Shuffle Along and the return of African-American musical theater to Broadway during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s
From Wikipedia’s article on African American musical theater:
Before the late 1890s, the image portrayed of African-Americans on Broadway was a “secondhand vision of black life created by European-American performers.” Stereotyped “coon songs” were popular, and blackface was common.
Will Marion Cook and Bob Cole brought black-written musical comedy to Broadway in 1898. Cook’s Clorindy; or, The Origin of the Cakewalk, an hour-long sketch that was the first all-black show to play in a prestigious Broadway house, Casino Theatre‘s Roof Garden. Cole’s A Trip to Coontown was the first full-length New York musical comedy written, directed and performed exclusively by blacks. The approach of the two composers were diametrically opposed: Cole believed that African Americans should try to compete with European Americans by proving their ability to act similarly on- and offstage, while Cook thought African Americans should not imitate European Americans but instead create their own style.
Bob Cole and brothers John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson focused on elevating the lyrical sophistication of African American songs. Their first collaboration was Louisiana Lize, a love song written in a new lyrical style that left out the watermelons, razors, and “hot mamas” typical of earlier “coon songs.”
Cole and the Johnson brothers went on to create musicals such as The Belle of Bridgeport, The Red Moon (with Joe Jordan), The Shoo-Fly Regiment, In Newport, Humpty Dumpty, and Sally in Our Alley (featuring Bob Cole’s “Under The Bamboo Tree”). Bob Cole’s suicide in 1911 ended “one of the promising musical comedy teams yet seen on Broadway”.
Langston Hughes on the Harlem Renaissance and the importance of Shuffle Along:
The 1920’s were the years of Manhattan’s black Renaissance. It began with Shuffle Along, Running Wild, and the Charleston.[*] Perhaps some people would say even with The Emperor Jones, Charles Gilpin, and the tom-toms at the Provincetown. But certainly it was the musical revue, Shuffle Along, that gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929, the crash that sent Negroes, white folks, and all rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration.
Shuffle Along was a honey of a show. Swift, bright, funny, rollicking, and gay, with a dozen danceable, singable tunes. Besides, look who were in it: The now famous choir director, Hall Johnson, and the composer, William Grant Still, were a part of the orchestra. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the music and played and acted in the show. Miller and Lyles were the comics. Florence Mills skyrocketed to fame in the second act.
— from The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (New York: Hill and Wang, 1940)
* Runnin’ Wild: the 1923 Harlem Renaissance revue which ignited the Charleston craze
Please see the fine profile of Sissle and Blake at Jass.com, by noted jazz historian Thomas L. Morgan. It includes a more thorough and coherent account of the historic return to Broadway of African-American musical theater than I’ve provided here.
(above) Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey L. Lyles
(above) The “Original Shuffle Along Orchestra 1921,” inscribed by Eubie Blake to Harold Browning; arrow points to William Grant Still
(below) Shuffle Along Orchestra, 1921, inscribed by Eubie Blake to Roy Smith & his Band — photo by Apeda Studio, New York, NY, from the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections
Some of the members of the orchestra, with William Grant Still and a couple of others unaccounted for, are identified on a page on Shuffle Along at the site Mule Walk & Jazz Talk, as follows: “left to right back row: Vess Williams, John Ricks, Calvin Jones, Russell Smith, Billy Hicks. left to right front row: George Reeves, Yarborough, L. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Carroll.”
(above) Noble Sissle with members of the original 1921 Shuffle Along cast. Adelaide Hall is directly behind him.
(below) Original 1921 Shuffle Along cast members; Adelaide Hall at far left
(above) Dancers in Shuffle Along performing in the number “Bandanna Days” — edit of a photo from the Eubie Blake Photograph Collection/Maryland Historical Society, MS2800, c. 1921 (photographer unknown), via the article “‘Shuffle Along’ and the Lost History of Black Performance in America,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, published on 24 March 2016 in the New York Times
According to the Sullivan article, Josephine Baker is the sixth dancer from the right. The Internet Broadway Database says:
After this production [Shuffle Along, 1921] closed, a national tour began in August 1922. Josephine Baker was hired as a dresser for the production and later offered herself as a replacement when a chorus girl fell ill during the tour’s engagement at Boston’s Selwyn Theater. She danced in the chorus from August 1922 through the end of the tour in the fall of 1923. She did not appear in the Broadway production, as is often reported.
Shuffle Along is the first major successful African American musical. Written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the musical premiered on Broadway in 1921.
The musical premiered on Broadway at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921 and closed on July 15, 1922 after 484 performances. It was directed by Walter Brooks, with Eubie Blake playing the piano. The cast included Lottie Gee as Jessie Williams, Adelaide Hall as Jazz Jasmine, Gertrude Saunders as Ruth Little, Roger Matthews as Harry Walton, and Noble Sissle as Tom Sharper. Gertrude Saunders was replaced by Florence Mills. Josephine Baker, who was deemed too young at age 15 to be in the show, joined the touring company in Boston, and then joined the Broadway cast when she turned 16. Bessie Allison‘s first professional performance was in Shuffle Along.   (See further quotes from the Wikipedia article in “Historical Effect and Response” below.)
Credits and songs, original 1921 Broadway production of Shuffle Along:
- Opening Night Credits for the Original 1921 production — 63rd Street Music Hall, (5/23/1921 – 7/15/1922
2. Ovrtur: the musicals of New York, London and beyond:
Recordings: There are audio files available of three songs from the original Shuffle Along at the site florencemills.com, early recordings of either Eubie Blake or the duo Sissle and Blake.
Prior to the following 1978 performance of Love Will Find a Way, Eubie Blake says that he only wrote three original songs for Shuffle Along. Then he forgets one. The two he mentions are Love Will Find a Way, and If You Haven’t Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven’t Been Vamped at All, saying that he can’t remember the third which would, I think, be I’m Just Wild About Harry. Blake’s humble claim seems contradicted, however, by the fact that there are at least three other songs in the original production which he and Sissle wrote, I’m Craving for That Kind of Love, Bandana Days (copyright 1921), and Baltimore Buzz. I’ve only dated one of these three so far. See recordings below. The aforementioned article on Sissle and Blake at Jass.com notes that Love Will Find a Way broke a long-standing taboo on the stage against the depiction of “romantic love between black characters.” James Weldon Johnson, who had encountered this prohibition at the turn of the century, is quoted describing the incredible rationale behind the taboo:
If anything approaching a love duet was introduced in a musical comedy, it had to be broadly burlesqued. The reason behind this…lay in the belief that a love scene between two Negroes could not strike a white audience except as ridiculous.
Love Will Find a Way (m. Eubie Blake, w. Noble Sissle) performed by Eubie Blake – 1978
I’m Just Wild About Harry (m. Eubie Blake, w. Noble Sissle)
- audio file [Played by composer Eubie Blake, from Biograph BCD 112] from the site florencemills.com
Piano roll recorded by Eubie Blake on 19 May 1973
Bandana Days (Sissle, Blake) — In the original show, according to IBDB, the song was sung by “Alderman and Company.”
Eubie Blake and his Shuffle Along Orchestra — This 1921 instrumental recording is actually a medley which includes about 70 seconds of I’m Just Wild About Harry abruptly inserted following a short bridge beginning at about 1:30. Harry lasts from 1:37 to 2:47 when another bridge leads back to Bandana Days.
Baltimore Buzz (Sissle, Blake) – 1921 recording by Eubie Blake and his Shuffle Along Orchestra; although this is an instrumental recording, in the original show, according to IBDB, it was sung [and danced, I presume] by “Tom Sharper and Jimtown’s Jazz Steppers.”
I’m Craving for That Kind of Love (Sissle, Blake) – performed by SusanSusaw
Shuffle Along productions:[from Wikipedia] The musical premiered on Broadway at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921 and closed on July 15, 1922 after 484 performances. It was directed by Walter Brooks, with Eubie Blake playing the piano. The cast included Lottie Gee as Jessie Williams, Adelaide Hall as Jazz Jasmine, Gertrude Saunders as Ruth Little, Roger Matthews as Harry Walton, and Noble Sissle as Tom Sharper. Gertrude Saunders was replaced by Florence Mills. Josephine Baker, who was deemed too young at age 15 to be in the show, joined the touring company in Boston, and then joined the Broadway cast when she turned 16.
Excerpt from the Gale Contemporary Black Biography profile Mills, Florence, at Answers.com (photo added):
Born January 25, 1896, in Washington, D.C.; died on November 1, 1927, in New York City, NY, of paralytic ileus and general peritonitis; daughter of John (a carpenter) and Nellie (Simon) Winfree; married James Randolph, c. 1912 (divorced); married Ulysses S. Thompson (a dancer), 1923.
First public performance at Washington’s Bijou Theater, c. 1900; appeared in Sons of Ham, 1903; made vaudeville debut with her two sisters as “The Mills Trio,” c. 1910; made stage musical debut in Shuffle Along, New York City, 1921; made Broadway debut in Plantation Review, 1922.
Before her untimely death in 1927, Florence Mills was considered the preeminent female jazz dancer of the Harlem Renaissance. With top billing in musical reviews such as Shuffle Along and Blackbirds of 1926, she earned critical praise as a graceful dancer and confident comedienne with a delightful voice. A favorite with African American audiences, Mills also possessed a popularity that crossed over to mainstream Broadway theatergoers as well at a time when color lines were only beginning to vanish. She was nicknamed “Blackbird” herself from her signature song, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird,” and enjoyed considerable success in Europe as well.
Mills was born on January 25, 1896, in Washington, D.C. at her family home on K Street. Her parents, John and Nellie Winfree, were originally from Lynchburg, Virginia. When Virginia’s tobacco economy worsened, the family relocated to Washington, D.C. and Mills’s father found work as a carpenter and day laborer. The neighborhood surrounding K Street was pleasant and stable, but the Winfrees fell upon hard times and were forced to move to a far more dangerous area of Washington called Goat Alley. Despite the family’s hardships, Mills showed exceptional talents as a singer and dancer from a very young age. [Read more…additional headings include “A Child Prodigy,” “Shuffle Along,” “Success in London.”]
(above) Three unidentified actresses from, I think, the original production of Shuffle Along in a photo dated 1921. I recognized one of the fantastic hats from a photo of the original cast (just above).
(Above) Jazz singer, trumpeter, and dancer Valaida Snow, then still using her birth name Valada, won the role of Manda in a Sissle & Blake production, In Bamville, which was renamed The Chocolate Dandies when it opened in New York in September of 1924. This was a couple of years before her initial association with Louis Armstrong, who (at least according to Snow herself) dubbed her “Little Louis,” and with Earl “Fatha” Hines. She was a jazz pioneer who became one of its early international stars.
The inscription is partially obscured. The visible portion is signed, “Valada Snow – In Bamville 1924.”
An excerpt from a biography of Valaida Snow at allaboutjazz.com:
The tale of Valaida Snow is dramatic, a beautiful gifted entertainer, singer, dancer, arranger, and jazz trumpeter who succeeded against all odds. Valaida’s exceptional talent, determination and charm brought her international fame. Her talents nearly unlimited, a savvy business woman who spoke seven languages, she blew hot jazz trumpet in the style of Louis Armstrong. Billed as “Queen of the Trumpet” she appeared in some of the top theatrical productions of her day. The toast of Paris and London in the early 1930s she wrote and recorded her theme song, “High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm.” Valaida Snow’s life is an inspiring tale of determination and spirit
Valaida Snow was born into a family of musicians: Her mother taught Valaida, her sisters Alvaida and Hattie, and her brother, Arthur Bush, how to play multiple instruments. Valaida and all her siblings became professional musicians. Valaida was taught by her mother to play cello, bass, violin, banjo, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet. It was natural for Valaida to be an entertainer: at the young age of fifteen, she was already a recognized professional singer and trumpet player. While Valaida Snow’s beauty attracted audiences, it was her incredible talent as a jazz trumpeter which truly captivated them. She obtained the nickname, “Little Louis” due to her Louis Armstrong-like playing style. Pianist Mary Lou Williams wrote about her: “She was hitting those high C’s just like Louis. She would have been a great trumpet player if she had dropped the singing and dancing, and concentrated on the trumpet”.
(Above) Two promotional photos of actress Fredi Washington from the 1920s
Fredi Washington. There is disagreement among biographies as to when Fredi Washington was a member of the chorus of Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along:
- Wikipedia — (no timeframe provided) “Washington started her career as a dancer in the broadway play, Shuffle Along. She was in a few of the first black Broadway shows.”
- Gale Contemporary Black Biography (at Answers.com) — “chorus dancer in stage musical Shuffle Along, 1921“
- The Black Past: Remembered and Regained — “…began her professional career as a chorus dancer in the stage production of Shuffle Along in 1924.”
- African American Registry — “From 1922 to 1926, she toured with Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along.”
Excerpts from the Wikipedia profile:
Fredi Washington earned notice for her portrayal of Peola, a young African-American woman who passed for white in the 1934 Academy Award-nominated film Imitation of Life. She also appeared with Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones in 1933. Frustrated at limited opportunities, she became an activist and journalist. Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in 1937 to create better professional opportunities. She also was Entertainment Editor of People’s Voice, founded in 1942.
Historical Effect and response of Shuffle Along
According to the Harlem chronicler James Weldon Johnson, the 1921 musical revue Shuffle Along marked a breakthrough for the African-American musical performer and made musical theatre history. This revue legitimized the African-American musical, proving to producers and managers that audiences would pay to see African-American talent on Broadway.
The musical brought black actors back to Broadway after a 10-year absence during a time when the prominent black actors and producers of the day had retired and/or died.* Shuffle Along also brought black audiences to the orchestra rather than being relegated to the balcony, and featured the first sophisticated African-American love story. Moreover, Shuffle Along laid the foundation for public acceptance of African-American performers in other than burlesque roles.
The impact of Shuffle Along rippled through Broadway, with nine African-American musicals opening between 1921 and 1924. For the next few years, black theatre would pioneer several “firsts.” In 1928, the first edition of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds featured Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as the first black dance star on Broadway. In 1929, Harlem, a drama by Wallace Thurman and William Rapp, introduced the Slow Drag, the first African-American social dance to reach Broadway.
Bert Williams and George Walker, c. 1898
However, in the “Background” section of wikipedia’s ariticle on the song I’m Just Wild About Harry, from Shuffle Along, there is a suggestion that the absence of African-American productions from Broadway was due to more than death or retirement. Citing the book America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser (2006) pp. 29–31, the article describes what seems to be concurrent, or overlapping, periods of exclusion by policy from white Vaudeville and Broadway:
During the early twentieth century African-Americans were excluded from most mainstream theater in the United States: white Vaudeville refused to book more than one African-American act on a bill and for over a decade no Broadway show used African-American performers at all. (link fixed, 10 Feb 2017)
It’s not clear which decade is referred to as the one during which “no Broadway show used African-American performers at all.” However, according to the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) Bert Williams appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910-1912, 1914-1917, 1919 and the Broadway Brevities of 1920.
Though no time frame is given, in it’s article on the Theater Owners Bookers Association, or T.O.B.A., Wikipedia says
Many black performers, such as Bert Williams, George Walker, Johnson and Dean, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Tim Moore, and Johnny Hudgins also performed in white vaudeville, often in blackface.
From the Ziegfeld Follies section of the Wikipedia page on Bert Williams (source uncited):
The idea of a black featured performer amid an otherwise all-white show was a shock in 1910. Williams’ initial reception was cool, and several cast members delivered an ultimatum to Ziegfeld that Williams be fired. Ziegfeld held firm, saying, “I can replace every one of you, except [Williams].” The show’s writers were slow to devise material for him to perform. But by the time the show finally debuted in June, Williams was a sensation. Reviews were uniformly positive for Williams, and also for Fanny Brice, who was making her Broadway debut.
(above) Ziegfeld Follies of 1912 cab scene: Bert Williams, Ida Adams, and Leon Errol
(above) Eubie Blake and Shuffle Along (1933) chorus girls
(below) Noble Sissle and Shuffle Along (1933) chorus girls
From Josephine Baker in art and life: the icon and the image (2007), by Bennetta Jules-Rosette, p. 178:
In 1925 a German impresario joined forces with the New York producer Arthur Lyons to assemble the show Chocolate Kiddies, based on Sissle and Blake’s Chocolate Dandies. Kiddies featured Lottie Gee as the lead and Adelaide Hall as the main vocalist.
(above) Chorus line from the revue Chocolate Kiddies, Copenhagen 1925, and (below) closeup of apparently the same group of chorus girls, in nearly the same order, left to right
On short notice Duke Ellington contributed four compositions to Chocolate Kiddies, important early exposure for the young composer. One of them, Jig Walk, was the hit of the show, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers.
The Ellington songs composed for the revue included “Jim Dandy,” “With You,”and “Jig Walk,” according to William Fawcett Hill writing in the Duke Ellington Society Newsletter, Fall 1998. Hill (1918-2008) was the founder, in the late 80s, of the Southern California chapter of the Duke Ellington Society.
Youtube provider formiggini attached some information about Chocolate Kiddies, and Ellington’s contribution to the show, to a 1925 recording of “Jim Dandy” by Dajos Bela, which has since been removed. The provider listed four Ellington numbers composed for the revue, which he said was produced in late 1924 — I haven’t confirmed this date — as follows:
- Deacon Jazz (recorded by Ellington in 1924)
- Jim Dandy
- (Love is Just a Wish) With You
- Jig Walk
However, according to a Duke Ellington timeline provided at allaboutjazz.com (link defunct as of February 2017), “Jig Walk” was the first song recorded by Ellington, and it was recorded in 1923 on cylinder. The earliest recordings by an Ellington-led band in the redhotjazz.com audio files appear to be two 1924 recordings by The Washingtonians, “Choo Choo (Gotta Hurry Home)” and “Rainy Nights (Rainy Days).”
1925 was also the year in which Josephine Baker and La Revue Nègre took Paris by storm when they hit the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées as described in a NY Times Theater Review article titled When Black America Triumphed in France by Margo Jefferson, published in 2000. (Click on the title to read the review at the NewYork Times website).
Conceiver and director of the La Revue Nègre, Caroline Dudley Reagan, had sought a more well-known Broadway personality for the female lead in her Paris extravaganza. Jefferson’s article notes
Dudley began her talent search in New York. She couldn’t afford the salaries demanded by Florence Mills and Ethel Waters; she chose Baker only after seeing her step in for a sick Waters one night at the Plantation, a nightspot above the Winter Garden theater that, like the Cotton Club, featured snazzy all-black shows for tony all-white audiences.
* retired and/or died: Apparently favoring this account is the following statement from Wikipedia’s article on “African-American musical theater” which cites the book Black Musical Theater, by Allen Woll:
By 1911, Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, and George Walker had died. Will Marion Cook and the Johnson brothers, James and J. Rosamond, had pursued new careers and Bert Williams moved to the Ziegfeld Follies and black musical theater went into a hiatus.
The figures mentioned by Woll were successful African-American musical comedy creators and entertainers working in all-African-American stage productions between the 1890s and 1911, the year the “hiatus” began.
On black vaudeville
The Wikipedia article on the Theater Owners Bookers Association (T.O.B.A.) equates the organization with the black vaudeville circuit, and lists some of its stars:
Its earliest star performers included singers Ethel Waters, Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Minto Cato, and Adelaide Hall; comedian Tim Moore with his Chicago Follies company (which included his wife Gertie); the Whitman Sisters and their Company; musicians Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Joe “King” Oliver, and Duke Ellington; comics Sandy Burns, Salem Whitney Tutt, and Tom Fletcher; future Paris sensation Josephine Baker; songwriter and pianist Perry Bradford, the mime Johnny Hudgins; dancers U. S. Thompson, Walter Batie, Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, and Valaida Snow. [A number of others are listed as well.]
The most prestigious black theaters in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. were not part of the circuit, booking acts independently.
books and articles:
- History of African American Theatre, A — by Errol G. Hill, James Vernon Hatch (2003) — Google eBooks preview available
- The Development of an African-American Musical Theatre 1865-1910, from the American Memory collections of The Library of Congress website. This article has divided the timeframe 1865 to 1910 into six chronological parts. Each section contains a brief summary of developments in African-American musical theater during the period in focus, and sheet music for notable songs within the period. Noteworthy vaudeville shows and musicals are briefly described, and principle composers of musicals and other stage shows, songwriters, and performers are identified.
- Jass.com: 1895-1920 African-American Music
- Jass.com: 1895-1920 African-American Popular Music Composers (14 feature pages)
- Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America by Karen Sotiropoulos (2006) by Karen Sotiropoulos (2006) — Google eBooks preview available
Index to relevant Songbook pages: