African American Performers on Early Sound Recordings, 1892-1916
Finding music by African Americans on early phonograph records is more difficult than one might surmise. Black artists rarely performed on early recordings. Racial prejudice may only be a contributing factor.
Although black singers and musicians were well known, in its early years, the recording industry was not looking for known artists. At its inception, beginning in the 1890s, it was the song that sold a record and not (with some exceptions) the artist.
Talent scouts from the record companies were on the lookout to recruit anybody with a good clear voice and good diction. Recruits were trained to utilize the various techniques of making a successful recording–such as backing away from the recording horn at loud passages to avoid “blasting.”
There was no need to seek out famous stage artists. The Berliner, Edison, and Columbia companies of the 1890s had established a cadre of professional white “recorders” able to render both up to the minute hits as well as old favorites–and for a lower fee than a famous performer required. These white recorders could also reproduce the works of African-American performers with “authentic” dialect. So why hire Ernest Hogan, Cole and Johnson, Williams and Walker, and others when the in-house talent could do the job? Besides, many artists famous for their strong stage voices did not record as clearly as the professional record makers.
Earliest Black Recording Artists
In 1890 George W. Johnson became the first African American to record commercially. A common story is that Johnson, a former slave, was discovered singing on the streets of Washington, D.C., by Berliner recording agent Fred Gaisberg. Gaisberg himself perpetrated this myth along with the falsehood that Johnson was later hanged for murdering his wife.
According to historian Tim Brooks, Johnson was a familiar figure in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and made his first commercial recordings in the spring of 1890 for the Metropolitan and New Jersey Phonograph companies. Previously, Johnson had also made tin foil exhibition recordings. Later in 1890, a group called The Unique Quartette followed Johnson into the recording studio. The Unique Quartette recorded again in 1893, and one of their titles, “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” survives in stunning fidelity.
In 1891 banjoist and raconteur Louis “Bebe” Vasnier recorded several titles for The Louisiana Phonograph Company. At least one of his “Brudder Rasmus” sermons survives, albeit barely audible.
George W. Johnson continued recording throughout the 1890s and eventually was recorded by Berliner, Edison, and Columbia. Johnson’s specialty was “laughing songs” done in the popular “coon” manner. It is not surprising that Johnson’s jocular performances seem restrained in dialect and stereotype compared to white singers of “coon songs” such as Billy Golden. Golden’s broad black caricature, while polished, was undignified.
Williams and Walker
The earliest representative of African-American performers on this site is George Walker (“Her Name’s Miss Dinah Fair”). Walker, along with his partner Bert Williams, were perhaps the most famous (to both black and white audiences) black entertainers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the summer of 1897 they played many of the first class vaudeville houses in New York City.
In October 1901 Williams and Walker made the first of their 15 recordings (both as soloists and a duo) for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Along with comic George W. Johnson, The Dinwiddie Colored Quartette, and a few other persons, they were the only black recording artists to be advertised by a national company until the Fisk University Jubilee Singers recorded for Victor in 1909.
The Victor sessions yielded only three Walker solos compared to two duets with Williams and Williams’ eight solo recordings. These recordings are extremely rare today. The early stampers for the making the discs wore out quickly and often necessitated the artists returning to re-record the selections.
Because of Williams and Walker’s extremely busy schedule and also perhaps because of George Walker’s reluctance to record (it is said that he detested the way his voice sounded on recordings), Victor did not record Williams and Walker after their November 1901 session. Another factor likely contributing to the limited number of recordings was the expense involved in bringing in big stars such as Williams and Walker.
In 1906 with the advent of their show Abyssinia, Williams and Walker were engaged by The Columbia Record Company. Bert Williams performs solo on most of these recordings. There is only a single title recorded by the pair, “Pretty Desdemone”; this was actually issued in two separate performances, one each on cylinder and disc. There were no solos by Walker. His biggest stage hit, “Bon Bon Buddy,” was later recorded for Victor by the white tenor, Billy Murray.
Around 1911, the artist became a bigger draw than the song. After the illness and death of George Walker, Bert Williams appeared in one book musical, Mr. Load of Koal. He then joined the Ziegfeld Follies and became a regular. Once he was a part of Ziegfeld’s company, his popularity soared and he became one of Columbia Records’ biggest sellers. Williams’ repertoire had grown greatly and still mainly consisted of works by African Americans such as Will Vodery, Alex Rogers, and himself. But after 1911, the public bought Bert Williams’ records to hear Bert Williams, the star.
Black Composers, White Performers
There were other black performers whose fame rivaled Williams and Walker, such as Ernest Hogan and the team of Cole and Johnson. However, as far as is known, the latter did not make records. Their compositions, however, were represented on recordings by white vocalists and instrumental ensembles. For example Hogan’s outrageous and misunderstood “All Coons Look Alike To Me” was recorded for the Edison Company by baritone Arthur Collins.
Arthur Collins (1864-1933) was one of the most prolific recordings artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His specialty was “coon songs” sung in dialect and frequently in partnership with Byron G. Harlan (1861-1936). Collins recorded many selections associated with Bert Williams including Williams’ famous “Nobody.” He also recorded several Williams’ specialties that Williams never recorded such as “That’s a Plenty” (not the jazz standard), a song that Williams introduced in the 1909 production Mr. Load of Koal.
Not all vocal recordings of compositions by African Americans were stereotyped dialect. J. Leubrie Hill’s “At the Ball That’s All” was charmingly sung by white vaudevillians Harry Mayo and Harry Tally for the Edison Company. “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a smash hit by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, was treated rather artistically for Victor Records by stage star Marie Cahill. Other exceptions include the melodramatic ballads of Gussie L. Davis, composer of “My Creole Sue” and “In the Baggage Coach Ahead ” (1896).
Bob Cole (1868-1911) and J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) were extraordinarily successful songwriters and performers. Their vaudeville act was performed in elegant evening clothes and was devoid of caricature. A frequent third member of their team was Rosamond’s older brother, James Weldon (1871-1938).
One of the popular songs by Cole and Johnson was a comic Irish caricature entitled “Oh Didn’t He Ramble.” Committed to wax several times during the early 1900s by both Arthur Collins and Dan W. Quinn, the song has had a rather long and interesting life. Composed by an African-American duo, it told of the “black sheep” of a New York Irish immigrant family. The wayward son, Buster, had “rough and rowdy ways” and “rambled all around, in and out the town… ’till the butcher cut him down.”
“Oh Didn’t He Ramble” became popular among the black brass bands in New Orleans via the published band stock arrangement. The piece became standard repertoire for New Orleans jazz funerals, played in both the original 6/8 and 4/4 time, as an upbeat tribute to the deceased as the band and mourners leave the cemetery exclaiming that “he rambled ’till the butcher cut him down.”
The Roots of Jazz and Stock Arrangements
Another popular number with New Orleans brass bands was William H. Tyers’ (1876-1924) Carribean-flavored song, “Panama.” This song first shows up on a 1922 record by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (NORK), some 11 years after its initial publication. In their recording, the NORK take liberties with the harmonies and rhythms as originally intended by Tyers. Luis Russell’s romping 1930 version took the piece further away from its source. Thus began a journey of reinterpretation for “Panama” to the point of faint resemblance.
Traditional jazz bands still play “Panama” regularly without much idea of the beauty that was intended. However, the 1923 version by (W. C.) Handy’s Memphis Blues Band made for The Okeh Company is fairly faithful to Tyers’ originally-published stock arrangement.
Tyers composed other Carribean-flavored works that found great success, including “Maori” and “Admiration.” Both works appeared on various phonograph records at the time of their publication. “Maori” was recorded as a piano solo by Mike Bernard in 1913. A vanity recording of “Admiration” by St. Louis pianist Gus Haenschen and his “Banjo Orchestra” was recorded and sold locally in 1916. Both pieces were recorded in 1930 by Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
While African-American composers may not have dominated the world of published music, their music was certainly well-represented. This situation was reflected strongly in the recording industry.
From the early days of the recording industry, many African-American composers had their works recorded. In the case of instrumental selections, the house orchestra or band almost always used the published stock arrangement. Occasionally, this is also true for vocal selections. Fred S. Stone, noted Detroit musician, had his hit instrumental “Ma Ragtime Baby” recorded for Edison prior to 1900. Composer, conductor, violinist, and generally larger-than-life character Will Marion Cook was well represented on disc and cylinder. By 1901 his hits such as “On Emancipation Day,” “Darktown is Out Tonight,” and “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?” were recorded many times over, both in instrumental and vocal versions. In 1914 Cook himself conducted a group, the Afro-American Folk Song Singers, in a Columbia recording of Cook’s black folk-anthem entitled “Swing Along.” They render an enthusiastic reading of Cook’s majestic music that had been used in the opening chorus of Williams and Walker’s “In Dahomey.” “Swing Along” is heard on this site, sung by the Orpheus Male Chorus on Edison.