Archive for the Ragtime Category

Stars of Vaudeville #30: Sissle and Blake, The Dixie Duo

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Music, Ragtime, Singers, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2009.

(Today is the birthday of Noble Sissle). 

Apparently composing ragtime causes you to live to be a hundred. Like Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake also managed to hit the century mark, lucid until the end – which was merciful, for his last decade saw a great groundswell of interest in his long-neglected work.

He was born James Hubert Blake, in Baltimore in 1883. The son of former slaves, he was one of eleven children born to his mother, and the only one to make it out of infancy. His parents bought an organ for him on time when he was six; the church organist gave him lessons. His folks were strict, god-fearing people. He was allowed to play only serious music: classical pieces and hymns. Syncopation was considered sensuous and evil, so when he began to pick up ragtime, he had to do it on the sly. At age 15, he was thrown out of school for fighting over a girl. He started playing in saloons and bawdy houses, a scene where he met and traded musical tips with fellow professors. In 1901, he joined Dr. Frazier’s Medicine Show, where he played melodeon and buck danced on the back of a wagon. In 1906, he began working at the Goldfield Hotel, newly built by boxer Joe Gans, and a vast step up in atmosphere and salary from the sporting houses where he’d been working. By now, he was composing his own rags and waltzes, equally influenced by the new sounds coming out of the African American community and the work of white composers like Leslie Stuart, who was responsible for the hit show Floradora.

In 1915, he met Noble Sissle, a lyricist and singer. Sissle had known rare advantages in his native Indianapolis. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother a schoolteacher. He went on to attend Butler University, where he sang in glee clubs. He was singing at the Severin Hotel in Indianapolis when he was spotted and hired for a gig in Baltimore.

Sissle and Blake hit it off immediately. They turned out a few songs at this meeting, one of which “It’s All Your Fault” was performed by Sophie Tucker. Then Sissle got an engagement performing with the Bob Young Sextette at the Palm Beach Hotel. This brought him into contact with high society, where he got to know Vernon and Irene Castle and others. While performing at a Nora Bayes benefit with James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the group was spotted by Edward Albee, who booked them for a date at the Palace. They were the first African American act to play that venue in evening dress and without burnt cork.

Sissle enlisted in World War I, serving as a drum major with the Europe outfit in France, where he wrote several patriotic tunes. Upon their return in 1919 bandleader Europe was stabbed to death by a jealous rival, so Sissle finally teamed up with Blake. They cooked up an act for vaudeville, with Blake at the keyboard, and the two of them singing their compositions together. From Sissle’s society gigs, they retained the idea of wearing tuxedos. A trademark that made them stand out, for in this era, it was customary for African American acts – even if they weren’t comedians – to be dressed in overalls, with straw hats and bare feet.

They opened in Bridgeport and were a smash. Within the week, they went to the Harlem Opera House and then to the Palace. They stopped every show they played along the Keith circuit.

In 1921 they wrote and produced their first full length Broadway show. Shuffle Along proved to be one of the defining events of the jazz age, a huge hit, running over 500 performances. The cast included Josephine BakerFlorence Mills and Paul Robeson. Hit songs included “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, “Love Will Find a Way” and “Memories of You”. They toured the country with the show for two years and then opened In Bamville (renamed The Chocolate Dandies. This one didn’t do so well, so they went back to vaudeville and presentation houses. In 1925 they spent 8 months touring England and France. When it was over Sissle wanted to remain and Blake did not. And that was that. Sissle continued to tour Europe with his own bands. Blake came back to the U.S. and worked with various partners and writing songs for revues such as Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1930.

Sissle and Blake teamed up again for Shuffle Along of 1933 with a whole new batch of songs, but it did not fare well. The men continued to write, perform and record, but with ever diminishing success over the years. The success of Sissle and Blake was definitely of a time and of a place – the Harlem Renaissance. In 1948, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” revived in popularity when Harry Truman used it for his campaign song.

Sissle passed away in 1973, just as the soundtrack to the successful movie The Sting (composed by Scott Joplin) was reviving interest in ragtime. Interest in the team’s work grew out of this revival. Blake played a role in a TV movie about Scott Joplin in 1977. A Broadway show called Eubie! opened in 1978, running 439 performances, earning the nonegenerian a profile segment on the CBS magazine program Sixty Minutes. Blake passed away in 1983. He had been retired for one year.

Here’s an extreme rarity: Sissle and Blake in one Lee De Forest’s early sound experiments from 1923!

To find out more about silent and slapstick comedy, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #741: J. Russel Robinson

Posted in African American Interest, Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Music, Ragtime, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on July 8, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of J. Russel Robinson (1892-1963). (He spelled his first name without the customary second “L”.) Posterity knows him best as the composer of scores of ragtime and early jazz songs, including “Margie”, “Eccentric” and “Palesteena”. For most of the second decade of the twentieth century the Indiana native toured vaudeville in a duo with his brother called, aptly enough, the Robinson Brothers. In 1919 he joined the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as piano player (adding many of his original compositions to their repertoire), and then worked for W.C. Handy’s publishing company, co-writing many tunes with Handy.

Here’s a player piano roll  “Margie” (1920):

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Stars of Vaudeville #712: Tony Jackson

Posted in African American Interest, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Music, Ragtime, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on June 5, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Tony Jackson (1876-1921). This seminal musician came up in the Storyville section of New Orleans, where from his teenage years he was to be one of the most sought after piano players in town, and an influence on the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Clarence Williams. He played in honky tonks, bordellos, saloons and vaudeville houses, and was one of the key figures that helped bring what came to be known as jazz northward when he moved to Chicago in 1912. The most famous song to come from his pen was the standard “Pretty Baby”, the original lyrics to which, legend has it, were written to his male lover. He died without having made any recordings.

To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Scott Joplin Memorial Tomorrow

Posted in African American Interest, Music, Ragtime with tags , , , on May 24, 2013 by travsd

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May 25 in Queens, New York  2:00 pm

MEMORIAL CONCERT AT JOPLIN’S FINAL RESTING PLACE

Featuring the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
St. Michael’s Cemetery, Queens, New York  ~ FREE! ~
Telephone: 718-278-3240
Email: edberlin@optonline.net
Produced by noted Joplin biographer Edward A. Berlin, author of  King of Ragtime
Website: www.stmichaelscemetery.com
Pre-concert presentation by Dr. Berlin at 1:15 pm in the Chapel

Will Marion Cook

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Dance, Music, Ragtime, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on January 27, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Will Marion Cook (1869-1944).  He was emphatically not a vaudevillian, although there’s nothing about a serious musical training (he studied with Dvorak among others) that would have prevented that.  He rates a shout-out here for composing several seminal African American musical theatre shows, many starring important artists like Walker and Williams. Among them: Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) and In Dahomey (1902), the first all African-American show on Broadway.

What’s the “cakewalk”, you say? Why, this is the cakewalk:

Your ancestors would be astounded to learn you didn’t know! At any rate, as it happens, February is Black History Month. Please check in here starting next Wednesday and throughout the month for daily posts on African Americans in vaudeville!

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville # 409: Brooke Johns

Posted in Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Ragtime, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on December 24, 2011 by travsd

Vaudeville’s premiere jazz banjoist Brooke Johns (born this day in 1893) was already playing and singing in small time when the First World War broke out. He entertained in the Navy during the conflict, then came back to play night clubs, big time and presentation houses, through 1934 when he retired (for a time) to run a restaurant in the Washington DC area. For a time during his peak years he was partnered with Ann Pennington. In later years he was to host local radio and tv programs. He passed away in 1987.

Here he is with his orchestra performing “Take Oh Take Those Lips Away”

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #300: James Reese Europe

Posted in African American Interest, Marches, Music, Ragtime, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2011 by travsd

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“No inconsiderable part of our success was due to his wonderful playing…”

— Irene Castle

James Reese Europe (born today in 1880) can be thought of as the W.E.B. DuBois of American music, not just an accomplished musician, but a relentless teacher, theorist and advocate for the cause of widespread acceptance of African Americans as the equals of whites in the field of serious music.Europe had studied music seriously as a youngster in Washington, D.C., moved to New York, and quickly made a name for himself organizing bands for society parts, which is where he met Vernon and Irene Castle, who hired him to be their musical director.

Not surprisingly, the Europe Orchestra and their alumni were among the first African Americans to tread the vaudeville stage without the mask of burnt cork. Dressed in evening clothes, this crack ensemble of highly trained musicians infused their music with elements of ragtime and what was then coming to be known as jazz. Two of its more sophisticated alumni, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (author of “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) would form their own team called the “Dixie Duo” and become Palace headliners themselves, in addition to creating the seminal Broadway show Shuffle Along. Others he collaborated with included Walker and Williams, Cole and Johnson, Will Marion Cook and Ernest Hogan.

When the U.S. entered the World War in 1918, Europe further distinguished himself by organizing an all-black regimental band. This patriotic group bravely entertained doughboys throughout the theatre of war until the armistice, at which point they returned home for a triumphant U.S. tour. It was on the last performance of that tour in 1919 that one of his own musicians, over some perceived slight, stabbed Europe to death.

For more on Europe’s incredible contributions, go here.

And here he is with his orchestra playing the Castle House Rag (named of course in honor of the dance team who helped put him on the map). The Castle House was the name of their dance school:

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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