Josephine Baker


When Shuffle Along opened in Boston (after its successful run in New York), The Boston American praised the production, singling out a “chorus girl who literally ‘walks off with the show’…not by mere beauty…but by her comedy dancing.”  Although not cited by name, this clearly refers to the huge impression made by Josephine Baker, who first joined the main company in Boston.  Baker would become the surprise hit of the show, despite having a nonspeaking role.

The show’s creators were initially reluctant to hire Baker when she auditioned for the original company.  Sissle remembered: “We had turned her down when she tried out for us in Philadelphia because she was not yet sixteen. We had wanted to hire her but by law we couldn’t. She was heartbroken. We produced a number-two company to play one-nighters throughout New England while we were still in New York.  Word got back to us that a comedy chorus girl had joined the company after we had rehearsed it and sent it out on the road—it was Josephine. She had slipped out on the road to join that company because she thought we didn’t like her or want to hire her. How glad we were to get her back.”

The cast of Shuffle Along performing “Bandana Days,” including Adelaide Hall (kneeling front center) and Josephine Baker (kneeling, third from right)

Baker’s memory of the audition was even more traumatic.  She related: “I found myself face to face with Mr. Sissle, a thin man with a full head of hair.   Mr. Blake, plump and bald-headed, sat at the piano, his nose buried in his music.  He never once opened his mouth.  Nor did Mr. Sissle waste words.  ‘Too young,’ he snapped.  I began my usual routine.  ‘But I’m seventeen…’  ‘Sorry.  Too small, too thin, too dark’ …. Sissle wanted his chorus to look like Tillers, a highly successful white company…”  The Tiller Girls were a popular white chorus line of the day.  Baker felt that Sissle was “ashamed” of his race, but he would have argued he simply was trying to break into the white theatre world.

While the show was still in New York, Al Mayer hired Baker for the touring (or second) company.  She was finally given her chance on stage as one of the chorus. After one of the chorus’ numbers, she broke free and started dancing wildly. The conductor tried to keep time but she was out of control. The stage manager fired her on the spot.  Blake called the theatre to inquire about how the show was doing and was told that Baker was fired. Blake asked, “How did the audience react?” The stage manager told him that the out-of-town audiences thought she was terrific. Blake immediately responded, “Put her back in.”

Her success on the road secured her a place in Boston.  And from the time she set foot on the stage, audiences adored her. As Sissle related, “Every place we went, people buying tickets asked: ‘Is the little chorus girl here who crosses her eyes?’ In time she became the highest paid chorus girl of her day….”

Josephine Baker doing a comic dance number in Chocolate Dandies with an unidentified banjo player, 1924.

Now a full member of the company, Baker really started to shine, with many other critics noting how her comedic dancing was making her a star of the show.  In a review titled “A Chorus Girl, But Can’t Be Overlooked,” one critic enthused: “Where the best part of a capacity house singles out one little girl in the chorus and gives her attention every time she appears, it shows the recognition of qualities such as stars are made of.  There is a little girl like this in the all colored musical success “Shuffle Along” …  A sturdy youngster, with a comedy way that asserts itself in everything she does … her name is Josephine Baker.  Jolly as she seems to be in her work, the stage romping is serious business with Josephine.  She has to work to help support her mother and little brother at home in Washington, DC.” Typically, this white critic emphasizes that Josephine only took to the stage to help support her family, giving her an “honest” motive to pursuing what many viewed as the scandalous life of a traveling actor.



Miller and Lyles and Runnin’ Wild


After the great success of Shuffle Along, tensions developed between the creative team of Sissle and Blake and Miller and Lyles. Sissle had served more or less as the foursome’s voice with the show’s white producers; the comedians suspected that he was taking advantage of the situation, and taking a bigger cut than he deserved.  Meanwhile, Sissle and Blake as songwriters were earning additional income from music publishing and recordings that Miller and Lyles did not share.  The comedians decided to abruptly quit the touring production of Shuffle Along in late May 1923 to launch their own version.

Promotional brochure for Runnin’ Wild.

In mid-July 1923, George White (of White’s Scandals fame) announced a new edition of Shuffle Along would open in the fall, featuring Miller and Lyles, with music by James P. Johnson and lyrics by Cecil Mack.  The lead duo were to be paid $2000 a week. This was a clear slap in the face to their producing partners, who were planning to continue touring the original Shuffle Along that fall.  After some legal wrangling, Miller and Lyles dropped the Shuffle Along name, and their show would eventually open as Runnin’ Wild. 

Miller and Lyles’s Runnin’ Wild opened in late October 1923, and racked up an impressive 228 performances when it closed in May of 1924. The show sported a huge cast—advertised as a 100 strong—and producer George White promoted the accompanying band as “Rick’s Shuffle Along  Orchestra”—a clear slap in the face to Sissle and Blake.  (Later on, the band was renamed the “Runnin’ Wild Orchestra” after the show was established.)

Even as Runnin’ Wild was reasonably successful, the white audience’s appetite for “negro” productions was beginning to lag.  Many white reviewers expressed at best lukewarm enthusiasm for Runnin’ Wild on its opening, complaining that the earlier shows had set the standard so high that the only option for new productions was to be even faster and funnier—which could overwhelm the audience.  The critic in the Brooklyn Eagle wrote: “To arouse new attention, the negro show will be obliged to exhibit even more hysteria, better dancing, and worse singing and comedy than it now possessed.”

Runnin’ Wild promotional flyer.

The critic warmed to only two moments in the show: The singing of “Old Fashioned Love” and the finale, in which “six or seven of the loveliest of the chorus participate.  It is a frame, even as the whites have shown, of brownish girls, which the whites would never have shown, reclining in posture which, for want of a better term, might be called artistic.  They are nearly, if it is necessary to say it…nude.  It is very, very beautiful.”

This reviewer made no mention of what would become the show’s most famous dance number, “The Charleston.”  The dance was performed as part of a medley of fancy steps by the chorus girls and lead dancer Tommy Woods at the close of the first act.  It became a rage in ballrooms, abetted by the quick release that November by Victor of “The Charleston Medley,” described as a “fetching and timely fox trot.”

Of course, Sissle wasn’t about to let his old competitors take full credit for popularizing “The Charleston.”  To his hometown paper, he commented:  “The ‘Charleston’ isn’t as new as some folks might think.  They were dancing the ‘Charleston’ fifty years ago at Savannah, Ga. … because that’s when I learned it.”  Once the Charleston became a fad among white dancers, many others took credit for originating the dance.  It of course incorporated movements that were common in other African American dance forms, so it’s not surprising that it had many claimants to be its creator.

Michael Feinstein Raves About EUBIE BLAKE: RAGS, RHYTHM, AND RACE


We just heard from talented musical theater historian/performer Michael Feinstein, who has just finished reading our book, Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race.  Here’s what he had to say:

“Carlin and Bloom have created an all embracing and unique musical chronicle of Eubie Blake that is compelling, heartbreaking and ultimately joyous thanks to his late life rediscovery. With the use of voluminous first hand research artifacts, they have created a multi faceted account of Blake’s life and in the process, have given us one of the truest depictions of the endemic racism and cut throat culture of 20th Century show business.”

Eubie in Atlantic City


Beginning around 1910, Eubie spent at least part of each summer playing the clubs and bars in Atlantic City.  The town was a hopping summer resort during this time.  “High society” from as far south as Washington and north to New York City and its environs would escape the heat there.  The vibrant night life scene there attracted major pianists from the same area, including younger players like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and legends like Luckey Roberts.

The clubs catering to blacks (and slumming whites interested in black culture) were all centered in a district about 20 blocks from the ocean.  Eubie worked at several spots, notably Kelly’s, which was typical of many small clubs in the area.  Willie “The Lion” Smith recalled it as having a bar in the front room and a backroom with tables seating about 70 or so customers.  In clubs like this, Eubie was exposed to a higher caliber of competitor.  He developed his own set of “tricks” in order to keep them at bay, which led to his first original compositions.  While it’s impossible to date specifically these pieces, it’s likely that Eubie was already performing “Charleston Rag” (which, although he claimed he “composed” in 1899, more probably was developed around a decade later) and showstoppers like “Tricky Fingers” and “Troublesome Ivories.”  While primarily hired to accompany the house vocalists, Blake would play these pieces when they took a break.

Eubie and Avis in Atlantic City, c. 1915

One person who accompanied Eubie there was his soon-to-be-wife, Avis Lee. Before the marriage, Eubie had to pass muster with Avis’ grandmother, who was skeptical about his ability to support her.  “I make fifty-five dollars a week,” Eubie assured her, ”I  can take care of her.  She ain’t going to spend more than fifty-five dollars a week.”  (This was before tips; in 1910, the average worker was making .22 cents an hour, or about $10-$11 a week.)  Avis was skeptical about Eubie’s intentions, so Eubie approached Joe Gans’ wife Martha, who had attended high school with Avis, to put in a good word for him.  Apparently that did the trick, and Avis agreed to travel with Eubie to Atlantic City in the summer of 1910.  Although Avis was two years older than Eubie, she looked considerably younger, leading one of his employers to express concern that Eubie might be charged with transporting a minor across state lines.  Perhaps for this reason, the couple quickly married, and Eubie carried their marriage certificate with him wherever he performed, to show that their marriage was legitimate.

Among the pianists who carefully studied Eubie’s pianistic tricks was young James. P. Johnson. “Still in short pants,” according to Blake, Johnson would sit next to Blake and “cop” his better tricks.  At the time, Eubie ranked Johnson as a good working pianist, a “good house-rent player,” but not of the first rank.  However, Eubie came to regret teaching his better pieces like “Troublesome Ivories” to Johnson: “I’m sorry today that I used to play it for him, because he’d play it twice as fast as I could…” While he had a longer reach than James P., Johnson “could speed faster [with his smaller hands], you don’t have so far to go.”

Johnson was suitably impressed with Eubie’s skills when he first encountered him in the summer of 1914: “I went for a visit to Atlantic City and heard Eubie Blake…one of the foremost pianists of all time…Eubie was a marvelous song player.  He also had a couple of rags.  One, “Troublesome Ivories,” was very good.  I caught it. I saw how Eubie…could play songs in all keys, so as to be ready for any singer—or if one of them started on a wrong note.  So, I practiced that, too.

Atlantic City souvenir-card found in one of Eubie’s scrapbooks.

Also on the Atlantic City scene was Charles “Luckey” Roberts.  Born in Philadelphia approximately the same year as Eubie (like Eubie, Roberts gave different stories at different times as to his actual birthdate), Roberts was one of the most accomplished of the East Coast pianists.  His first hit came in May 1913 with the publication of “Junk Man Rag.”  Luckey said in one interview that he originally composed the piece in 1901 – perhaps like Eubie pushing back the composition date to make the feat seem even more remarkable.  Unlike Eubie’s “Charleston Rag,” judging from an early recording by Roberts, Luckey’s piece depends far more on “tricks” in the right hand, such as rapid sweeps up the keyboard, and borrows more heavily from standard figures heard in other early ragtime and jazz compositions.

“Junk Man” became a hit when its publisher, Joseph Stern, had lyrics added to it.  Eubie noted that he began to hear it performed on Baltimore’s streets by local organ grinders, a sure sign of its popularity.  Following its success, Roberts arranged for Eubie to have his first two published rags with Stern, “Chevy Chase” (promoted as “a rag”) and “Fizz Water” (labelled by the publisher as a “fox trot”).

Daly’s 63rd Street Theater Music Hall


Once Shuffle Along was cast, coproducer John Cort agreed to provide the company with a place to stage the show–albeit one of the least-desirable theaters that he owned.  Located a half-mile from the northernmost point of Times Square, Daly’s 63rd Street Music Hall stood on the corner of Broadway.  It was hardly a well-known space; a critic for the New York Age described it as being “sandwiched between garages and other establishments representative of the automobile industry, [which] was little known to the average Broadway theatregoer.”  The space had a small stage and hardly a backstage at all. It didn’t even have an orchestra pit, so the first three rows were removed and the boxes demolished to accommodate the musicians. Being used primarily as a lecture hall, there was very little depth to the stage. Even though the stage was extended a few feet, most of the dance numbers were limited to being choreographed horizontally across the width of the stage. A makeshift curtain was added and soon the space was a passable theatre.  Blake commented that the theatre, “violated every city ordinance in the book,” adding ironically, “It wasn’t Broadway but we made it Broadway.”

The 63rd St. Music Hall

Previously a lecture hall, the theater reopened in November 1919 as a recital hall for classical soloists.  According to the New-York Tribune, “The name was selected…despite the fact that the term ‘music hall’ has become more or less identified with vaudeville in America.”  The owners, instead, sought to draw on the English concept of a hall for “legitimate” concerns and recitals.  Germaine Schnitzler, a classical pianist, gave the opening concert, and the remodeled theater had a seating capacity of 1062 and 12 boxes seating an addition 84 patrons.  The paper praised the halls acoustics, saying it compared music could be “more perfectly enjoyed than in…the great spaces of Carnegie or … the smaller reaches of the Aeolian.”

Eubie Blake conducting in the make-shift orchestra pit at the theater

In April 1920, the theater had its first association with African-Americans when a film on the subject of William Hayward’s “famous colored regiment” was shown, in a special screening attended by Governor Al Smith. By then, the theater was mostly showing movies, with a mix of political events.  A “Grand Protestant Rally” led to a riot between its members and a rival Catholic group, resulting with the police responding to break up the brawl.  In short, this was hardly a theater with an illustrious history presenting Broadway musicals—nonetheless, within a few months of Shuffle Along’s opening, 63rd Street had to be changed to a one-way to accommodate the large crowds coming to see the show.  The area would be a victim of urban renewal in the 1950s when the new Lincoln Center was planned and built.

The Four Harmony Kings


In the summer of 1921, a close-harmony group, the Four Harmony Kings, were added to the production of Shuffle Along.  The Kings had been touring vaudeville successfully since the mid-teens, billing themselves as “A Symphony of Color.”  The group not only sang but played instruments and even did some comic routines.  The group’s leader, Ivan Harold Browning, would soon replace Roger Williams as the show’s lead while still singing with the quartet.  In a special spot during the second act, the group sang favorites like Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” “Ain’t It a Shame,” and “Snowball.”  But they also undertook sophisticated vocal works including William Horace Berry’s poem “Invictus” as arranged for orchestra by Bruno Hahn.

Four Harmony Kings as they appeared on a British sheet music cover, c. 1925

We can get a sense of the Kings’ vocal style through a record they made while appearing in Shuffle Along: “Goodnight, Angeline,” which was one of Sissle and Blake’s first hits (co-written with James Reese Europe).  Recorded for the black-owned label, Black Swan, the disc opens with a brief piano introduction that may have been played by Blake—it’s impossible to know, although it is similar in style to Blake’s accompaniments for Noble Sissle from the era.  The Kings then perform the song a cappella, in a complex arrangement that reflects standard vocal-harmony style of the era.  Indeed, if you didn’t know their race, you probably couldn’t identify this performance as being by an African-American group.  Not surprisingly, the attraction of acts like the Kings was their “sophistication”; white audiences marveled at the ability of African American vocalists to perform in a “refined” style.

“Goodnight Angeline” performed by the Four Harmony Kings on Black Swan

Blake was elated by the impact of the quartet, again emphasizing their education and the class they brought to the show: “They were sensations. All college men, not only could they sing, but they were very polished and stylish. They came out on the stage dressed in gray evening clothes. The suits were cutaway, and their top hats, ties, and shoes were also matching gray. They had everything. After their performance, Flo Mills had to be behind to top them. No one else could follow—that’s how great they were.”

At one point, Hann took a brief leave-of-absence from the show. The search was on for a replacement who could, if not exactly equal Hann, at least be close to his talents. Browning described how he found the perfect substitute.  He and his wife were out walking with another young couple.  His friend was a recent graduate of Rutgers University, an athlete named Paul Robeson:

When I mentioned to Paul that our bass singer was leaving the show for a short time and that we had to find a bass to replace him, Paul looked at me and said, “You’re looking at a bass singer!” Paul was quite emphatic about it, and when I told him to stop kidding, he said, “I am not kidding; I am your bass.” So I told him to come to the show and see Eubie and me… After Paul sang about seven or eight bars, Eubie jumped up and exclaimed, “That’s the man!”


Paul Robeson when he was a member of the Rutgers’ football team.

However, Blake and his partners were concerned about Robeson’s ability to act.  The young singer had never been on the stage before.  “Both Browning and I agreed about Paul’s voice,” Blake explained. “He was able to learn the songs and small speaking parts in a matter of hours, but moving his massive body around the stage was a challenge. Paul stood out like a sore thumb.” In fact, Sissle commented, “That guy’s too big!”  Sissle was proven right on Robeson’s opening performance. Blake took Robeson to behind the curtain and the two men looked through the peephole at the audience filing into the theatre:

We looked at the audience filling up and I pointed to the spotlight in the back of the hall. I cautioned Paul that when he came out onto the stage, above all, he was not to look at the spotlight, because it would blind him. But, sure enough, when they came out onto the stage, Paul looked straight into the spotlight and was blinded. … He fell right into the footlights, which sloped down into the stage gutter, and pop, pop, pop went the broken lights. … But you know, it never fazed him; he got right up and went into the songs. It takes guts to do what that guy did. I’ve known people who had been on the stage for years and they couldn’t have pulled that off.

Robeson won audiences over and stood out from his partners in the quartet as well as the other cast members.  Blake explained:

The white audiences—they were all white then—liked him.  Paul sang some of Hann’s solos, including “Invictus,” “Mammy” (we sang a lot of mammy songs in those days), Will Marion Cook’s classic “Rain,” and a favorite of Paul’s, “Old Black Joe.” “Old Black Joe” was our last number and Paul just loved it. Paul was still huge on the stage; he was so big that we had him sit down while we sat around him on the stage. But you could see that Paul, awkwardness and all, was going to be a hit, even then.

Early in 1922, Robeson left the company to join the cast of Mary Hoyt Wilborg’s play, Taboo, and Hann resumed his role with the quartet.

The Kings would continue their associate with Sissle and Blake in their next show, In Bamville, which became Chocolate Dandies.  They again drew positive attention from the critics, although not always in the way they might have expected: “The Four Harmony Kings…made an enormous hit and all of these smiling, happy relievers of the world’s care took their honors easily, with no airs, no excitement, no affectation.  Just blessed “darkies,” like they always are when they amuse and appeal and win us over beguilingly because they are entirely different from less human “white folks,” and always belong to the best of us.”  In trying to be complimentary, the reviewer reveals himself to be more than a little racist, or at least supports unfortunate stereotypes about this highly trained musical quartet.  Many white critics praised the show’s “eager to please” singers and dancers, another code phrase for “well-behaved Negroes” who wouldn’t challenge white audiences.

Brown Skin Models of 1955


The 1950s were lean times for Eubie.  After the failed revival of Shuffle Along on Broadway in 1952, it seemed like there were few opportunities to compose for the stage.  However, in 1955, Flournoy Miller’s brother Irvin invited the duo to write and score the latest edition of his long-running Brown Skin Models revue.  These revues combined comic sketches, song and dance, and parades of scantily clad, light-skinned girls that Miller produced as inexpensively as possible to tour the country.  The plan for the new show was to have a slightly higher quality of staging and scenery, with the idea of perhaps being able to attract Broadway interest.  The show was to star Miller and his regular sidekick Mantan Moreland, along with singer-dancers Mable Lee, Canadian-born Valerie Blake, and Lee Richardson, the singing Rhythmaires, and “fourteen beautiful chorus and show girls and Smalls Boykin and his dancing boys.” Blake was to lead a 12-piece orchestra for the show.

Flyer advertisement for Brown Skin Models at the Apollo.

Miller and Blake wrote an entirely new score for this show.  Miller and Blake’s songs were inspired by well-known hits (“Old Man River Is Lonely Now”), as well as crafted to suit novelty numbers (“The Thrill I Felt in Sunny Spain,” designed to accompany a Spanish-styled dance number, and the minstrel-flavored “Mississippi Honey Moon”).  They also crafted a pseudo-spiritual number, “Roll on Jordan,” for singer Charles Riley.

Irvin Miller’s plan was to prevue the show at Washington’s Howard Theatre, before taking it to New York’s Apollo and then on the road, hoping eventually to reach Las Vegas and the West.  He pitched the show to the African-American press as a return to the glory days of high-class revues, like the Blackbirds series that were major hits on Broadway.  As the critic in the Chicago Defender noted:

The attempt to revive the dying Sepia show circuit will rest on the beautiful shoulders of “Brown Skin Models”…On a toboggan since the closing of the Lafayette Theatre [in New York] many years ago, the vaudeville show circuit has dwindled from forty-two consecutive weeks of theater to an alarming one.  Even that one, the Apollo theatre here, becomes none when summer rolls around.  Unless something is done to check the decline the complete death of this once great entertainment and avenue for the development of Negro talent is but a few seasons away.

Flyer/program for Brown Skin Models at the Apollo.

The Defender’s critic suggested that the reason for the decline of interest in African American revues was the lack of “the entertaining family type shows with original music, solid performers and pretty girls which inspired producers to take to Broadway in the past.”  No mention was made of the fact that this style of entertainment—particularly in its broad, racial humor—was becoming increasingly outmoded by changes in society and the growing clamor for Civil Rights.

Despite Irvin Miller’s assertion that the new Brown Skin Models would be a true book production, the only really scripted scene was a sketch by Miller and Mantan titled “The Poker Game” that was probably reworked from earlier routines that Miller had written.  The rest of the show consisted of solo songs and production numbers, a few dance routines, and the requisite leggy showgirls.  At the Apollo, the show was advertised as appearing with “no advances in prices” during its one-week run, with the hopes of encouraging an audience to attend.

When the show had its first performances in Washington, DC, Noble Sissle sent a thoughtful telegram to Blake, Miller, and the cast, congratulating them on their opening:

34 Years ago almost to the month right here in the Howard Theatre four guys with a dream and with no one to disturb them and surrounded by faithful talented cast who believed in them saw their dream become a reality and a gem of an artistic entertainment was born … well here[‘]s hoping that once again within these historic walls there will be a rebirth of that same spirited breathless dancing harmonious soulfull [sic] singing and uproariously clean comedy that will once again bring to the legitimate theater that wholesome original style of entertainment the world is yearning … under the guidance and through know how of Irving [sic] Flournoy and Eubie it should happen.

However, other than the performances in Washington and Harlem, the show never hit the road and there was no interest expressed in bringing it to Broadway.

“It’s All Your Fault”


The best-selling version of “It’s All Your Fault,” with Sophie Tucker on the cover.

Sissle and Blake first worked together through the summer and early fall of 1915 in Joe Porter’s group in Baltimore.  During this period, the duo wrote their first song, “It’s All Your Fault,” with some help from white singer Eddie Nelson on the lyrics.  (Nelson was singing at River View Park at the same time Sissle and Blake were performing there with Porter’s band.)   Sissle successfully pitched the song to vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker when she was appearing in town at the Maryland Theater that August.  Blake admitted that he lacked Sissle’s gumption to approach this major star with their song:

Sissle says, “Let’s take the song up to Miss Tucker.” I said, “Oh, man, you can’t go to Sophie Tucker, the big star. What are you talking about?” He says, “She can’t kill us; let’s try.” Sissle was more aggressive than I was. He was a fighter, he’s a go-getter. I never was that way. If you didn’t like my music, I just took it and walked away, but he argued with you and sell it to you. He was a good salesman. So we went up to see Miss Tucker. …

So Sissle says, “Will you listen to a song?” [Tucker said,] “Yes, yes, yes, go ahead, go ahead.”  She’s a big star, you know. We weren’t nothing. … So we sang it. She said, “I like that song, I like it, I like it.  I’ll get orchestrations made this week and do it.” This was on a Monday. On a Wednesday or Thursday, she had [the] orchestrations ready. We didn’t pay for it. I couldn’t make no orchestrations then. You are supposed to make orchestrations and give it to her if people are going to sing the stuff for you. … [but] she said “I’ll have some boys in the band make an orchestration and we’ll put it on.”

Tucker performed the song on stage on August 21, 1915, which the sheet’s publisher, the Maryland Music Co., proudly announced in an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun.  The ad described it as “A triumph of the country in Songland, an unprecedented success, such as has never been.”  This appears to have been pure puffery, as the song didn’t catch on much beyond Baltimore, according to Blake:

I’ll bet you there wasn’t 10 people in Washington, that’s only 44 miles away, ever heard that song. But everybody in [Baltimore] sang it. We got a hit on our hands! We think it’s a hit. Nobody heard it but in Baltimore. They bought it. I guess it sold about 30,000 copies….

With Bobby and Irene Smith on the cover

It must have been sufficiently popular to warrant several printings, and was available in both a piano-vocal arrangement and a four-part harmony setting for vocal groups. It appeared with at least three different covers, the most common featuring Tucker’s photo.  Another version featured the same basic design but with the sister act Irene and Bobby Smith on the cover. (They also appeared on the cover of “My Loving Baby,” Sissle and Blake’s second published song.)  The only press accounts we could find for the sisters were in 1915-1916 when they were appearing at Baltimore’s Victoria Theater.  They were promoted as ““Two Girls and A Piano; about the neatest musical act you’ve seen!  With novelties!—don’t forget them!”

Illustrated cover with inset photo of Eddie Nelson

A third, fancier illustrated cover featured an inset photo of Nelson.  Advertisements noted that “the man who sings with the [military] band,” Eddie Nelson, was a featured performer; as we will see, Nelson would play a key role in helping to author Blake’s first published song.  The white singer Nelson lived in Baltimore and was “well known to the patrons of the dancing pavilions of many summer resorts” in Maryland.  The cover illustration features a white couple so clearly the song was being pitched to that market–not reference is made to Sissle and Blake’s race.

Unlike many other songs composed by black lyricists in this period, it is not written in dialect, nor is the topic stereotypically “black.”  It is a fairly conventional love song, which could easily have been written by a white composer.  Sissle and Blake’s aim was to write popular songs that would appeal to a broad audience; and while some of their early songs reflect black stereotypes, most are conventional in structure and subject matter.


“Bandanaland” Revue


On May 3, 1922, the New York Clipper ran this notice about a new after-hours revue being staged at Reisenweber’s restaurant/cafe, a famous nightspot located on the edge of the theater district at 58th Street and Columbus Circle:

“BANDANALAND CLEVER SHOW.  The invasion of Broadway cabarets by negro performers proves the sensational success of the all-colored show idea which was inaugurated last summer by the presentation of Shuffle Along at the Sixty-third Street Music Hall, where it will soon celebrate its first year. With the opening last week of a new colored show at Reisenweber’s there are now two elaborate negro shows for the amusement of the after-theatre and dinner parties on Broadway. Reisenweber’s new show is produced by Miller & Lyle and written by Sissle & Blake, producers of Shuffle Along. Most of the musical numbers are special, and some of them are remarkably good. The entertainment is called Bandanaland, and depicts a scene on a Mississippi levee. The entire room used is decorated in keeping with the entertainment, nothing being overlooked which might tend to put the patron in the mood of the show. The floor which is used by the performers and also the dancers is encircled by a number of piles which must have been taken right off the old Mississip’ itself, for they are encrusted with barnacles and similar marine growths. The platform where the colored orchestra plays is built up with rough boards, even the piano being enclosed in what looks like a packing case, all of which follows the general idea.

Charles Davis performs his eccentric dance as the traffic cop in the title number from Shuffle Along.

“The show itself is kept going from beginning to end at the speedy pace which marks the colored entertainer at all times. A number of the performers are also playing in Shuffle Along, including Lottie Gee, prima donna, and several others. Miss Gee is an exceptionally fine singer and has the added embellishment of a strikingly attractive personality. The first number is the singing of a roustabout song by the Palm Beach Four from Shuffle Along, which gives way to a chorus of eight chipper octoroons in Bandanaland. The eight girls are each and every one equipped with individual ability to entertain and get plenty of opportunity to do so throughout the show. May Brown and Garland Howard, two mighty presentable performers, lead this number. After another number by the quartette, the chorus aids W. H. Woodson, a good singer and dancer, in putting over the “Goofer Dust Blues,” an exceedingly clever lyric set to good music. Each of the chorus girls sings a verse about losing her sweetheart, strutting around in a circle in the meanwhile. This number is a real humdinger. Bob Williams and Charles Davis, the latter the policeman in Shuffle Along, do a song and dance in shipshape style, and Williams then plays a piano which is brought out on the floor. This number is about the only one which is slow. May Brown, in a nifty explorer’s costume, sings a number called “The African Boola Dance,” and the chorus illustrates. All of the girls are dressed in tiger skins and do as wild a dance as any jungle ever saw. Mildred Smallwood, a toe dancer who knows how to dance, comes in here and practically stopped the show. Lottie Gee sings two songs in her portion of the show and sings them to the edification of the most critical. The finale brings out the entire company, the girls dressed in brown cutaway suits, built for cakewalking. The number winds up in a fury of action and melody. The decorations for Bandanaland were executed by Charles Cadwalader, formerly art director for the Famous-Players-Lasky Corporation.”

Newspaper advertisement for Bandanaland from April 25, 1922, with typical for the time racist imagery.

Besides advertisements for the show in late April/early May in the New York newspapers, not much is known about it beyond this description.  One notice noted that singer Gertrude Saunders—who had left Shuffle Along for a higher-paying gig—had joined the cast in mid-May at least temporarily for this revue.  A “hula number” from the show was featured at a special charity event at the Hotel Astor on May 9th, in a variety show hosted by Eddie Cantor; Sissle, Blake, Miller, and Lyles also performed separately at this event. The songs mentioned in the Clipper’s notice were—as far as we know—unpublished or recorded at the time, although they may have been adaptations of earlier Sissle and Blake numbers or have been recorded or published under different names.

Earlier in 1922, members of the Shuffle Along cast had appeared at a special Jewish Relief Fund benefit hosted by Sophie Tucker at the restaurant in March.  Later that month, the city sought to close the café for a year based on multiple violations of the Volstead Act—for selling liquor illegally during Prohibition.  While the case worked its way through court, the club operated under a variety of names hosting different revues—including the “Paradise a la Russe Cafe” in early April and then as “The Bandana Room” for the presentation of Bandanaland.  Advertisements for both revues boasted the line that the venue was “Formerly Reisenweber’s,” so few could have been fooled by this ruse—including the government.  In July, an order was finally issued to close the restaurant for a year, but at the same time suspended for six months on the promise that liquor would no longer be sold there.  However, by August there were charges lodged that champagne parties were being held at the “Paradise Café, formerly Reisenweber’s” in the press.




“See America First”


Sometime during the late spring and summer of 1915, Noble Sissle travelled to Baltimore where he was hired as a vocalist by Joe Porter’s Serenaders to replace another singer, Frank Brown, as Eubie recalled:  “[Brown] used to be with [the Broadway composing/acting duo] Cole and Johnson, and he had a very jealous wife.  And they worked in cabarets.  [They] work[ed] in white face.  And when Frank would walk out on that floor, the white women would go, “Ooooohhh.”  And the white men didn’t like it. …  So [his wife] wouldn’t let her husband come to Baltimore.  So Sissle came in his place.”

Dixie Serenaders, c. 1912

Porter’s group had a regular gig at Baltimore’s popular Riverview Park, which city dwellers could easily visit thanks to a regular streetcar line that served it.  The trip took 20 minutes from downtown Baltimore.  The 50-acre park did not charge an admission fee, advertising that the nickel street car fare was all that was required to attend.  In 1915, the Park was totally refurbished, including the installation of a Ferris wheel that was 100 feet tall and featured 3500 electric lights.  Other attractions included pony rides, novelty animal acts (including from time to time dancing bears), a miniature train that ran through the park, and nightly firework displays, along with opportunities for swimming, boating, and even bowling.

The park featured a band shell where military band concerts and singers performed; a separate “Vienna garden” featured a string quartet.  Porter’s “popular group of Negro singers and musicians” performed both in the garden-restaurant area and in the band shell when the featured act, the “Royal Artillery Band, led by the world’s greatest Trombone Soloist, Sig. Salvatore Orriunno” took its breaks.  Advertisements noted that “the man who sings with the [military] band,” Eddie Nelson, was a featured performer; as we will see, Nelson would play a key role in helping to author Blake’s first published song.  The white singer Nelson lived in Baltimore and was “well known to the patrons of the dancing pavilions of many summer resorts” in Maryland.

Sheet music for “See America First,” 1916

Sissle and Blake worked together through the summer and early fall in Porter’s group.  During this period, the duo wrote their first song, “It’s All Your Fault,” with some help from white singer Eddie Nelson on the lyrics.  The trio collaborated on at least one other song published in 1916, “See America First.”  The rarity of this sheet would indicate that it didn’t sell very many copies, even locally. The song’s title was borrowed from a movement sponsored by the railroads and the new automobile association to encourage American tourism; a “See America First” convention had been held in Baltimore in 1911.  Neither Sissle nor Blake ever mentioned the song in later interviews as far as we have been able to determine.