The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 2 (1893-1922)
Unique Quartette (1893)
The Standard Quartette (1894-1895)
Dinwiddie Colored Quartet (1902)
Afro-American Folk Singers (1914)
The Right Quintette (1915)
Jesse Europe’s Singing Serenaders / Four Harmony Kings (1919)
Excelsior Quartette (1922)
Genres; Earliest Recordings of Religious & Secular Vocal Harmony Groups, Spirituals.
Extensive booklet notes by Tim Brookes & Ken Romanowski.
Includes detailed discography.
Many writers have claimed that few recordings were made by black Americans before the jazz and blues explosion of the 1920s. This is not the case. Black bands, stage performers, street singers, quartets, choruses and even concert artists recorded during the first 30 years of commercial recording, from 1890 to 1919. Some of the more interesting examples are presented here.
The earliest known black vocal group to record was the Unique Quartette, a New York based group formed in the 1880s. Managed for many years by member Joseph M. Moore, they appeared throughout the 1890s as a solo act in and toured with such troupes as the Georgia Colored Minstrels, Primrose and West Minstrels and the comedy farce “O’Dowd’s Neighbours”. Their first recordings were cylinders made for the New York Phonograph Co. in December, 1890, and they were subsequently heard on Edison and New Jersey cylinders. The only surviving example, “Mamma Black Baby Boy” was recorded by Edison in late 1893, and is a fascinating example of black stage quartet performance style more than 100 years ago.
Even better known in the 1890s was the Standard Quartette of Chicago, formed about 1890. This group gained fame as featured performers with the famous “South Before the War”, a touring spectacle of singing, dancing and comedy which depicted the allegedly happy life of the slaves in the antebellum South. The Standard Quartette frequently recorded cylinders for local phonograph companies when the show passed through their cities. Two Columbia cylinders have been found; the first is on DOCD-5061, and the second, “Every Day’ll Be Sunday Bye And Bye” appears here.
The Dinwiddie Quartet was a rather obscure group formed about 1898 to raise money for the small Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School of Dinwiddie, Virginia. They subsequently shifted to Vaudeville, disbanding in 1904. Further information may be found in the notes to DOCD-5061, which contains five of their six known recordings. The sixth, “My Way Is Cloudy”, is presented here.
The Afro-American Folk Song Singers was a mixed chorus organized in 1913 by Mrs. Harriet Gibbs Marshall, president of the Washington (D.C.) Conservatory of Music and directed by the famous black composer Will Marion Cook. It performed in Washington and New York during the winter of 1913-1914, and in March 1914 entered the Columbia studios to record two of Cook’s most best known songs, “Swing Along” and “The Rain Song”, under Cook’s direction, Baritone Harry T. Burleigh and actress Abbie Mitchell frequently appeared with the Singers in concert and may well be on these recordings. These Cook’s only known recordings.
The Right Quintette was a New York cabaret act formed about 1912 by singer/actor James E. Lightfoot, best known for his appearances in Williams and Walker stage shows. Its members included James Mantell Thomas, who had formerly recorded as a member of the pioneering Dinwiddie Colored Quartet in 1902.
James Reese Europe (1881-1919) was a seminal figure in black dance music and nascent jazz. His New York society orchestra, which appeared with white dancers Vernon and Irene Castle during the dance craze of the early 1910s, was the first black orchestra to record (for Victor, in 1913). During the two months preceding Europe’s death in 1919 the troupe had held a marathon series of recording sessions for the Pathe label in New York, so an unusually wide range of his music is preserved on disc.
The Singing Serenaders, a male chorus whose personnel is unknown, recorded four sides during Europe 1919 sessions. Lead vocals on two of them are by Creighton Thompson and Noble Sissle, star vocalists with Europe’s band.
The Four Harmony Kings was formed about 1916 by showman Will Hann. They appeared in Vaudeville for many years, including a stint with Jim Europe at the time of his recording sessions in 1919. During the 1920s they recorded for Black Swan, Paramount, Vocalion, Edison Bell Winner, Dominion and Gennett. Included here is an uncommon text for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.
At their first recording session the Excelsior Quartette covered the Norfolk Jazz Quartet’s “Jelly Roll Blues” and cut two other “stage” numbers that are redolent of the minstrel tradition: “Kitchen Mechanic Blues” with its “ain’t you glad you’re brownskin – chocolate to the bone” theme, and “Roll Them Bones” which reinforces the stereotype of the black man as a “crap-shooting fool”. Within days the group re-recorded “Jelly Roll Blues” and “Kitchen Mechanic Blues” for the Gennett label, a practice common in the early days of recording when artists generally received an immediate flat fee for sides that were released rather than royalties accrued over a period of time. In another two weeks they were back recording for OKeh, this time beginning their session with six religious pieces that seem to have been intended mainly for white consumption. All six titles were standards of the “jubilee quartet” repertory including hoary chestnuts like “Nobody Knows The Trouble I See” and “Golden Slipper”. “l Am The King Of The Sea” includes the verse:
“Mind my sister how you walk on the cross (Crossing the Red Sea)
Your foot might slip and your soul’ll be lost”
Their last session was in May 1922 for Harry Pace’s black owned and operated Black Swan label where they re-cut “Coney Island Baby” and the ever- popular “Jelly Roll Blues”. It should be mentioned in passing that the Excelsior Quartet cited in the black press in 1890 (see “100 Years From Today” by Lynn Abbott, Ray Funk and Doug Seroff -78 Quarterly No. 6) are not the same group as on this compilation, but an earlier quartet operating out of Denver, Colorado with wholly different personnel.