labels; the 1914 session was nominally under the Castles’ supervision, but Europe clearly called the shots. “Down Home Rag” and “Castle House Rag” were major hits, among the first hit dance records ever. Their success cemented a partnership that would last until Vernon Castle lost his life as a pilot in World War I.

Europe also served in the Great War, but just before shipping off in 1916 took on two new band members. Singer Noble Sissle was recommended to Europe, and brought pianist Eubie Blake with him. Blake kept Europe’s band going stateside, while Europe led a popular military band while stationed in France. Upon their return to America as war heroes, Europe’s “Hellfighters” Band recorded a series of sides in early 1919, giving a tantalizing glimpse of the new sound – jazz – beginning to emerge. We can only speculate where Europe would have taken his music: he was killed that May by a disturbed member of his band, and the remaining musicians went their separate ways.

Sissle and Blake stayed together, forming a song-and-dance vaudeville act. In 1920 they met a comedy team, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. In the fullness of time, the four of them collaborated on a stage show, Sissle and Blake doing the music and Miller and Lyles handling the book. The end result, 1921’s Shuffle Along, became a landmark in American musical theater. It ran for 14 months off Broadway, and toured for two years after that (at one point there were three touring companies out with the show). Among the bevy of great tunes in the show, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” endures as an American classic. It sparked the 1920s wave of black musical theater success, and helped Josephine Baker and Florence Mills, among others, along their paths towards stardom.

Yet Shuffle Along might have met the same fate as the Williams-Walker hits of the prior generation – that is, obscurity – were it not for another wave of black musical theater breakthroughs. In the '70s, shows like Pippin, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar and Ain’t Misbehavin’ recalled the great song-and-dance spectacles of the ‘20s. Lo and behold, it was soon discovered that Blake was still alive and well. He became the loveable symbol of a bygone era, and obliged us all with stories from the good ol’ days, living just long enough to reach 100 years young (singer Alberta Hunter, another veteran from the ‘20s, also enjoyed a second turn in the spotlight during the late ‘70s).

Such was the notoriety Blake received, and the lack of awareness surrounding his predecessors, that Shuffle Along was wrongly felt to be the first successful black musical. Too bad no such revival ever visited the creators of Sons of Ham or In Dahomey.

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