Early Recordings of African Americans/Early Ragtime

I will discuss some African Americans who made early recordings and then early ragtime recordings. A few books claim that blacks never recorded before Mamie Smith cut the historic "Crazy Blues" for Okeh in August, 1920, but I can identify a handful who recorded in the 1890s and can think of about 25 black artists who recorded prior to 1920. Their names should be better known.

George Johnson

Photograph of George W. Johnson from rare 1907 Columbia cylinder catalog.

George W. Johnson

One of my oldest discs is dated October 31, 1895, and features black artist George W. Johnson singing his once-popular "Laughing Song." It has been reissued on CD. Johnson, who had been born into slavery, made his recording debut before 1890. We know some facts about Johnson because of Jim Walsh, who wrote about old recordings in the magazine Hobbies (Walsh wrote for Hobbies from the 1940s onwards), but Johnson's story is also told in a recent article by Jas Obrecht included in my recently finished encyclopedia of recording pioneers. We know far less about Louis Vasnier, a black banjo player who recorded for the Louisiana Phonograph Company around 1891. A Document CD titled "Too Late, Too Late" (DOCD-5321) has reissued Vasnier's work but the cd is out of print..

I own an 1896 catalog supplement that lists six titles by the first group of black singers known to record. The Unique Quartette is described this way: "This quartette is composed of the best negro talent obtainable and their records are loud and distinct. To those who are fond of negro melodies, we can commend these productions of the genuine article." (The word Negro was rarely capitalized then except in a few African American publications.) One of the six titles is known to exist--"Mamma's Black Baby Boy"--and has been reissued on a Document CD titled "The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups, Vol. 2," also out of print.

Other pre-1900 recording artists include the Bohee Brothers, Sam Cousins and Ed De Moss, Thomas Craig ("The Colored Basso"), Miss Jessie Oliver, and Louis Vasnier.

Black artists who cut records from 1900 to 1919 (a few sessions were overseas) include the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, Miss L. Bowman, Shelton Brooks, Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, Morrison's Jazz Orchestra (led by George Morrison), Creole Jass Band (this made a test for Victor on December 2, 1918--it is not certain that band members were black), Dabney's Band, Dan and Harvey's Jazz Band (London sessions in late 1918), Pete Hampton (again, British), Handy's Orchestra, Roland Hayes (he made personal records, paying Columbia for the records), Jack Johnson (he had a session in London on June 30, 1914--"Physical Culture," spoken), Rev. J. A. Myers, the Right Quintette, Lucky Roberts, Joan Sawyer's Persian Garden Orchestra, Sissle and Blake, Norris Smith and Walter Dixon, the Tuskegee Institute Singers, and Sterling Wright. The Pathe Dance Orchestra might be included--was Will A. Vodery its director for "Carolina" on Pathe 65111? This book, when published, will be the first of its kind!

Above is a page from a mid-1898 catalog issued by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company. May C. Hyers was the first African-American female to make recordings. Her records were issued as brown wax cylinders, but none are known to have survived. She covered a variety of genres, from sentimental favorites such as "Ben Bolt" to hits of the day, including "Pumpkin Colored Coon" (KCTM cylinder #203). The above image of Hyers was made in the months that record companies began to take notice of a new American musical form, namely ragtime. The words "rag" and "ragtime" were added to record titles and record catalogs in the summer of 1898.

Bert Williams

Bert Williams

Bert Williams was the one black American artist who recorded regularly in the first two decades of this century. Because he was so important, I wrote a detailed Williams entry for my encyclopedia of recording pioneers.

Archeophone Records has released Volume 3 in a series titled The Complete Bert Williams! I also recommend Real Ragtime, another Archeophone cd. This reissues Vess L. Ossman, Arthur Collins, Sousa's Band, Billy Murray, Gene Greene, and several others who cut numbers with "rag" or "ragtime" in the song's title. Wonderful and rare visuals, too!

W.C. Handy

W.C. Handy, the so-called "father of the blues," began recording in 1917 though he did not record his most famous songs, "The 'St. Louis Blues'" and "Memphis Blues," until 1923. In 1917 Handy recorded several of his other compositions. He also recorded works by white composers, like Nick LaRocca's "Livery Stable Blues" (LaRocca is given composer credit but credit probably belongs to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as a whole). Black musicians listened carefully to white jazz musicians, just as white jazz musicians were inspired by black musicians. Handy's version of "Fuzzy Wuzzy Rag," based on Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," is Handy at his best. It has been reissued on a W.C. Handy compact disc. Handy's "Memphis Blues" was recorded as early as 1914 by the Victor Military Band as well as Prince's Orchestra for Columbia. Victor artist Morton Harvey made the first vocal recording of "Memphis Blues" in 1914 (also reissued on CD). The first recordings of "St. Louis Blues" were made by the same two military bands in 1916!

Wilbur Sweatman

Wilbur Sweatman also made 78s in this period. He was famous as a clarinetist, known for his ability to play three clarinets at once! Somewhat forgotten today, Sweatman should be better remembered as a composer and band leader. Sweatman's musicians are not disciplined or schooled musicians, and I feel their wild approach is perfect for early "jass" numbers. His band is at its best in "Ev'rybody's Crazy 'Bout The Doggone Blues, But I'm Happy," recorded for Columbia on March 30, 1918. I hope to make Sweatman's recordings available on compact disc in the coming year. I have found a wonderful photograph of Sweatman and his musicians in a 1917 Pathe catalog supplement--the perfect photograph for the cover of a compact disc!

Jim Europe

I enjoy the music of Jim Europe. The tragedy of this bandleader is that he was killed on May 9, 1919, by a crazed drummer who worked in Europe's band. The loss to popular music is incalculable. James Reese Europe had worked tirelessly since 1905 to popularize African-American music, and when he returned triumphantly in 1919 from the Western Front, Lieutenant Europe had fresh opportunities for playing his music to wide audiences. He was murdered at the very point in his career when the Pathe company had secured Jim Europe's services as an exclusive artist and was aggressively promoting Europe's music.

Europe's story is told in a biography written by Reid Badger and published by Oxford University Press. A Life In Ragtime (ISBN is 0-19-506044-X) was reasonably priced at $30 but it went out of print a few years ago. It has excellent photographs and over 300 pages of text. I have an extra copy for sale ($36 postpaid).

Europe made two dozen recordings in the months before his death, and these Pathe discs are wonderful. Earlier Europe recordings are on the Victor label, and these have historic importance since Europe's band was the first black band to make recordings. Among his "hottest" 78s are "Down Home Rag" backed by "Too Much Mustard" (Victor 35359) and "Memphis Blues" backed by "That Moaning Trombone" (Pathe 22085).

The Pathe company, proud to have Europe as an exclusive artist, promoted Europe's discs by issuing a special flier announcing new titles: "Eleven records of the world's greatest exponent of syncopation just off the press." In bold type, the flier announced, "Jim Europe's jazz will live forever." Instead, the music fell into relative obscurity (only those with phonographs that play Pathe discs could easily play these 1919 discs). Two CD companies have reissued all of Europe's Pathe 78s (I supplied my own Pathe discs and notes for one of these cds, put out by Memphis Archives--I have a copy of this for sale). To see rare 1919 film footage of Europe's men marching, rent the 1943 movie Stormy Weather, which opens with characters who served with Europe!

Scott Joplin and Ragtime Recordings

Now I wish to consider a famous African American who did not record but should have. I refer to Scott Joplin. I will also discuss a few ragtime recordings.

Page from Victor 1909 Record Catalog

From Victor's January 1909 record catalog. Notice that #4911 is Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"--one of the few records of Joplin's classic rag cut during Joplin's own lifetime. The record would soon be deleted from the catalog.

Ragtime did not begin with Joplin but the music's heyday basically spanned Joplin's career as a ragtime composer, from 1899 until his death in 1917. Look for any rags on sheet music published in the 1890s since these early rags are highly prized by ragtime aficionados. William Krell's "Mississippi Rag" was the first published instrumental rag (January 1897) and later that year the first instrumental rag by an African-American composer was published, Tom Turpin's "Harlem Rag." I stress "instrumental" here since vocal rags were published in 1896.

Joplin cut piano rolls. No record company invited Joplin into a studio to make cylinders or discs, or if he was invited to make recordings, which is unlikely for various reasons, he declined. Joplin was not regarded for his piano skills. More precisely, he may have been a fine performer early in life but never earned a reputation as being among the best (he was not flashy, he was not an improviser), and we know he was too sick late in life to perform well. His publisher John Stark recalled Joplin had to take lessons on one of his difficult tunes before performing it publicly.

Columbia Cylinder Catalog Supplement

This August 1907 Columbia cylinder catalog supplement describes a recording of Joplin's best-known work this way: "The catchiest of banjo melodies by the author of 'Sunflower,' Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime Writers--dedicated to the famous 'Maple Leaf Club;' played in most resonant ragtime style by the King of Banjoists, Vess L. Ossman. A particularly fine number. Positively the best banjo record on the market."

Still, I am curious how Joplin would sound on a cylinder or early disc although I know that the acoustic recording process was not kind to the piano (it was better for banjo). In 1889 the great German composer Johannes Brahms made a cylinder, and one hears very little music and lots of rumble and roar from the cylinder itself. Technology improved but only by the mid-1920s, with the advent of electrical recording, could discs do full justice to piano. Joplin died in 1917. In 1923, Willie Eckstein was first to record "Maple Leaf Rag" on piano.

Early recordings of Joplin tunes are highly collectible, especially since they sold poorly and therefore are very rare today. "Maple Leaf Rag" was genuinely popular in concerts (it was played by bands) and in homes (it sold well as sheet music) but was not popular on records--still, it was recorded eight times during Joplin's life, with "Wall Street Rag" and "Gladiolus Rag" being the other Joplin tunes recorded before his death. The United States Marine Band recorded "Maple Leaf Rag" for the Victor Talking Machine Company on October 15, 1906 and again in 1909.

Vess L. Ossman

Columbia recorded a band version in 1907, and banjoist Vess L. Ossman recorded it. One discographer has incorrectly identified Parke Hunter as a banjoist who had cut Joplin's masterpiece, but in fact Hunter had recorded his own "Maple Leaf March." Wilbur Sweatman reportedly recorded it on cylinder around 1903, but no copy is known to exist. I am not convinced any such record was made--anyway, if it was, it is one rare recording! Look for a 1924 record by Taylor Holmes titled "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" (Blue label Victor 55218) since the pianist who accompanies Holmes is Leroy Shields, and he starts the record off with "Maple Leaf Rag"!

I feel record companies failed to do justice to ragtime. Recordings were made of Tin Pan Alley songs with "rag" in the title, and such songs performed by Arthur Collins and Billy Murray are fun to hear, but they are not the real thing. Companies almost never recorded ragtime on solo piano, partly because early recording technology could not capture the rich tones of the piano. Records of ragtime played on solo piano could not compete with piano rolls designed for player pianos of the time. Record companies instead hired banjoists and brass bands for ragtime recordings. This helps explain why Joplin did not make phonograph recordings. Moreover, he lived in the mid-West, far from the heart of the recording industry (New York-New Jersey), during his best years as a pianist.

You can find old 78s of ragtime performed by banjo players Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps. You will have a hard time finding the first known recording with "ragtime" in its title, the rare "Rag Time Medley," played by Ossman for the Berliner Company on August 19, 1897. The first recorded solo piano rag is probably "Creole Belles," played by C.H.H. Booth for Victor in late 1901. Nick Lucas in 1922 made the first disc of rags performed on solo guitar: "Pickin' the Guitar" and "Teasin' the Frets." Blind Blake recorded his own ragtime compositions for Paramount beginning in 1926, and these influenced generations of guitar players.

Banjo was easy to record and very popular, which is why many "ragtime" recordings from nearly a century ago are played on this stringed instrument. Ed Berlin's outstanding 1994 Scott Joplin biography is titled King of Ragtime, but the epithet could be given to white banjoist Vess Ossman, whose many recordings brought ragtime into American homes. To hear African American musicians of a century ago playing banjo, try finding the 1898 Berliner recording titled "Pour Mourner" made by the team Cousins & De Moss. I think one copy is known to exist.

Arthur Collins

Arthur Collins

Baritone Arthur Collins deserves a title like Ragtime King since he made more discs with "rag" or "ragtime" in the title than any other singer, bringing the upbeat music into middle class parlors where the Victrola stood. He recorded on different occasions in the 1890s the Ernest Hogan song "All Coons Look Alike To Me," a song that is important since its 1896 sheet music has the first known use of "rag" as a musical term. Many of Collins' recordings are identified as a "coon song" or "darky song," which may be one reason scholars avoid crediting this white singer with popularizing ragtime.

I love recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs with "rag" and "ragtime" in the title. I collect artists known in the period 1900-1920 as singers of ragtime. Billy Murray does a great job with George M. Cohan's "American Ragtime" (Victor 16144). I love the redundancy in the title (did Cohan know about any non-American ragtime when he composed the song around 1908? all ragtime was American at that time!). Billy Murray also recorded in 1908 "The Old Time Rag" written by Theodore Morse. An old time rag? Ragtime was still pretty new in 1908! Murray recorded about 20 songs with "ragtime" in the title. One of the best is "Ragtime Temple Bells," music by the English operetta composer Ivan Caryll. This song was in the show Chin-Chin around 1915.

I also like white baritone Bob Roberts, sometimes known as Ragtime Bob Roberts. In 1912 he helped popularize "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (Victor 17090).

Gene Greene

Gene Greene made recordings for Victor, Columbia, Pathe, Emerson. In vaudeville he was famous as "The Ragtime King"--in contrast to Joplin being called "the King of Ragtime Writers" on sheet music. Greene was best known for performing "The King of the Bungaloos," composed around 1910-1911 by Greene and Charley Straight (this is the same Straight who made successful band recordings in the 1920s). The remarkable thing about "The King of the Bungaloos," especially as recorded on Victor 5854 in mid-1911, is that this features arguably the first scat singing on a record. It was recorded more than a decade before Louis Armstrong's "Heebie Jeebies." If scat means singing nonsense syllables in an improvised or semi-improvised manner--well, Gene Greene does just that. For a good account of Greene's life (and the lyrics to "King of the Bungaloos," see my encyclopedia of recording pioneers.