James Reese Europe was a key figure in the development of African-American popular music on the New York scene.  He was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 22, 1880, to a middle-class black family.  The family moved to Washington when Europe was 10, and as a young teen he established himself as an up-and-coming classical violinist.  His teacher was Joseph Douglass, the son of noted African-American author Frederick Douglass and himself a well-known performer in the black community.  Coming to New York to pursue his career in 1899, Europe found the classical music world closed to him due to his color.  Instead, he started to work in local cafes and barrooms, but found it hard to compete as a solo violinist.  In an unpublished memoir of Europe written later by Sissle, he described how Europe struggled in his early New York days as he tried to establishment himself as a musician:

In those days the Negroes who worked for the wealthy white people were mostly singers and dancers, and the instruments they played were mandolins and guitars.  It was this fact that kept [Jim] out of work…It was weeks before he woke up to the fact that it was the instrument he played [the violin] that was keeping him from the “Big Money” he had dreamed of…He was at the point when he must either give up the fiddle or face starvation, so … [he lay] down his favorite instrument and [took] up the mandolin. … Having also been accomplished in piano playing, between the two, he easily got work, and with his organizing ability, it was no longer before he had organized a quartette of players and singers.  Before many months had rolled around, we find him…the official musician in the famous Wanamaker Family, which, as Jim often declared was the beginning of his becoming the society favorite of Music producers in the drawing-rooms of New York’s Four Hundred.

Europe’s quartet often performed in the bar at the Marshall Hotel on 53rd Street, then the major spot for black musicians seeking work to be heard by members of society.  As Sissle recalled:

It was a famous Black and Tan resort that the Elite of New York usually patronized on slumming expeditions.  … there were very seldom any colored patrons there except musicians.  Mainly because the prices charged for wine and food were prohibitive for most colored people.  It was, however, a place frequented by musicians and entertainers…It was well worth while to come in and give their services because Marshall (who was a Negro) would feed them and the money given them by the wealthy patrons [as tips] was a good amount.

John Love, working as secretary to the mighty Wanamaker family, first heard Europe’s group there performing at the Marshall in 1903, and soon hired him to play for the family’s many social affairs, from weddings to farewell parties before the family embarked on its annual jaunts to Europe.  Love noted that “Mr. Rodman Wanamaker was a man of marked tolerance,” a veiled allusion to his willingness to hire black musicians, “but he cannot tolerate mediocrity,” showing that his regular employment of Europe’s band was a reflection of “the excellence of [Europe’s] work.”  Europe probably met the major theatrical stars of the day at the Marshall, and was soon working as a bandleader for Williams and Walker and Cole and Johnson.  He served as musical director for Cole and Johnson’s successful productions of The Shoo-Fly Regiment (1906) and its followup The Red Moon (1908).  In 1908, Ernest Hogan, one of the most popular comedians of his day suffered a nervous breakdown. Europe arranged for a benefit performance to help the ailing performer. The event was so successful the musicians joined together and created a fraternal club, The Frogs, to benefit African-American performers.  Europe became a leading member of the organization, appearing at their annual “frolick” in 1910.  He also collaborated with the other leading black songwriters of the day.

Postcard promoting the Clef Club Orchestra, c. 1916.  Europe is standing to the right. 

Recognizing the poor conditions faced by blacks seeking employment in New York, Europe established a kind of musician’s union-booking agency-concert promotion-and performing organization called the Clef Club in 1910. The purpose was to offer white patrons a central office where they could book the highest quality black musicians who they would know were vetted for both their talent and reliability.  Europe felt it was demeaning to have to rely on chance encounters in noisy clubs like the Marshall Café to find work; plus, he found it embarrassing when asked by his patrons for his contact information only to have to tell them he could be reached only at some lowly barroom.  As Sissle recalled, “It was galling for him…to have to give the address of some café or saloon, because there were many people of that set that would not like to be calling up those kind of places…”  In order to raise money for a permanent home office for the club, Europe determined the best thing to do was to put on a concert that would showcase its members talents:  “He felt sure that from his experience with the [white society] people he had been entertaining,” Sissle said

that a big male chorus and stringed orchestra, with instrumentations such as his fellow musicians had been using, on a small scale ought to prove a big drawing-power for the elite.  That is providing the concert was given in a place that those people were used to attending.  … Jim [en]visioned a crowd and an income of finance that would enable the Club to get its own Club room, and Headquarters, thus putting their entertaining on a more dignified plane.

Europe bought a house at 136 West 53rd Street to serve as the club’s headquarters, which was incorporated on June 21, 1910. The club soon had 200 members (women were not allowed to join or come into the clubhouse). James Weldon Johnson described the Club:

[James Reese Europe] gathered all the coloured professional instrumental musicians into a chartered organization and systematized the whole business of “entertaining.” The organization purchased a house … and fitted it up as a club and also as booking-offices. Bands from three to thirty men could be furnished any time, day or night. The Clef Club for quite a while held a monopoly of the business of “entertaining” private parties and furnishing music for the dance craze, which was just then beginning to seep the country. One year the amount of business done amounted to $120,000.

In fact, the Clef Club was able to organize several grand concerts, with an orchestra numbering as many as 75-200 pieces, primarily made up of banjos, mandolins, and guitars, the instruments most in use by black performers of the day.  These stringed instruments were portable and able to take the place of a piano when some white households wouldn’t let the musicians use their pianos. Europe recalled his frustration trying to get the band together for rehearsal; without offering any pay, he couldn’t be sure that the same musicians would show up each time, and he often had to show the players how to finger the notes of each passage as many did not read music. Europe described how he solved this problem, “I always put a man who can read notes in the middle where the others can pick him up.” In 1910, an ensemble of 100 pieces appeared at the uptown Manhattan Casino located at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, in a concert advertised as a “musical mélange and dance fest.”

“Truckin’ on Down”: Working for W C Handy in the Mid-’30s


In the mid-‘30s, Eubie took a job in the offices of music publisher W. C. Handy, working as an arranger as well as weeding through the submissions of would-be songwriters.  He may have crossed paths with Handy’s secretary, Marion Tyler, who would later become Eubie’s second wife, although Blake did not mention meeting her in the offices.  Handy may have offered Eubie a part-time position and an office out of sympathy for the struggling composer, whose performing and composing careers had both fizzled out due to the Depression.  While Eubie’s band occasionally performed in the New York area through 1936, take home pay was greatly diminished and it was becoming increasingly difficult to support a 9 or 10 piece unit.

“Truckin’ On Down” sheet music cover. On this printing, bandleader Willie Bryant is featured; later printings featured Teddy Hill and his name was added as “coauthor” of the song.

Eubie didn’t give up on composing entirely and drew on Handy’s friendship (and printing press) to try to get back onto the Hit Parade.  In 1935, Handy published a new dance tune by Eubie, “Truckin’ On Down,” to cash in on the “truckin’” dance craze, with lyrics by Arthur Porter.  Blake crafted a typically singable tune that was traded back and forth between the left and right hands in the song’s introduction, leading into a slightly swinging verse.  After its initial publication, bandleader Teddy Hill was “cut in” to the royalties to encourage him to record it.  Although it sold over 1000 copies, the advance to Hill ate up all of Eubie’s royalties.


Advertisement for “Truckin’ On Down” promoted as “Harlem’s latest dance and song classic.”

Handy published another pop number by Eubie, “It Ain’t Being Done No More” and the light classical piece “Blue Thoughts,” which sold a paltry 38 copies in its first year.  Like most of Blake’s works, “Blue Thoughts” featured several memorable melodic themes, but was dressed in the then-current harmonic wrappings of “advanced” music (similar to the work being done by William Grant Still and James P. Johnson in a classical style).




Johnny Hudgins: “Unique and Extraordinary”


Comedian Johnny Hudgins was hired by the producers of Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along followup, In Bamville when it became apparent that the production needed additional comedic talent.  Hudgins was a talented mime and eccentric dancer who had established himself by touring with several editions of the Town Scandals revue that was a popular feature on vaudeville.  Apparently, it was a good idea to add him to the show, because when it finally opened under the new title of  Chocolate Dandies on Broadway, the reviewers reserved their praise for Hudgins’s act.  Hudgins developed a unique mimed routine in which he imitated the sound of a solo jazz trumpet, silently mouthing along as cornetist Joe Smith played bluesy riffs off stage.  This “Mwa Mwa” routine was a regular show stopper for the production.  Smith’s hot playing was also widely admired and regularly drew the attention of audiences and critics.

Florence Mills and Johnny Hudgins in England, c. 1924

Variety’s critic reported:  “Johnny really scored the individual hit…with his peculiar sliding and eccentric stepping and pantomimic warbling.”  The New York Times critic also singled out Hudgins for his “pantomimic performance which was as funny as anything one could hope to witness.  He was the regular old negro type in tattered attire, and his dancing was original and pleasing.”  The fact that Hudgins’ stage dress corresponded with the “regular old” stereotype undoubtedly aided in his positive reception by the white critics.  Besides his dancing,

It wasn’t long before Hudgins’s success attracted the attention of rival producers Lee and J. J. Shubert, who offered the comic dancer double his salary to perform at their Winter Garden theater for Sunday vaudeville shows; The Shuberts coupled this arrangement with weeknight performances in a revue at the Club Alabam, produced by the club’s manager Arthur Lyons.  By mid-September, Hudgins had left the Dandies company for these more lucrative offers.  Producer B. C. Whitney brought an injunction against the Shuberts and Lyons claiming that he had purchased Hudgins’ services from his previous employer, the producers of the show Town Scandals, for the sum of $251; moreover, he increased Hudgins’ salary from what he received in the Scandals from $125 to $150 a week during the show’s pre-Broadway tour, and again to $200 when Chocolate Dandies opened on Broadway.  In his complaint, Whitney explained why he had brought Hudgins into the production: “It became apparent that it lacked a very essential quality in a colored production—the quality of humor and comedy, and I set out to remedy this want and to procure a colored artiste who would be of Broadway caliber…This was a very difficult thing to do.  There are not many colored actors who have sufficient ability to create comedy sufficiently original, spontaneous and pleasing [sic] to a New York audience.”

In essence, Whitney was arguing that Hudgins was a unique talent who provided an act that could not be replaced by anyone else.  Variety commented on this unheard of development, as no “Negro performer” had ever been judged “unique and extraordinary” before.  Whitney’s lawyer went further, enumerating the many ways that Hudgins’ performance was original to himself: “The defendant Hudgins is an actor, dancer, mimic and pantomime comedian of novel, special, unique and extraordinary ability; that he has an original and unique manner of performing a shuffle dance; that he performs negro dances with rare grace and ease; that he goes through the pantomime of singing a song in a most comical manner…and the services rendered by said Hudgins are such that no other performer could be obtained who could perform in like manner.”

Johnny Hudgins’ self-published book describing his act defended its uniqueness and his ownership of his routines.

In order to battle this lawsuit, Hudgins was put into the ironic position of having to argue that he was in fact not “unique” in his performance and could be replaced by another actor.  Meanwhile, the black press was celebrating the fact that the lawsuit could set a precedent establishing that a colored performer could be considered uniquely talented.   Hudgins’ lawyers argued that he had never appeared on Broadway prior to his engagement with Chocolate Dandies and in no way had established a reputation among white audiences.  Hudgins’s name did not appear separately in the show’s advertisements or in its on-sight billing, nor was special mention made of him in the show’s publicity.  Further, Hudgins himself testified that “I am a dancer like hundreds of others among my people, and there is nothing unique or extraordinary in my steps.”  It must have been humiliating for the dancer who indeed had established a unique and applauded routine to have to make this counterargument, but he obviously had no desire to take a pay cut and return to working for Whitney.  In fact, during the summer months when Whitney reduced all of the cast’s members by 25% before the show reached Broadway, Hudgins had refused to sign an amendment to his original contract accepting this pay cut.  His lawyers argued that Whitney’s ruse in effect voided the original agreement, and that Hudgins had the right to sign with another party at any time.  The upshot was that Whitney lost his case, and Chocolate Dandies never recovered from the loss of its biggest box office draw.  Ironically, when Hudgins was performing in London in the later ‘20s he actually published a book describing his routines, copyrighting them as his unique creations.


The Ragtime Revival: Recording for Stereo-Oddities


A key ragtime revivalist who helped promote Eubie in the early ‘60s was the Detroit-born performer/pianist “Ragtime” Bob Darch, who first wrote to Eubie to introduce himself in fall 1958.  Like other performers of this era, Darch was primarily an entertainer, mixing humorous anecdotes, nostalgic songs, and showy and fast ragtime solos to draw a mainstream audience.  His stage presentation was a highly romanticized version of the kind of pianists who entertained in the bars and brothels of Eubie’s youth.  Darch’s larger-than-life personality and attraction to younger musicians is captured in this memory by pop music scholar Ian Whitcombe, who met the pianist in the early ‘60s: “In 1964 I was in Seattle, having established myself as an entertainer in a local coffee house and having parlayed my way into a recording contract as a future rock star with a local label. My recording manager and I were sitting in a swell hotel talking turkey over Jack Daniel’s when my attention was deflected … by that certain sound of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ …   I rushed into the room from whence came the glorious music and there he was! Straw hat and everything, pounding out the good news. To the consternation of my manager I spent the next few days in the company of Ragtime Bob. Songs, stories, jokes came pouring out of this avuncular genius as I followed him around like Boswell followed Dr. Johnson in 18th century London.  I hung on every gravelly word, I vowed to remember the lyric of every song gem that kept falling from him as we walked and talked and drank and drank. … One evening we, together with my local girlfriend, were having dinner in the home of a wealthy local couple when in came their young son to say goodnight. Later Bob trapped me in the wet bar to inform me that the boy was really his son. Even later my girlfriend emerged from the powder room to tell me that Bob had proposed to her. I put the whole matter aside because I so admired the man’s art.”

Joe Jordan and Eubie Blake recording the album Golden Reunion in Ragtime.

In about 1959, Darch was hired as the house pianist for Club 76 in Toronto, where he would become a popular performer through the mid-‘60s.  A year into his employment, he convinced the management to bring Eubie Blake to the club to perform, a rare early date for the pianist as a ragtime player.  This led to a friendship between the two players, and Darch would do much to popularize Eubie and his music among his own audience.  More importantly, he convinced his record label to record Eubie along with two other old-timers, songwriter/composer Joe Jordan and pianist Charlie Thompson, on a 1962 album released as Golden Reunion in Ragtime.  The cover featured the “headline” “Ragtime Bob Darch presents…” along with a small cameo photo of Darch, a clever PR move to get the album into the hands of Darch’s audience who would not know these older pianists’ names.

The album appeared on the small Stereo-Oddities label that was operated by entrepreneur/recording engineer Fletcher Smith out of Florida, far from the centers of the entertainment world.  The label had its initial success with comedy albums and novelties like Darch’s ragtime music.  The Golden Reunion album must have been successful enough that Smith considered recording an entire solo album by Eubie; he wrote to the pianist: “I’ve been toying around with the idea of having you come down here by yourself to do an album entitled EUBIE BLAKE PLAYS EUBIE BLAKE.  These would all be your own tunes whether or not they are ragtime.  We would back you up with about five musicians … See if you can think of 12 tunes like this that would show your career as a composer.”

Smith envisioned the album as representing Blake’s entire career, beginning with his ragtime work but encompassing his later Broadway and solo piano compositions in semi-classical style.  Blake went so far as to make a demo tape, asking for 7 to 10 accompanists for the recording, apparently envisioning a more orchestral setting for his work rather than a small jazz combo.  Whether Smith balked at the extra expense or simply decided the market was too small, the discussions ended in October and no album was recorded.


Marion Gant Tyler Blake:  Part 1


Marion Tyler as a chorus girl in Dixie to Broadway, c. 1924

During World War II, Eubie led a band touring USO camps and hospitals in the US.  After leaving the USO in mid-1946, Eubie settled into his new Brooklyn home with his new wife, Marion Gant Tyler.  Like his first wife, Avis, Marion was light skinned—so light skinned that she could and did pass for white during at least some periods of her life—and came from a middle-class family.  Her maternal grandfather, Hiram S. Thomas, was born a free black man in Canada in 1837.  He found his first employment working as a steward on river boats on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.  Sometime after the Civil War, he came to Washington, DC, where he became a steward at the Capitol Club, befriending many high society people and politicians including Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland.

By the 1870s, Hiram was working during the summer months in Saratoga Springs, New York, a summer retreat for many of the most wealthy (white) Americans.  He began managing Moon’s Lake House, famous for its Saratoga Chips (later known as potato chips).  In later life, Thomas claimed to have “invented” the potato chip, although others have claimed this honor.  By the time of the 1880 Census, Thomas and his family maintained a home at least during part of the year in New York City on West 3rd Street.  The Census taker recorded his wife, Julia A. Thomas, and 8 children at this address, listing them all as “mulatto.”  During the fall months, Thomas was working as a head waiter at a hotel that served “millionaires and blue-blooded families” in Lakewood, NJ.  In 1888, he had achieved enough wealth to purchase Saratoga’s Grand Union Hotel, where he previously had served as head waiter.

By the turn of the 20th century, Thomas was operating the Rumson Inn, located near Red Bank, New Jersey.  Only two of Thomas’ children married, and only his daughter Antoinette (“Nettie”), who married James Gant, produced children.  When Hiram died in 1907, it appears that his son-in-law and daughter continued to run the Inn for at least a while.  Their daughter, Marion Gant, was born on Feb. 11, 1896, and raised in New York City.  Compared to many black families, the Gants were middle class and didn’t have many financial concerns.  Marion spent most summers at the family inn.  She later recalled that: “The summers were the exciting times…There were luncheons and teas and dinner parties on the wide porches of a beautiful gothic house; and lawn parties on the several acres of beautiful landscaped grounds.  At night the lawn would be decorated with electrically lighted lanterns. …  The clientele of the Inn were the social elite of the Jersey Coast.  The dinner parties were followed by dancing and entertainment which would last long into the night.”

Among the musicians who performed there, Marion recalled Jesse Wilson, a “song-and-dance man,” and the Eureka Trio, which played for dances.  We know that James Reese Europe visited the Inn around 1915 because there is a photograph of him there with Marion along with the rest of her family.  Unlike Blake who only attended school through the 8th grade, Marion left school on May 31, 1912, when she was 16 years old.

In 1921, Marion married a violinist named William A. (Billy) Tyler.  Classically trained, like many other African-American musicians of the day Tyler could not find employment in a “legitimate” (white) orchestra.  Instead, he worked primarily in New York City in dance bands and in theatrical orchestras.  Among his engagements, he led the all-black house band at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater in 1913 and participated in W. C. Handy’s first recording session in 1917 as a member of Handy’s “Orchestra of Memphis.”  (Despite its name, its membership was drawn from New York City-based players.)   He also worked at times with Jelly Roll Morton, notably when Morton was working in Los Angeles around 1920; the ever-jealous Morton claimed that Tyler tried to “steal” his band from him.

Tyler’s greatest success came when Lew Leslie hired him to assist conductor Will Vodery for the show, Dixie to Broadway.  This show was developed to showcase the star performer Florence Mills, who Leslie hired away from the original Shuffle Along cast.  “Marion thought it a good opportunity to get into the act, and so became one of the original chorus girls” in the show she later wrote, referring to herself in the third person.   She believed  that Leslie only hired her as a favor to her husband, noting that he complained that she was the only Negro woman he had ever seen who couldn’t dance.  It is possible that Eubie and the Tylers crossed paths during this period, but Blake never mentioned this in any interviews he gave later in life.

Will Tyler subsequently travelled to Paris with Benny Peyton’s Blue Ribbon Orchestra, and the couple divorced.  Marion made a few more appearances on stage, including “a tour with Miller & Lyle’s in “Keep Shufflin’”; a stint in the Club Alabam; a vaudeville tour with Lilian Brown of Brown & Dumont, and a few miscellaneous appearances.”  Never a shrinking violet, Marion filed a claim against the Keep Shufflin’ company in order to get paid for her work. After her brief performing career, “having finished secretarial school before her marriage to Tyler,” Marion went to work in the mid-‘30s as a secretary.  She first worked for composer/musician W. C. Handy’s music publishing company in the mid-‘30s.  Blake also worked for a time as a musical director for Handy from at least mid-1935 through early 1936; it is possible that he met Marion at the Handy offices, or at least saw her there, although he does not mention it in any later interview. After leaving Handy, Marion held several positions with the WPA and Civil Service offices in the area.

By the war years, Marion was tiring of life in New York City.  Working through the Civil Service Administration, she landed a job in Los Angeles in November 1943.  While visiting Los Angeles on one of his USO tours, Blake stopped in to see Andy Razaf, who had relocated to the West Coast.  He met Marion there, but only got to talk to her for “ten or fifteen minutes.  But when he left he asked if he could write to her while he was on the road.”  The fair-skinned ex-dancer was extremely attractive, and Blake was always quick to express interest in a good-looking woman.


Sissle and Blake Go to England


Sissle and Blake, c. 1921

Sissle and Blake spent the summer of 1925 touring on the Gus Sun vaudeville circuit in the Midwest, earning $1000 for 6-7 shows a week, working off their remaining debt from the debacle of Chocolate Dandies.  They followed with a 6-week tour of motion picture houses, during which their agents announced “PROFITS rolled in and crowds went wild at every theatre where these artists appeared.”  Despite their continuing stateside success, Sissle had long hoped to take the act abroad, where the hunger for black entertainment was great and the lack of prejudice also a major attraction.  Finally, they were offered the opportunity to go to London by the William Morris Agency, who booked an extended engagement for the duo at London’s Piccadilly Club for the fall.  On September 25th, Sissle, Blake, and their wives arrived in Southampton, England.

On their arrival, Sissle and Blake opened for an 8-week run in a revue titled Playtime at the Piccadilly.  The white American singer Jane Green and bandleader/saxophonist Isham Jones were also on the bill.    Providing additional music for dancing while the acts took a break were several British light jazz orchestras, including Jack Hylton’s orchestra, who Eubie admired, calling him the equal of Paul Whiteman.  Billed as “American Ambassadors of Syncopation,” Sissle and Blake appeared wearing their stage attire of full formal dress.

Each week, a poll was taken of the Piccadilly’s audience to select the top three acts that they’d like to see appear at the club’s sister location, the Kit Kat Club.  Sissle and Blake apparently won a spot there, appearing each night at both locations starting in late October.  The lead singer with Isham Jones’ orchestra—who apparently was also Jones’ girlfriend at the time—lost to the American duo.  Eubie recalled how upset she was that the audience chose a black act over her, saying that the bandleader had to buy her an expensive mink coat to make up for the slight.  In addition to their work at the Piccadilly and Kit Kat, the duo were also appearing on the bill at the Victoria Palace.

Throughout their London performances and subsequent tour of other British towns, Sissle and Blake performed a mix of their own familiar numbers, such as “Pickaninny Shoes,” along with presumably newly composed songs, including “Why Did You Make Me Care?”  However, they also included pop numbers associated with other black artists, including a show-stopping version of “Alabamy Bound.”  According to one critic who saw them perform the song: “They can sing Alabamy Bound faster than any other music-hall performers imaginable.  Sissle’s lips alternately disclose and uncover his white teeth at an amazing rate and Blake shivers on the piano stool like an electrified jelly while he rattles the keys faster than one would previously have thought possible.”

The reference to “white teeth” and “electrified jelly” were, of course, minstrel stereotypes.  While less openly racist then their American peers, the British were unembarrassed to express their admiration for African American performers based on these ideas that, at best, gave credit to these performers for their energy and excitement and, at worst, relegated them to a lower cultural status.  Even less flattering was a brief description of the act as “darkies at the piano in the manner of Layton and Johnson [sic]” on their appearance at the Alhambra music hall.  Turner Layton and Clarence Johnstone were a popular African-American duo who had been performing in London since 1924.  The implication was that all black performers offered similar fare.

Nonetheless, by the time of their appearance at the Alhambra in late November, the British press recognized the duo’s popularity.  The critic in The Stage noted: “The new American Ambassadors of syncopation, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, appear to have established themselves very quickly as staunch favorites …  The songs of these coloured performers have a flavor of their own, and the pianist…is one of the best of the kind we have heard for some time.”

Sissle and Blake continued to work London through Christmas, where they ended the year with a two-week appearance the London Coliseum.  The Coliseum bill shows the typical eclectic offerings that were common in British music halls; besides the American duo, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes presented a short ballet; acrobats Christo and Ronald showed off their hand and head balancing talents; and the multi-instrumentalists of Elliott’s Candies performed a “Mayday scena.”  A dance band and “bioscope pictures” (silent films) rounded out the program.  On other dates, they shared the bill with jugglers, marionettes, and performing animals, to mention just a few. Also that fall, Sissle and Blake recorded for the British Edison Bell label, and published songs with several local music publishers.  On Christmas Eve, they appeared at a charity event for British soldiers and their families at the Fulham Theater in south London.

In January 1926, the duo took to the road for the next month and a half, appearing at the Argyle Music Hall in Birkenhead, as well as in Leeds and Birmingham, before returning to London for engagements at the Alhambra and the Cosmo Club.  In early March, they performed in Birmingham, and then appeared in Belfast, Ireland, for what was apparently their last appearance in the United Kingdom.  The London-based producer Charles Cochran—who had previously brought Florence Mills to London—commissioned three songs from the duo.  The first, “Lady of the Moon,” was featured in the fall in his revue, Still Dancing.  The other two were written for his spring 1926 Revue, “Tahiti” and “Let’s Get Married Right Away.”  These songs were performed by Basil Howes and Elizabeth Hines in the show and published that April.

Variety advertisement that appeared when the duo returned to the States from their British tour.

Ever the homebody, by March Eubie was tiring of working in England.  The food was unfamiliar to him, he missed hot baths and steam heat (neither of which were available in London), he couldn’t adjust to the bustling traffic coming at him on the wrong side of the road, and the grind of running between as many as three engagements a day was wearing on him.  Blake was also appalled by the poverty he observed on London’s streets and advised other black performers not to visit: “My advice to all American Negroes is to stay away from Europe.  Particularly is this so if you are poor.  No matter what happens or what the conditions may be in America, they can be nothing like the deplorable conditions that exist in London.  I have seen thousands sleeping in the streets, bread lines with human beings standing four abreast and other distress that I hate to remember.”

On their return from the UK, their agents ran this full-page ad in Variety to celebrate their success there and to promote their upcoming US dates.


The Songs from Chocolate Dandies


“Dixie Moon” sheet music cover; all of the Chocolate Dandies songs shared the same generic cover art.

Sissle and Blake created an new set of songs for Chocolate Dandies, and Eubie would remain adamant throughout the rest of his life that they far surpassed their original hits from Shuffle Along.  However, most of the critics found the songs not to be as catchy as those in the duo’s first hit show.  This may have been exacerbated by Sissle and Blake’s second act interlude—which on opening night came at 11 PM in the sweltering heat—during which they reprised the earlier show’s hits.  The perhaps unintentional outcome was to unfairly place their new songs in competition with their best-known and successful ones.  Some critics thought the new songs were “perhaps of a higher class” and “the harmony and the melody is at all times beautiful.”  But this again was a backhanded way of indicating they missed the more “negro” flavor of the duo’s earlier songs, preferring them to write in the acceptable idioms of ragtime and jazz, rather than emulating “straight” Broadway composers.   The reviewer in Variety bluntly summarized the general consensus of the white critics, saying that the show’s “pretensions toward white musical comedy [are] achieved at the expense of a genuine Negro spirit.”  The critic noted “there is plenty” of “white folks entertainment,” but that “good darky entertainment” was rare—and this is what African-American entertainers should stick to doing.  This would become a common theme in reviews of black musical productions going forward.

Eubie commented that when the show previewed in Boston, one of the new songs “Million Little Cupids in the Sky,” was removed from the production at the insistence of the local management who felt the song was “too high class” for a Negro show.  In later life, Eubie singled out “Dixie Moon” from the show as one of his favorites of all of his songs; while Sissle’s lyrics flaunted all the typical imagery of minstrel-era songs, Blake’s music showed unusual sophistication in its melody and harmonic progressions.  Nonetheless, few seemed to appreciate his innovations, and the show produced no hit songs.

Another sticking point for the songwriters was the publishing arrangement for the songs.  Working with their old publisher, Witmark, Eubie said they were lucky to get a $1500 advance per song; Whitney convinced T. B. Harms to pay an unheard of $5000 advance for the rights to The Chocolate Dandies’s numbers.  However, the white producer pocketed all the money himself, claiming that it was part of the show’s proceeds. This was particularly galling to Blake.  Harms quickly pulled the plug on the songs after the show failed, further limiting their success.

“You Ought to Know” sheet music cover, 1923

Perhaps disillusioned with commercial publishers, Sissle and Blake self-published a song in 1924 that was perhaps originally intended for Chocolate Dandies—the charming love ballad “You Ought to Know.”  The publisher was listed as the “U.B. Noble Pub. Co.” on the U.S. edition of the sheet music—an unmistakable indication that they published it themselves. Eubie’s unusually sophisticated melody and harmonies forecast his later hit, “Memories of You,” and were far advanced for the period.   When Sissle and Blake toured England a year later, they recorded the song for the UK market, but it was never issued on record at home.  The sheet itself is fairly rare, indicating that it sold poorly on its initial publication.