Ragtime Singers

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Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' was introduced to the American public by vaudville comedienne Emma Carus, 'one of the great stars of the period.' A popular singer in the 1907 Ziegfeld Follies and Broadway features, Carus was a famous contralto of the vaudeville era renowned for her 'low bass notes and high lung power.' Carus' brassy performance of the song at the American Music Hall in Chicago on. 150,745 listeners Scott Joplin (born between June 1867 and January 1868, died April 1, 1917) was an American musician and composer of ragtime music. Ragtime is a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty. The music includes marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime. Based on the 1975 novel by E. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites.


Early Recordings of African Americans/Early Ragtime

  • by Tim Gracyk

I will discuss some African Americans who made earlyrecordings and then early ragtime recordings. A few books claimthat blacks never recorded before Mamie Smith cut the historic'Crazy Blues' for Okeh in August, 1920, but I canidentify a handful who recorded in the 1890s and can think ofabout 25 black artists who recorded prior to 1920. Their namesshould be better known.

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 featuresblack 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 before1890. We know some facts about Johnson because of Jim Walsh, whowrote about old recordings in the magazine Hobbies (Walsh wrotefor Hobbies from the 1940s onwards), but Johnson's story is alsotold in a recent article by Jas Obrecht included in my recentlyfinished encyclopedia of recording pioneers. We know far lessabout Louis Vasnier, a black banjo player who recorded for theLouisiana Phonograph Company around 1891. A Document CD titled'Too Late, Too Late' (DOCD-5321) has reissued Vasnier'swork but the cd is out of print..

I own an 1896 catalog supplement that lists six titles by thefirst group of black singers known to record. The UniqueQuartette is described this way: 'This quartette is composedof the best negro talent obtainable and their records are loudand distinct. To those who are fond of negro melodies, we cancommend these productions of the genuine article.' (The wordNegro was rarely capitalized then except in a few AfricanAmerican publications.) One of the six titles is known toexist--'Mamma's Black Baby Boy'--and has been reissuedon 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 ColoredBasso'), Miss Jessie Oliver, and Louis Vasnier.

Black artists who cut records from 1900 to 1919 (a fewsessions were overseas) include the Fisk University JubileeQuartet, Miss L. Bowman, Shelton Brooks, Ciro's Club CoonOrchestra, 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'sBand, 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), JackJohnson (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 GardenOrchestra, Sissle and Blake, Norris Smith and Walter Dixon, theTuskegee Institute Singers, and Sterling Wright. The Pathe DanceOrchestra 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 was the one black American artist who recordedregularly in the first two decades of this century. Because hewas so important, I wrote a detailed Williams entry for myencyclopedia of recording pioneers.

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

Jazz Singers

W.C. Handy

W.C. Handy, the so-called 'father of the blues,'began recording in 1917 though he did not record his most famoussongs, 'The 'St. Louis Blues' and 'MemphisBlues,' until 1923. In 1917 Handy recorded several of hisother compositions. He also recorded works by white composers,like Nick LaRocca's 'Livery Stable Blues' (LaRocca isgiven composer credit but credit probably belongs to the OriginalDixieland Jazz Band as a whole). Black musicians listenedcarefully to white jazz musicians, just as white jazz musicianswere inspired by black musicians. Handy's version of 'FuzzyWuzzy Rag,' based on Joplin's 'Maple Leaf Rag,' isHandy at his best. It has been reissued on a W.C. Handy compactdisc. Handy's 'Memphis Blues' was recorded as early as1914 by the Victor Military Band as well as Prince's Orchestrafor Columbia. Victor artist Morton Harvey made the first vocalrecording of 'Memphis Blues' in 1914 (also reissued onCD). The first recordings of 'St. Louis Blues' weremade by the same two military bands in 1916!

Wilbur Sweatman

Wilbur Sweatman also made 78s in this period. He was famous asa clarinetist, known for his ability to play three clarinets atonce! Somewhat forgotten today, Sweatman should be betterremembered as a composer and band leader. Sweatman's musiciansare not disciplined or schooled musicians, and I feel their wildapproach is perfect for early 'jass' numbers. His bandis at its best in 'Ev'rybody's Crazy 'Bout The DoggoneBlues, But I'm Happy,' recorded for Columbia on March 30,1918. I hope to make Sweatman's recordings available on compactdisc in the coming year. I have found a wonderful photograph ofSweatman and his musicians in a 1917 Pathe catalogsupplement--the perfect photograph for the cover of a compactdisc!

Jim Europe

I enjoy the music of Jim Europe. The tragedy of thisbandleader is that he was killed on May 9, 1919, by a crazeddrummer who worked in Europe's band. The loss to popular music isincalculable. James Reese Europe had worked tirelessly since 1905to popularize African-American music, and when he returnedtriumphantly in 1919 from the Western Front, Lieutenant Europehad fresh opportunities for playing his music to wide audiences.He was murdered at the very point in his career when the Pathecompany had secured Jim Europe's services as an exclusive artistand was aggressively promoting Europe's music.

Europe's story is told in a biography written by Reid Badgerand published by Oxford University Press. A Life InRagtime (ISBN is 0-19-506044-X) was reasonablypriced at $30 but it went out of print a few years ago. It hasexcellent photographs and over 300 pages of text. I have an extracopy for sale ($36 postpaid).

Europe made two dozen recordings in the months before hisdeath, and these Pathe discs are wonderful. Earlier Europerecordings are on the Victor label, and these have historicimportance since Europe's band was the first black band to makerecordings. Among his 'hottest' 78s are 'Down HomeRag' backed by 'Too Much Mustard' (Victor 35359)and 'Memphis Blues' backed by 'That MoaningTrombone' (Pathe 22085).

The Pathe company, proud to have Europe as an exclusiveartist, promoted Europe's discs by issuing a special flierannouncing new titles: 'Eleven records of the world'sgreatest exponent of syncopation just off the press.' Inbold type, the flier announced, 'Jim Europe's jazz will liveforever.' Instead, the music fell into relative obscurity(only those with phonographs that play Pathe discs could easilyplay these 1919 discs). Two CD companies have reissued all ofEurope's Pathe 78s (I supplied my own Pathe discs and notes forone of these cds, put out by Memphis Archives--I have a copy ofthis for sale). To see rare 1919 film footage of Europe's menmarching, rent the 1943 movie Stormy Weather, which opens withcharacters who served with Europe!

Scott Joplin and Ragtime Recordings

History of ragtime music

Now I wish to consider a famous African American who did notrecord but should have. I refer to Scott Joplin. I will alsodiscuss a few ragtime recordings.

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 heydaybasically spanned Joplin's career as a ragtime composer, from1899 until his death in 1917. Look for any rags on sheet musicpublished in the 1890s since these early rags are highly prizedby ragtime aficionados. William Krell's 'MississippiRag' was the first published instrumental rag (January 1897)and later that year the first instrumental rag by anAfrican-American composer was published, Tom Turpin's'Harlem Rag.' I stress 'instrumental' heresince vocal rags were published in 1896.

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

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.'

Peacherine Ragtime Singers List

Still, I am curious how Joplin would sound on a cylinder orearly disc although I know that the acoustic recording processwas not kind to the piano (it was better for banjo). In 1889 thegreat German composer Johannes Brahms made a cylinder, and onehears very little music and lots of rumble and roar from thecylinder itself. Technology improved but only by the mid-1920s,with the advent of electrical recording, could discs do fulljustice to piano. Joplin died in 1917. In 1923, Willie Ecksteinwas 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 raretoday. 'Maple Leaf Rag' was genuinely popular inconcerts (it was played by bands) and in homes (it sold well assheet music) but was not popular on records--still, it wasrecorded eight times during Joplin's life, with 'Wall StreetRag' and 'Gladiolus Rag' being the other Joplintunes recorded before his death. The United States Marine Bandrecorded 'Maple Leaf Rag' for the Victor TalkingMachine Company on October 15, 1906 and again in 1909.

Columbia recorded a band version in 1907, and banjoist Vess L. Ossmanrecorded it. One discographer has incorrectly identified ParkeHunter as a banjoist who had cut Joplin's masterpiece, but infact 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 recordwas made--anyway, if it was, it is one rare recording! Look for a1924 record by Taylor Holmes titled 'The Shooting of DanMcGrew' (Blue label Victor 55218) since the pianist whoaccompanies Holmes is Leroy Shields, and he starts the record offwith '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 andBilly Murray are fun to hear, but they are not the real thing.Companies almost never recorded ragtime on solo piano, partlybecause early recording technology could not capture the richtones of the piano. Records of ragtime played on solo piano couldnot compete with piano rolls designed for player pianos of thetime. Record companies instead hired banjoists and brass bandsfor ragtime recordings. This helps explain why Joplin did notmake phonograph recordings. Moreover, he lived in the mid-West,far from the heart of the recording industry (New York-NewJersey), during his best years as a pianist.

Ragtime Music Youtube

You can find old 78s of ragtime performed by banjo playersVess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps. You will have a hard timefinding the first known recording with 'ragtime' in itstitle, the rare 'Rag Time Medley,' played by Ossman forthe Berliner Company on August 19, 1897. The first recorded solopiano rag is probably 'Creole Belles,' played by C.H.H.Booth for Victor in late 1901. Nick Lucas in 1922 made the firstdisc of rags performed on solo guitar: 'Pickin' theGuitar' and 'Teasin' the Frets.' Blind Blakerecorded his own ragtime compositions for Paramount beginning in1926, 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 areplayed on this stringed instrument. Ed Berlin's outstanding 1994Scott 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. Tohear African American musicians of a century ago playing banjo,try finding the 1898 Berliner recording titled 'PourMourner' made by the team Cousins & De Moss. I think onecopy is known to exist.

Arthur Collins

Jazz Singers Male

Baritone Arthur Collins deserves a title like Ragtime Kingsince he made more discs with 'rag' or'ragtime' in the title than any other singer, bringingthe upbeat music into middle class parlors where the Victrolastood. He recorded on different occasions in the 1890s the ErnestHogan song 'All Coons Look Alike To Me,' a song that isimportant since its 1896 sheet music has the first known use of'rag' as a musical term. Many of Collins' recordingsare identified as a 'coon song' or 'darkysong,' which may be one reason scholars avoid crediting thiswhite singer with popularizing ragtime.

I love recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs with 'rag'and 'ragtime' in the title. I collect artists known inthe period 1900-1920 as singers of ragtime. Billy Murray does agreat job with George M. Cohan's 'American Ragtime'(Victor 16144). I love the redundancy in the title (did Cohanknow about any non-American ragtime when he composed the songaround 1908? all ragtime was American at that time!). BillyMurray also recorded in 1908 'The Old Time Rag' writtenby Theodore Morse. An old time rag? Ragtime was still pretty newin 1908! Murray recorded about 20 songs with 'ragtime'in the title. One of the best is 'Ragtime TempleBells,' 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 asRagtime Bob Roberts. In 1912 he helped popularize 'RagtimeCowboy Joe' (Victor 17090).

Jazz Singers List

Gene Greene

Ragtime singers

Old Ragtime Music

Gene Greene made recordings for Victor, Columbia, Pathe,Emerson. In vaudeville he was famous as 'The RagtimeKing'--in contrast to Joplin being called 'the King ofRagtime Writers' on sheet music. Greene was best known forperforming 'The King of the Bungaloos,' composed around1910-1911 by Greene and Charley Straight (this is the sameStraight who made successful band recordings in the 1920s). Theremarkable thing about 'The King of the Bungaloos,'especially as recorded on Victor 5854 in mid-1911, is that thisfeatures arguably the first scat singing on a record. It wasrecorded more than a decade before Louis Armstrong's 'HeebieJeebies.' If scat means singing nonsense syllables in animprovised or semi-improvised manner--well, Gene Greene does justthat. For a good account of Greene's life (and the lyrics to'King of the Bungaloos,' see my encyclopedia ofrecording pioneers.