Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Along comes Shuffle Along—the vintage tracks
Reviews by Rob Lester


Harbinger Records

The behind-the-scenes, pre-Broadway opening development of the 95-year-old musical Shuffle Along is the subject of a production now on Broadway as well as the long and interestingly detailed liner notes in a just-released album of its songs featuring the songwriters and some cast members from the 1921 production. The original show had its struggles and challenges, but was a success. This new release from Harbinger Records, an invaluable label preserving musical theatre history and its composers and lyricists, is a treat that bubbles over with energized performances and sprightly melodies.

The album title wording stating Sissle and Blake Sing ..., is an unfortunate and inappropriate choice for the simple matter that Eubie Blake, the show's composer, does not sing at all here. With Blake playing piano and lyricist Noble Sissle doing competent and enthused vocals, the majority of the tracks (arranged in the song order of the show heard on opening night in New York) come from recordings made by the pair many years after that. Sissle was in the original cast, as were Shuffle Along's bookwriters Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The composer was in the pit, conducting. Some tracks are from discs on Blake's own label, which he began in the 1970s (Sissle died in 1975). Seven selections, recently unearthed and now with their sound retooled, are from demos made in anticipation of a 1950 revival. A revival happened instead a couple of years later, but only lasted four performances, even more disappointing than the 17 eked out by a 1933 remounting. However, theatre audiences in 1978 and '79 heard many numbers from the score on Broadway in Eubie!, a revue of Blake's work which produced a cast album and set the composer, then an ebullient age 90, into a swirl of renewed attention and appearances.

The songs occasionally interpolate melody quotes from other writers' familiar classics that were oldies even a century ago: you'll hear bits of "Dixie" and a longer stretch of "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," for example. With tracks recorded in three different decades, plus a piano roll of uncertain time, it is not surprising that sound quality and clarity vary. Sure, there are some clicks and pops and a foggier sound on the non-pristine oldest records, but they are quite listenable and their historic value outweighs the concern. And the demo recordings wouldn't measure up to high fidelity sonics standards of the mid-20th century's major label products intended for commercial release, but the efforts to electronically enhance them have resulted in very acceptable sound, even if you might strain a bit to catch some words and nuances.

Affection, pride, and nostalgia are palpable when we hear the writers perform these numbers decades after they were written. In some cases, they pre-date the decision to collaborate with the bookwriters, as some of the songs were from the writers' trunk and vaudeville days. Its most popular item, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," was a new musical setting for a major chunk of an old Sissle lyric. For this selection, the vocal is shared by Sissle and the equally peppy, cheery-voiced Ruth Williams. They take turns singing, line by line, back and forth, she taking the first-person pronoun, he singing about her feelings so that they don't seem to be both infatuated with Harry and "the "heavenly blisses of his kisses." Elsewhere, when the lyricist demonstrates a nifty piece written as a woman's song about her desired man, for example when proclaiming "I'm Craving for That Kind of Love," he keeps the male pronouns intact. His jubilation is a delight as he sings about "Bandana Days" and he's appealingly playful in the score's chipper and likeable title song, encouraging all folks—"butchers and bakers and undertakers"—to get moving. "I'm Just Simply Full of Jazz" is a self-descriptive statement of the favored musical genre which Blake is quoted as making "jazzy, but not too jazzy" to be accessible to a mixed audience not weaned on the increasingly popular style. The percolatingly lively, jazzy sensibilities are rarely absent in his singing or the music, despite his having outfitted three pieces with the word "Blues" in their titles: "Gypsy Blues," "Oriental Blues," and "Low Down Blues."

Some melodies are heard more than once, not as stand-alone reprises, but because there are two medleys. One is an uncredited, zippy piano roll that's a tinkly and terrific delight. The other, with some spoken asides, has the solid singing of Ivan Harold Browning, who was an original cast member as part of a vocal quartet (which for a while featured the iconic Paul Robeson). He's also heard in an unapologetically sentimental and sweet rendition of the show's hit ballad (also in both medleys), "Love Will Find a Way."

The liner notes—which are excerpted from a forthcoming biography of Blake by Richard Carlin and Harbinger's Ken Bloom, who produced the album—often mention the worry that a sincere romantic depiction might have been problematic. Any characters in an all-black cast presented as lovers could be deemed unacceptable to some white audiences in those shameful American times of ignorant racial attitudes of the early 1920s where, in many theatres, seating was segregated as was housing for actors in their out-of-town tryouts. We can be thankful that this lovely, innocently ode to amorous optimism was not cut or trivialized, which was considered, but rather prevailed and was well received by ticket-buyers and reviewers.

A recording by one of the original cast's female stars, Gertrude Saunders, is included: "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home." While her voice seems kind of strident on the ancient recording, the tone works for the plea and the historic value is duly noted. Three tracks bring us dialogue scenes featuring the bookwriters in their roles, especially amusing in malapropos such as pluralizing the already collecting noun "gentlemen" when addressing a crowd, making the word pronounced as "gentlemenses."

The rarely thickening plot was about a mayoral election in a locality called Jimtown, but the storyline and political satire are evident mainly in these spoken scenes included. As was often the case during these early musical comedy days, songs weren't always used to further the plot, but could just be material that the composer and lyricist wanted to showcase (old or new) or would suit the cast's skill sets, scenery, or costumes they were given to work with.

With necessity being the mother of invention, it's a neat tidbit to learn that the financially strapped company had to make do and be grateful for old costumes from the producer's closed shows, with specialty numbers written to allow those styles to be used, as if originally intended. Thus, "Oriental Blues" was whipped up because Asian-looking costumes were left over and cotton pickers' garb required the chorus to belt out something related and the songwriters came up with "Bandana Days."

The show, although written by four black men for an all-black cast with the support of white producers, retained some of the period's unfortunate racial stereotypes of buffoonery and even blackface-style make-up for so-called "comedy." It's what Miller and Lyles had been doing, as had other black (and white) performers. History simply doesn't shuffle along quickly enough for cooler heads to prevail, but there's much to embrace and reflect on here. The label plans to reissue other recordings from Blake's EBM label as well as the full set of demos from 1950. The history is fascinating and the songs are energy-fused—lilting, bouncy, and irresistibly grand fun for those of us who enjoy the old-timey genuine styles, silliness, and sparkle.

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