Reference Entry

Sissle, Noble

Bill Egan

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Sissle, Noble

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lyricist, orchestra leader, and actor. Noble Lee Sissle was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the fourth of six children. His parents were the Reverend George A. Sissle, a Methodist Episcopal minister, and Martha Scott Sissle, a schoolteacher. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906. Sissle attended Central High, a racially liberal white school. He joined the school glee club and in 1911 toured professionally with Hann's Jubilee Singers. When his father died in 1913, Sissle returned to Indiana and university studies, initially at DePauw, in Greencastle, and then at Butler, in Indianapolis. He developed lyricist skills writing parodies for the football team. Singing with Joe Porter's Serenaders in Baltimore, he met his future partner, the pianist Eubie Blake.Blake's playing and composing combined brilliantly with Sissle's singing and lyrics. In 1915 they had their first commercial song success when the vaudeville legend Sophie Tucker performed their composition “It's All Your Fault” and it was commercially published. Entering vaudeville themselves, Sissle and Blake were an instant success as the Dixie Duo, immaculate in tuxedos and without blackface makeup. In 1916 they joined the band of James Reese Europe. When the United States joined World War I, Europe formed the military band of the 369th Regiment, the legendary Harlem Hell Fighters. Sissle became the drum major and was promoted to lieutenant before returning from France in 1919.Home again, Sissle married the widow Harriet Toye and rejoined Blake in vaudeville. In 1920 they joined the comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles to create the show Shuffle Along. Its sensational success brought them instant fame. Sissle and Blake made a pioneering short sound film, Snappy Songs, in 1923. Their next show, Chocolate Dandies (1924), included Josephine Baker but did not match Shuffle Along's success.In 1925 they toured England successfully, but on their return to America they split up, Sissle preferring to return to Europe. Sissle formed his own orchestra, which played in England and France. On his return to the United States he promoted his band as a “society orchestra.” Though not truly a jazz orchestra, it employed many famous jazz musicians, including Sidney Bechet and Charlie Parker and the vocalists Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey.Sissle and Blake reunited briefly for Shuffle Along of 1933, which failed to recapture the original magic. The orchestra remained Sissle's major activity into the 1960s. A long-term engagement at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, from 1938 to 1950, was interrupted only by entertaining troops during World War II. In 1942 Sissle remarried, and with his new wife, Ethel, he had two children, Noble Jr. and Cynthia.Sissle was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild (1937–1982) and served as its first president. In 1948 Sissle and Blake found new fame when “I'm Just Wild about Harry” from Shuffle Along became the presidential campaign song for Harry S. Truman. In 1950 in recognition of his civic commitment Sissle was declared the honorary mayor of Harlem. A final revival attempt, Shuffle Along of 1952, flopped.Sissle continued to make occasional public appearances, and he was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers at New York's Town Hall in 1965 and on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. He recorded again with his old partner, Blake, in 1968. He retired to Florida, where he died in Tampa in 1975. Though he achieved much in his long life, Sissle is remembered mainly for Shuffle Along and “I'm Just Wild about Harry.”

Reference Entry.  675 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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