Two charming performers at the peak of their Broadway success
When the All-Black musical "Shuffle Along" opened on Broadway in May of 1921 it created a sensation, earned rave reviews, and then played to packed houses for over a year. Although it wasn't the very first Broadway show conceived, written and performed by African Americans, it was nonetheless seen as something different, modern and urban, a smart show that made a break from the old minstrel-style tradition. A major element of the production's success was the propulsive ragtime score of Eubie Blake, who pounded out his tunes at the keyboard, accompanied by the elegant lyrics of Noble Sissle, who sang and played a role in the show. The team's songs for "Shuffle Along" included two that became standards, "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way," and another whose lyrics made a boast that was startling for the time: "If You Haven't Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven't Been Vamped at All."
In the wake of their show's success Sissle & Blake were invited to Lee De Forest's Phonofilm Studio on East 48th Street in Manhattan, where they performed in several short films. De Forest and his collaborator Theodore Case had been experimenting with a new sound-on-film process, and, happily for theater historians, they produced a number of brief but fascinating movies capturing performances by the likes of Eddie Cantor, Weber & Fields, DeWolf Hopper, and others. Noble Sissle & Eubie Blake were, most likely, the first African American artists to appear in the talkies.
In this very short film the team performs before a closed curtain, Mr. Blake sitting at the piano while Mr. Sissle stands nearby. They begin with some casual cross-chat but the words are difficult to catch. Then they launch into "Affectionate Dan," a song about a gent who is something of a tomcat, and very popular with the ladies. Sissle carries the lyric, singing in a high, piping voice and bobbing up and down as Blake chimes in on the verse. When the song is over they both bow solemnly toward the camera, and then Blake kicks into a jaunty, up-tempo song about how people behave when they get to Heaven. Sissle really loosens up during this number, running in place and gesticulating. I don't know the title of the second song, but I liked the refrain in the chorus: "Not everybody talking about Heaven is going there!"
Noble Sissle's tenor sounds so high-pitched some may wonder whether the film has been formatted at the correct speed, especially since early sound recording technology often made voices sound tinny. It's hard to say, but worth noting that Sissle recorded several songs with James Reese Europe's band in 1919 and his voice sounds about the same on those records as he sounds here.
It's too bad the great comedian Bert Williams didn't live long enough to appear in sound movies, but it's nice to see Sissle & Blake in their early prime in this novelty short. Incidentally, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake both lived very long lives, long enough to experience vast change in the world. It's amazing to think that the man at the keyboard is the same Eubie Blake who performed as musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1979!
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