Reference Entry

Sissle, Noble (1889 - 1975), Lyricist, Bandleader, Popular Singer

Annemarie Bean

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Sissle, Noble (1889 - 1975), Lyricist, Bandleader, Popular Singer

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vocalist, lyricist, and orchestra leader, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. His early interest in performance was influenced by his father, George Andrew, a Methodist Episcopal minister and organist, and by his schoolteacher mother, Martha Angeline, who stressed good diction. When he was seventeen the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and Sissle attended the integrated Central High School. Sissle had begun his professional life by joining Edward Thomas's all-male singing quartet in 1908, which toured a Midwest evangelical Chautauqua circuit. Upon graduating from high school, Sissle toured again, this time with Hann's Jubilee Singers. After brief enrollments at DePauw University and Butler University in Indiana, Sissle got his show business break when he was asked by the manager of the Severin Hotel to form a syncopated orchestra in the style of James Reese Europe. Syncopated orchestras (also known as “society orchestras” and “symphony orchestras”) played dance arrangements, restructured from the violin-based music of traditional dance orchestras, to feature mandolins, guitars, banjos, and saxophones. As the music historian Eileen Southern notes, the syncopated orchestra sound was not “genuine ragtime, but it was nevertheless a lusty, joyful music, full of zest” (347). Sissle's pioneering work with syncopated orchestras formed the basis for his important contributions to the newly developing sounds of American popular music, dance music, and musical theater.Noble Sissle, composer and co-creator of such celebrated American musicals as Shuffle Along. (Library of-Congress/Carl Van Vechten.)In the spring of 1915 Sissle was offered a summer job as a vocalist and bandolin player for Joe Porter's Serenaders. He moved to Baltimore, where he met his first and most significant collaborating partner, Eubie Blake, who had published his first piano rag at the age of fifteen and honed his craft by studying great ragtime pianists. When Blake met Sissle, he said: “You're a lyricist. I need a lyricist.” Soon Sissle and Blake, with Eddie Nelson, wrote their first hit. “It's All Your Fault” was recorded by the singer Sophie Tucker and netted the trio two hundred dollars. In the fall and winter of 1915–1916 Sissle played with Bob Young's sextet in Baltimore, Palm Beach, and other Florida venues. After playing in E. F. Albee's Palm Beach Week show at the Palace Theatre, New York, Sissle took a letter of introduction from the white socialite Mary Brown Warburton to James Reese Europe. Europe invited Sissle to join his Clef Club Symphony Orchestra. Sissle persuaded Europe to find work for Blake, and Sissle himself had his own small orchestra gig in New Jersey.When Sissle and Europe joined the army in 1917 upon the entry of the United States into World War I, the band they formed, the 369th U.S. Infantry Jazz Band, toured as the Hell Fighters. Their command performance in Paris, France, in 1918 electrified the crowd of thirty thousand. During their tour of duty, Europe and Sissle wrote songs together and sent them back to Blake (who, at thirty-five, was too old to enlist), who put them to music. Such songs as “Too Much Mustard,” “To Hell with Germany,” “No Man's Land Will Soon Be Ours,” and “What a Great, Great Day” clearly reflected the patriotic fervor of the period. With the end of the war, Sissle, Blake, and Europe began discussing a new musical. The tragic murder of Europe at the hands of a disgruntled band member in May 1919 cut short his participation in the musical genre. Sissle and Blake went on to become true songwriting partners in New York. The words of the hit song “Syncopation Rules the Nation” became a reality as they put the roar in the “Roaring Twenties.”Encouraged by Europe's former managers, Sissle and Blake reworked their material from the Clef Club shows and became the Dixie Duo on the Keith Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Blake banged out songs on an onstage upright piano, instead of a more traditional minstrel instrument such as the banjo or violin. However, the Dixie Duo's performances were greatly influenced by blackface minstrelsy. Sissle and Blake, and other African American duos such as Bert Williams and George William Walker (billed as “Two Real Coons”), existed on the narrow band between blackface minstrelsy and vaudeville. The racist and sexist joke material of minstrelsy was still standard, as was the glorification of plantation life “befo' de War.” Progress was made beyond the stereotype through the innovations of ragtime music and by adopting sophisticated dress. By playing ragtime music but not performing in blackface, Sissle and Blake further separated black popular entertainment from its artistic dependency on minstrelsy.In 1920, after seeing Sissle and Blake perform at an NAACP benefit performance in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy E. Miller asked them to collaborate on a new musical. Miller and Lyles, a vaudeville comedy duo who had met while students at Fisk University in Nashville, were interested in developing one of their comedic routines, “The Mayor of Dixie” (c. 1918), into a musical comedy. Miller believed blacks could and should perform in white theaters, but only in musical comedy. From 1910 to 1917 all-black musical shows had begun to define Broadway as the place for black talent. However, after 1917 black theater had experienced, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, a “term of exile.”By 1921 Sissle and Blake had completed their development work in black popular music and theater and were ready to introduce their sound to mixed audiences. They did so in two musical theater productions, Shuffle Along (1921) and Chocolate Dandies (1924, initially titled “In Bamville”), which moved black musical theater further from its roots in blackface minstrelsy and vaudeville.Shuffle Along was actually a hodgepodge of material gleaned from the work of Miller and Lyles and the Dixie Duo of Sissle and Blake. But with the song “Love Will Find a Way,” Sissle and Blake wrote the first romantic love song between two African Americans performed on Broadway. During the opening night performance in New York City, Miller, Lyles, and Sissle stood waiting by the stage door as Lottie Gee and Roger Matthews sang the song, ready to flee if the audience turned violent; they didn't, and the show was an overwhelming hit. Another landmark aspect of Shuffle Along is that the Sixty-third Street Theatre allowed blacks and whites to sit together in the orchestra seats. It also introduced the Broadway audience to a host of great African American performers, both during its New York run and its subsequent tour. In addition to Miller, Lyles, Sissle, and Blake, such notable performers as Gee, Gertrude Saunders, Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson were in the cast at-various points. Orchestra members included William Grant Still, the composer, as an oboist. But the great success of Shuffle Along also depended on prescribed conventions. Its creators were extremely anxious about introducing jazz music and dance to Broadway; Blake worried that “people would think it was a freak show.” For example, the orchestra members had to memorize their parts, because, as Blake stated, white people were uncomfortable with seeing blacks read music. The creators of Shuffle Along had to strike a fine balance between the skill and professionalism integral to creating a great musical comedy, and the white audience's unease with the presentation of such a piece being written, composed, directed, and performed by blacks.After the tremendous triumph of Shuffle Along, Miller, Lyles, Sissle, and Blake had difficulty deciding what to do next and opted to go their separate ways. Sissle and Blake wrote twelve songs for the musical Elsie (1923); they were jobbed in for the music only and had no influence on the production. They then worked on a new musical that became Chocolate Dandies. With a cast of 125, Dandies was an elaborate musical modeled on the revues of Florenz Ziegfeld and George White. Written by Sissle and Lew Payton, with music by Sissle and Blake, Dandies was Sissle and Blake's attempt to build a musical from the ground up. Staged in the South, Dandies' Bamville is a town where all life is centered on a racetrack. It recognizes the performance legacy of blackface minstrelsy and also pokes fun at it, as in Sissle's lyrics for the most overtly minstrelsy-influenced number in the show, “Sons of Old Black Joe”: “Though we're a dusky hue let us say to you / We're proud of our complexion.” Sissle and Blake were able to create a musical comedy that was enjoyable but also mildly critical of musical theater's racist history. And their cast reflected, again, some of the greatest performers of their day, including Johnny Hudgins, Baker, Valaida Snow, Gee, and Sissle, with Blake leading the band. In the end, Chocolate Dandies was not more economically successful for Sissle and Blake than Shuffle Along, but they considered it their greatest collaborating achievement.After Chocolate Dandies closed in May 1925, with a loss of sixty thousand dollars, Sissle and Blake returned to vaudeville. A European tour soon followed, and the pair toured England, Scotland, and France billed as the “American Ambassadors of Syncopation.” They were commissioned to write songs for Charles B. Cochran's (the Ziegfeld of England) revues. Sissle wanted to continue living in England, but Blake was unhappy with life there, so they returned to the United States, with Sissle resentful that he could no longer work for Cochran. In 1927 Sissle returned to Europe, where he toured France and England. With the encouragement of Cole Porter, he formed an orchestra for Edmond Sayag's Paris café Les Ambassadeurs, performing as the Ace of Syncopation. Sissle's band included many expatriate black musicians, including Sidney Bechet. In 1930 the Duke of Windsor played drums with Sissle's orchestra when it played for the British royal family in London. The orchestra took its first American tour in 1931, playing at the Park Central Hotel in New York and on a CBS nationwide radio broadcast. Meanwhile, Sissle and Blake reunited with Flournoy Miller to write Shuffle Along of 1933. The revision proved to be unpopular in the Depression-laden times, running for only fifteen performances in New York and touring briefly. Sissle returned to his orchestra in February of the same year, touring from 1933 through the late 1940s. Sissle also wrote and helped stage a pageant in Chicago, O, Sing a New Song, choreographed by the young Katherine Dunham. Lena Horne, Billy Banks, and Bechet all toured with Sissle at various points during this period. Sissle married his second wife Ethel in 1942 and became a father with the birth of Noble Jr. and Cynthia. (His first wife was Harriet Toye, whom he'd married on Christmas Day of 1919; their relationship had ended by 1926.) During World War II he toured a new version of Shuffle Along with the USO. After 1945 Sissle became increasingly involved in life away from the stage. He was a founder and the first president of the Negro Actors Guild and became the honorary mayor of Harlem in 1950. Both Sissle and Blake were involved with the Broadway production of Shuffle Along 1952. Developed as a star vehicle for Pearl Bailey (who dropped out of the production), Shuffle Along 1952 was changed through “modernization” and was an artistic and box office failure, and Sissle himself was injured when he fell into the orchestra pit during a rehearsal. His last recording, Eighty-six Years of Eubie Blake, was recorded with Blake in 1968.Sissle died in Tampa, Florida. With James Reese Europe and Eubie Blake, and in his own work as an orchestra leader, Sissle created the sounds of syncopated dance music, ragtime, and musical theater that defined American music in the first third of the twentieth century.

Reference Entry.  2005 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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