Columbia Repertoire History: African-American Artists

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

Besides the black jazz bands and blues artists of the 1920s, Columbia recorded a surprising number of African-American artists over the years. The novelty songs of black street performer George W. Johnson remained in the Columbia catalog (first on cylinder, later on disc) from the time the company moved to New York in 1895 until 1915, two years after Johnson’s death. As noted earlier, pioneer black stage star Bert Williams began with the label in 1906 and was a top seller until his death in 1922. One of the best known groups performing serious black music was the world famous Fisk University Jubilee Singers, who joined Columbia in 1915 after recording for Victor and Edison. They remained with Columbia until 1926, and several of their spirituals were best sellers.

Not all African-American artists were so highly promoted, however. In some cases, Columbia seemed to go out its way to hide the fact that an artist was black. Carroll Clark, a concert tenor from Denver, was a Columbia artist from 1908 until 1924, but he was assigned mostly standard "Southern songs" (Stephen Foster, etc.) and his race was never revealed. The catalog listing for his version of "Swanee River" was accompanied by a picture of the river!

Less well known today are the Apollo Male Quartette, an apparently black jubilee group whose race was also not specified (1912); the Afro-American Folk Song Singers (1914), a chorus led by composer Will Marion Cook; Joan Sawyer’s Persian Garden Orchestra (1914); and New York cabaret artists The Right Quintette (1915). Recording in Columbia’s "personal" series (not for general issue) were such notables as black leader Booker T. Washington (1908), heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson (1910) and concert tenor Roland Hayes (1917). 

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.