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Lost Sounds

Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919

Tim Brooks
Appendix of Caribbean and South American Recordings by Dick Spottswood
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 656
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  • Book Info
    Lost Sounds
    Book Description:

    Available in paperback for the first time, this groundbreaking in-depth history of the involvement of African Americans in the early recording industry examines the first three decades of sound recording in the United States, charting the surprising roles black artists played in the period leading up to the Jazz Age and the remarkably wide range of black music and culture they preserved._x000B__x000B_Applying more than thirty years of scholarship, Tim Brooks identifies key black artists who recorded commercially and provides illuminating biographies for some forty of these audio pioneers. Brooks assesses the careers and recordings of George W. Johnson, Bert Williams, George Walker, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, W. C. Handy, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Booker T. Washington, and boxing champion Jack Johnson, as well as a host of lesser-known voices. Many of these pioneers faced a difficult struggle to be heard in an era of rampant discrimination and "the color line," and their stories illuminate the forces--both black and white--that gradually allowed African Americans greater entree into the mainstream American entertainment industry. The book also discusses how many of these historic recordings are withheld from the public today because of stringent U.S. copyright laws._x000B__x000B_Lost Sounds includes Brooks's selected discography of CD reissues, and an appendix by Dick Spottswood describing early recordings by black artists in the Caribbean and South America.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09063-9
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Tim Brooks
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-12)

    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 recording industry in its formative years, from 1890 to 1919, and their recordings reveal much about evolving African American culture during that period. Yet little of that aural history is now available, and less has been written about it. Is this another piece of black history...

  6. PART ONE: George W. Johnson, the First Black Recording Artist

    • 1 The Early Years
      (pp. 15-25)

      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 inept-looking man, who looks back and shrugs as if to say, “Don’t ask me what’s going on.”

      The judge has never seen such a turnout for a case like this. There must...

    • 2 Talking Machines!
      (pp. 26-49)

      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 sound recording, brought him back into the fray. By 1888 Edison had produced an “improved” phonograph, this one capable of producing permanent recordings on wax cylinders.

      Eventually a sales organization called the North American Phonograph Company secured the rights to both Edison’s new phonograph...

    • 3 The Trial of George W. Johnson
      (pp. 49-72)

      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 coverage in a number of major papers, including the Times, Evening Telegram, Herald, World, and Sun. (In addition, the Journal and Tribune had previously carried stories about his arrest.) Many of these stories included tidbits about Johnson’s background. In fact, had it not been for this trial and...

  7. PART TWO: Black Recording Artists, 1890–99

    • 4 The Unique Quartette
      (pp. 75-82)

      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 the group in the early and mid-1890s have survived, in private hands. More may yet be found. They are fascinating sound documents, living examples of black stage quartet performance style more than a century ago.

      After considerable research I have only a sketchy...

    • 5 Louis ʺBebeʺ Vasnier: Recording in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans
      (pp. 83-92)

      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” were being heard in its streets?

      Not much, it turns out. Although it was one of the earliest local phonograph agencies to record, this white-run enterprise stuck to fairly traditional repertoire for its mostly white, middle class clientele. The horn of the legendary Buddy Bolden may...

    • 6 The Standard Quartette and South before the War
      (pp. 92-102)

      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 represent the only surviving “original cast recordings” from that production. They also represent valuable documentation of black quartet stage performance style in the 1890s.

      The quartet seems to have been organized around 1890. Based in Chicago, it spent most of its history touring...

    • 7 The Kentucky Jubilee Singers
      (pp. 103-105)

      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 1875–76 “there was no end to jubilee singers,” and of the 1876–77 season he said, “jubilee singing was by then an epidemic.”¹ In the New York area alone he documented performances by the Hampton Colored Students, the Wilmington Jubilee Singers, the Virginia Jubilee Singers, the Juvenile...

    • 8 Bert Williams and George Walker
      (pp. 105-148)

      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 is the fact that in addition to being a top-rank actor and comedian, he was also an extremely popular recording artist and the best-selling black artist of the pre-1920 period by far. His recordings managed to convey his unique stage persona in a manner that...

    • 9 Cousins and DeMoss
      (pp. 148-150)

      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 has been found. However, it is almost certain that these were Sam Cousins and Ed DeMoss, two experienced if somewhat minor black entertainers who were active on the vaudeville and minstrel stage at the turn of the century.


    • 10 Thomas Craig
      (pp. 151-152)

      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 the century.

      Craig was based in New York and appeared primarily in the Northeast. The first season for which he has been traced is 1896–97, when he toured with the Primrose and West Minstrels. After spending the summer of 1897 in New York, he traveled...

  8. PART THREE: Black Recording Artists, 1900–1909

    • 11 The Dinwiddie Quartet
      (pp. 155-159)

      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 farmers and sharecroppers. More than 60 percent of its citizens were black, and living standards were low.¹

      In 1898 a group of white philanthropists founded the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School (also known as the John A. Dix Industrial School) about fifteen miles south of Petersburg, Virginia,...

    • 12 Carroll Clark
      (pp. 159-172)

      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 also recorded art songs and spirituals. Some of his records—particularly those made for Columbia between 1908 and 1910—were substantial sellers, judging by the frequency with which they are found today.

      Yet, ironically, Clark was one of the least-known black recording artists of the...

    • 13 Charley Case: Passing for White?
      (pp. 172-191)

      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 white circuits for more than twenty-five years and recorded for America’s biggest record label. However, the circumstances of his death—by self-inflicted gunshot wound—are shrouded in mystery. Was it an accident or suicide brought on by the pressures on a man of mixed race who spent his...

    • 14 The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Popularization of Negro Spirituals
      (pp. 192-215)

      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 the prism of minstrel stereotypes. The few black concert performers who preceded them, such as Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (known as the Black Swan), who was active in the 1850s and 1860s, had emphasized standard white repertoire. The great and lasting contribution of the Fisks...

    • 15 Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette
      (pp. 215-234)

      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 perhaps the most direct aural link we have with the music of black America in antebellum times.

      To appreciate Miller’s contribution, it is necessary to separate his music from the social beliefs he espoused. A successful businessman who entered show business late in life, he was one...

  9. PART FOUR: Black Recording Artists, 1910–15

    • 16 Jack Johnson
      (pp. 237-254)

      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 recording studios several times during his heyday, recording descriptions of his fights (including the famous “Great White Hope” fight in 1910), talking about his exploits outside the ring, and giving advice on health and fitness. Not only do we have silent...

    • 17 Daisy Tapley
      (pp. 254-258)

      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 contained female voices. Moreover, if Tapley was the first, it was on the basis of a single duet recording in which she did not take a solo line.

      Tapley’s impact on recorded history may have been slight, but her contribution to the world of black...

    • 18 Apollo Jubilee Quartette
      (pp. 258-259)

      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 announced the first recordings of spirituals by the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers. These represented a major innovation for the record industry, presenting to the public a type of music not previously widely available on record. They were bestsellers. In May 1912 Edison got into...

    • 19 Edward Sterling Wright and the Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar
      (pp. 260-267)

      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 who wanted to get some. Celebrity was not essential for success as a speaker. Any good orator with a popular subject could fill a hall.

      Most “platform speakers” were white, but African Americans understood better than most the value of education (which they had been long denied), and some...

    • 20 James Reese Europe
      (pp. 267-292)

      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 1920s. As it is, we know him primarily from a handful of interesting and innovative recordings. He was the first black bandleader to record in the United States, and his records are fascinating precursors of big band jazz.

      Jim Europe was born...

    • 21 Will Marion Cook and the Afro-American Folk Song Singers
      (pp. 292-299)

      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 of icons of black musical history, though, it is not generally known that he recorded some of his own best-known works.

      Will Marion Cook was born on January 27, 1869, in Washington, D.C., to Dr. John...

    • 22 Dan Kildare and Joan Sawyerʹs Persian Garden Orchestra
      (pp. 299-320)

      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, Kildare skirted the margins of jazz and commercial dance music, and his recordings are a vivid reminder that not everything that came out of New York’s burgeoning black music scene in the 1910s was nascent jazz. The African American...

    • 23 The Tuskegee Institute Singers
      (pp. 320-327)

      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 by artists both black (Will Marion Cook, the Apollo Jubilee Quartette) and white (Kitty Cheatham, Reed Miller). One of the most prestigious black groups to begin recording after the Fisks was the Tuskegee Institute Singers, the first to record choral versions of spirituals.

      Their home base, Tuskegee Institute, was the...

    • 24 The Right Quintette
      (pp. 327-334)

      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, during a period of general realignment of black talent from the musical theater to other forms of work. Black musicals such as those of Williams and Walker and Cole and Johnson were passing out of favor, and many experienced stage performers found it necessary to seek...

  10. PART FIVE: Black Recording Artists, 1916–19

    • 25 Wilbur C. Sweatman: Disrespecting Wilbur
      (pp. 337-354)

      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 what are arguably the first jazz clarinet recordings in 1916 and what are undeniably some of the first, and most popular, “jass” band records in 1918–19. First and foremost, though, Sweatman was an entertainer, and his highly successful career as a vaudeville novelty performer...

    • 26 Opal D. Cooper
      (pp. 355-363)

      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 musicians who brought American jazz to Europe after World War I.

      Cooper was born in Cromwell, Kentucky, on February 3, 1889, to Louis and Ellen Cooper, and grew up in Chicago.¹ His father was in the “mechanical business.”² Nothing further is known of his...

    • 27 Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
      (pp. 363-395)

      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 became a major media celebrity in his eighties and nineties, playing and talking about the ragtime music he loved to a generation far removed from the era in which it was created. He lived to the age of one hundred, and his death...

    • 28 Ford T. Dabney: Syncopation over Broadway
      (pp. 395-409)

      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 Ziegfeld Follies after-theater show, the Midnight Frolic, high above Broadway. Dabney was also one of the most prolific black recording artists of the era, with over fifty sides issued by 1920, more than any other black artist except for Broadway icon Bert Williams. Unfortunately they are devilishly hard...

    • 29 W. C. Handy
      (pp. 410-436)

      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, most of them made between 1917 and 1923.

      Handy is one of those lucky musicians who lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of his early accomplishments, as well as the acclaim of later generations. He also wrote an unusually vivid and...

    • 30 Roland Hayes
      (pp. 436-452)

      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 exclusive province of America’s white elite.

      In 1905 Sylvester Russell, a budding tenor as well as a talented and successful writer, abandoned his concert career after years of struggle, stating ruefully, “there is no financial future for a colored male classical...

    • 31 The Four Harmony Kings
      (pp. 452-463)

      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 commented, “Pick up four colored boys or young men anywhere and the chances are ninety out of a hundred that you have a quartet. Let one of them sing the melody and the others will naturally find the parts. Indeed it may be said...

    • 32 Broome Special Phonograph Records
      (pp. 464-470)

      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 blues.¹

      Nearly two years earlier, however, a black entrepreneur in Medford, Massachusetts, launched a label dedicated to black concert music, which he sold by mail. Fewer than a dozen sides were issued, but what remarkable records they were! The few artists...

    • 33 Edward H. Boatner
      (pp. 470-472)

      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 twenty years old and just embarking on his career when he recorded for Broome in 1919.

      Boatner was born on November 13, 1898, in New Orleans to Dr. Daniel Webster Boatner, a well-educated Methodist minister who moved his family several times during Edward’s childhood as he assumed new positions.¹...

    • 34 Harry T. Burleigh
      (pp. 473-485)

      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 remembered for his contribution to one of the defining moments in American music. It was Burleigh who, as a student at the National Conservatory of Music in the 1890s, introduced the visiting Bohemian composer Antonin Dvořák to the spiritual, inspiring the...

    • 35 Florence Cole-Talbert
      (pp. 486-488)

      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 time to record black “classical” artists. Cole-Talbert was fortunate to record for three different labels between 1919 and 1924.

      She was born on June 17, 1890, in Detroit, to a musical family.¹ Her mother had at one time sung with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Florence studied piano...

    • 36 R. Nathaniel Dett
      (pp. 488-492)

      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 composed art music. Many of his own refined works reflected African American themes. Unfortunately the demands of making a living and supporting his family, which left limited time for creative endeavors, may have prevented him from reaching even greater heights.

      Dett was a Canadian, born...

    • 37 Clarence Cameron White
      (pp. 492-496)

      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, Anita Patti Brown, and Florence Cole-Talbert. Probably the two most prominent violinists were Joseph Douglass, a grandson of fiery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Clarence Cameron White.¹

      White was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, on August 10, 1880, to James and Jennie White.² His father, a doctor, died when...

  11. PART SIX: Other Early Recordings

    • 38 Miscellaneous Recordings
      (pp. 499-522)

      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 more information.

      This chapter examines pre-1920 black recordings that were made for noncommercial purposes (or very limited distribution), unissued recordings, rumored but unconfirmed recordings, records by artists whose identity is uncertain, records by artists sometimes misidentified as black, and miscellaneous...

    (pp. 523-530)
    Dick Spottswood
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 531-580)
    (pp. 581-588)
    (pp. 589-594)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 595-634)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 635-642)