Big Band Days and Singin’ the Blues


The early ‘30s was also the beginning of the so-called “big band” era, and many black composers/performers were beginning to achieve success leading bands, including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. From his work in Shuffle Along and subsequent productions, Blake had established himself as a Broadway conductor, and also had played private dates for wealthy patrons. Hoping to ride the popularity of other African-American bands, in April 1931 Eubie signed a one-year contract with agent Harry A. Romm. Romm was confident he could get Eubie’s band dates and also arrange for a recording session with Victor and a spot on radio. Before sending him out on the road, Romm warned Eubie to “get someone you know to stay in [the] box [office] to see that you do not get the worse of it”—as dance promoters were likely to underreport the attendance in order to pocket a bigger profit. Indeed, by late May, Romm was writing Eubie in desperation trying to collect his share of the proceeds, while also lamenting that the band was not drawing as well as he had hoped.
The band tour revealed that Eubie was a poor business manager, unable to navigate the shark-infested world of small-time promoters. He couldn’t keep track of the cash payments and complained to Romm about the problems he was having collecting his fees. Blake also took little pleasure in trying to keep tabs on the orchestra’s musicians, who were often late to gigs, drunk, or failed to show up at all: “I didn’t like the band. I have nothing against the person that drink. The guys come on the show, I didn’t want that. … I had a boy named George Richmond…everybody thought he was a white boy. He could play the piano. And I give him shots there to play. … He was a tough man to follow. I says, “George take a bow.” Nothing, he didn’t have nothing. The guy was dead. … he was drunk all the time.”
Individual musicians could create problems for the band going beyond tardiness or being unprepared for a gig. Late one night, one of Eubie’s trumpeters, Calvin Jones, got into an argument with two other musicians and was stabbed; he subsequently passed away. The publicity reflected poorly on Eubie’s band and furthered the notion that black musicians minimally consorted with—if not belonged among—society’s lowest members. Eubie’s concern was always to reflect well on his race, so incidents like this were difficult for him.
Handbill for an appearance in Atlantic City for Eubie’s orchestra during the run of Singin’ the Blues.

While still on the road playing dance dates, Eubie was hired to conduct the band for a new Broadway production, Singin’ the Blues, produced by Aarons and Freedley. The producing duo had previously had success with white jazz-flavored shows like Girl Crazy, and were known for their lavish productions. While they wanted Blake to conduct the show, they hired the popular white duo of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields—who had written the songs for Blackbirds of 1928—to compose the music. Nonetheless, the producers included Blake’s name in all of the promotions for the show, as if having him on hand added extra authenticity to their all-black production. This must have been particularly frustrating to Eubie, who was shut out of an opportunity to compose for Broadway.

Billed as a comedy-drama, Singin’ the Blues followed in the wake of the success of Show Boat in dramatizing a story that was not usually the subject of musical comedy. The action was set behind the scenes at a “Negro night club” in Chicago, with the grim murder of its male protagonist bringing down the curtain on the performance. White critics were baffled by its blend of music and drama—particularly in a black show. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle critic repeated the racist trope that it was up to “skillful white producers” to capture the true spirit of African-American life on stage: “[The production] had the air of a thing in which skillful white producers had successfully harnessed the strange talents of the Negro actors, giving the Negro spirit a better setting than it has ever had in the Broadway drama before.” This critic found McHugh and Field’s songs “not so fetching” as their previous more up-beat numbers, although he did note that “Eubie Blake and his orchestra play the[ir] tunes seductively.”

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