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

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.

Ethel Waters

By the time Shuffle Along opened, black music had been irrevocably changed by yet another songwriter with a gleam in his eye. Perry Bradford had been scuffling for years on the minstrel and vaudeville circuits down South and through the Midwest, racking up some minor hits along the way as a songwriter. In 1917 he met a cabaret singer in New York named Mamie Smith, and declared her the right singer for the new kind of songs he was writing.

After pounding the streets in vain for a chance to get Smith into a studio (not even a star as big as Williams could help him get a label exec’s ear), he finally struck paydirt in February 1920, when the Okeh label recorded Smith singing Bradford’s “That Thing Called Love”, backed by the white house band. The label had taken a huge chance recording an unknown black woman singing a style not readily familiar, and barely lifted a finger to promote it, but sales were good enough for Okeh to try the Bradford-Smith team again that August, this time with a black band.

The result, “Crazy Blues”, is one of the most important records ever made. It’s generally considered to be the first blues record, although the word “blues” had been cropping up in song titles (“St. Louis Blues,” for example) for a while. “Crazy Blues” became a wildfire hit in black communities throughout the land (which means that perhaps it’s a good thing that Bradford’s original title, “Harlem Blues”, was changed).

All by itself, it launched the era of the classic female blues singers. Within the next three years, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Bessie Smith would all make their recording debuts after years of performing in nightclubs and on the vaudeville road, and collectively begin to chance the face of American music. (It also proved that for the right products, even poor black folk would scratch up a couple of coins to have a good time, confounding virtually everyone in the recording industry.) Bradford and Smith had hit on a brand new thing, and black pop music – the art form, its audience, and the companies that made and sold it – would never be the same.

Many basic black music histories acknowledge the enormous impact of “Crazy Blues.” But they present the song, more often than not, as something of a supernova, an isolated event that came out of the blue. For those not paying close attention to the growing black pop landscape, it probably was exactly that. In fact, “Crazy Blues” has a definite and traceable linage. As a recording, it is structurally in line with the musical theater/vaudevillian style of the day, but is the first record from that scene to explicitly point towards what we now know as early jazz and blues.

As to its artistic background, its primary creators – Bradford and Smith — have their roots in the black performance world, both in New York and out on the black touring circuits. “Crazy Blues” is a musical achievement, but its heritage belongs to the black stage, the first manifestation of black pop – the world of Bert Williams, George Walker, and a talented, committed and proud group of brothas and sistas we barely even know of today.

In the wake of “Crazy Blues” and Shuffle Along, a thousand black pop flowers started blooming. Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong took Chicago by storm with hot jazz built from their New Orleans roots. Jazz scenes also sprouted in Los Angeles and Kansas City. Chicago welcomed waves of blacks from the South seeking a better life, and the music we now recognize as blues music began to take shape. Filmmaker Oscar Micheaux produced his first race movies, carting prints from town to town and hustling up screenings.

Back in the Apple, the bold young literary voices of the Harlem Renaissance began to emerge and attract critical white patronage. A song from the 1923 Miller-Lyles musical Runnin’ Wild — “Charleston” by James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack – sparked the dance craze of the decade. Black baseball players, frozen out of the major leagues by an odious “gentleman’s agreement,” found an outlet of their own in the newly minted Negro National League; other black leagues were launched later in the ‘20s.

And in 1923 the Harlem nightclub the Cotton Club opened, promising its all-white clientele an “authentic,” exotic black entertainment experience, featuring all the top black music stars. From 1927 to 1931, the house band was led by the former Washingtonian Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. During his Cotton Club engagement, Ellington received valuable guidance in compositional technique from Will Vodery, a black composer and arranger who cut his teeth working on shows during the first wave of black musical theater, including taking over from Cook as musical director on the Williams-Walker show Abyssinia.

Of course, these events aren’t directly connected to each other, and they each have backstories that reach deeper into the history of black culture, entertainment and life than there’s room to delve into here. We haven’t even touched on the southern performing circuit, spawning ground for countless singers and comedians (not to mention the earliest forms of blues music), or ragtime, the dominant pop music strain of the day and precursor to jazz. And all was not rosy by any measure: racism still dictated how and where blacks could work, and not all of the ventures begun during this era lasted much beyond it.

But taken together, they indicate that black cultural activity, which had been bubbling beneath the awareness of white America for years, exploded during the 1920s. By the end of that decade, modern black pop had established itself as a cornerstone of American culture. Somewhere up there, Bert Williams was probably looking upon the whole crazy scene, and smiling.

This multi-part look through some of black music’s back pages began with contemporary performers extracting new possibilities from older styles. We then looked at those who chronicled the growth of the blues, and whether they did a properly thorough and respectful job of it. We met a figure long consigned to the file drawers, who offered us glimpses of a richness we never knew existed.

And now, we’ve turned the clock back a full century, to acquaint ourselves with a legend whose name is probably better known than his work, if not by much. In the process, we’ve become a bit more familiar with traditions not always acknowledged when the story of black music gets told, and crucial periods in the music’s development in need of greater understanding and appreciation.

We could have drilled back further, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s or James Bland, the best known of all the black minstrels of the mid-1800s, but the point’s been made. As much as we commonly know about black music, its major players, its defining moments and even some of its obscurities, there is so much more to discover, so many amazing performances to hear for the first time, so many accomplishments to reconsider now that we’ve learned just a little bit more. For every hole in the music’s chronology this series has filled in, there are five new tangents just waiting to be explored.

There are two options from here. You could succumb to the awe of such a vast legacy, and obsessively seek to fill in every gap, leaving no plotline unresolved, until the precise sequence of how black American music came to be, from African drumming and chanting to those Jubilee Singers all the way up to Lil Wayne, can be plotted out and made clear for all to understand. That’s completely doable, if you’re willing to make that your life’s work.

Or you can take a path far less comprehensive, but possibly much more rewarding and enjoyable. Think of each tributary of the everlasting river of black music as a path to pursue, a road that will lead somewhere where there’s likely to be a fairly cool band or singer or DJ holding it down. Follow one strand of this amazing, ongoing tradition at a time and see where it leads. When you get there, find out who’s in town that night, and get there early to claim a good seat. Order refreshments, sit back, and listen as the music unfolds…

Ma Rainey

Further Reading & Listening

Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919, Tim Brooks (2004) – An indispensable encyclopedia of pioneers who recorded everything from comic routines to spirituals. Also seek out Archeophone’s two-CD companion set.

Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930, David A. Jasen and Gene Jones (1998) – In the world of musical theater, the songwriters were often the bigger stars than the performers; here they get their due.

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924, David Wondrich (2003) – A chronology of American pop that lays out about 70 years of incremental innovations before Louis Armstrong showed up. Archeophone’s companion CD includes “Nobody”, “Crazy Blues,” and other songs referred to in these essays.

A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe, Reid Badger (1994) – A bio of the groundbreaking bandleader and composer. Several collections of his recordings are also available.

Reminiscing with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, Robert Kimball (1973) – A rich excursion in the way-back machine.

Crazy Blues: The Best of Mamie Smith (2004) – Smith parlayed talent, hustle and one history-changing hit into a decade’s worth of recordings, collected on this CD.

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