Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Black Swan on the “Great White Way”

By Chet Williamson

She is our empress – a singer, dancer, and actress who broke the color-barrier and shattered the glass-ceiling before such things were even mentioned. She was a majestic woman from the gauzy-past, whose illustrious career should make Worcesterites of all stripes proud.

Her name was Inez Clough, born in Worcester “sometime” around 1870. In a career that spanned nearly a half century, she helped to pave the way for blacks to perform on so called “legitimate” stages in the American Theater.

In Notable Black American Women, Book 2, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, the entry reads: “One of the most recent sources of information on Clough states that she was educated in Worcester in Boston, becoming a trained concert singer and pianist. She is further said to have begun singing concerts in Worcester in the 1880s. Little is known as present of her family and education, and her birth date is a learned guess based on the year she began her professional career.”

The bio-notes also report that the reason so little information is known about Clough is that she is often confused with another concert singer from the 1900s, also from Worcester, by the name of Stella Pinckney Clough. 

This is what we do know about Inez Clough, she was born into one of Worcester's most prominent African-American families. Her grandfather was Peter Rich. Born a slave in Lancaster, MA, Rich moved became one of only three men of colored to own property in Worcester before the Civil War. 

Inez' father was Francis A. Clough who own a popular barbershop in town. He was one of the leading men of black Worcester before, during, and after the Civil War. In 1860, he became of the first black men in the country to serve on an American jury. One of Inez' brothers, Benjamin, became Worcester's first black mailmen and sister, Jennie Cora Clough became one of the city's first black school teachers. She was a graduate of Worcester Normal School, which later became Worcester State Teachers and later still, Worcester State University. The school held a reunion in 1886 and Jennie wrote a song for the occasion. The chorus reads: "Welcome, schoolmates! Welcome teachers! Welcome o'er and o'er! We'll hail with joy each happy day. That brings us here once more." 

Worcester Normal School, class of 1878

See: http://worcester.edu/About/Shared%20Documents/WorcestersFirstAfricanAmericanSchoolteachers.aspx

The Notable Black American Women also notes that, “The path of Clough’s career can be traced with certainty after she began to appear on the professional stage. Clough’s first professional appearance was in the production of Oriental America, in which she sang in the section entitled “Forty Minutes of Grand and Comic Opera. Oriental America was the first black show to appear in a legitimate rather than a burlesque theater.”

Williams and Walker

That show opened in New York in 1896, before moving to London the following year. Clough stayed in Europe for another 10 years performing as a soloist and in musicals. She also worked in the English theater as a pantomime. She returned stateside in 1906, and worked in a string of productions starring the great team of Bert Williams and George Walker.

According to Notable Black American Women, the production of black musicals declined after 1909 and Clough sang concerts in major cities throughout the East Coast. None other than James Weldon Johnson singled out Clough for high praise of her performances. In the book, Black Women in America: Theater Arts and Entertainment, Weldon is quoted as marking April 17, 1917, as “the date of the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American theater." On that date, Three Plays for a Negro Theater, had opened on Broadway with Clough, playing one of the leads.

For the purpose of this column, the focus is primarily on Clough’s work in the shows of Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, two productions that put her squarely in the early jazz realm and at the center of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sissle and Blake

Both shows were largely the creations of the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Nobles Sissle. The team of Blake and Sissle were a winning combination in the world of early black stage productions.

Eubie Blake
James Hubert Blake, AKA “Eubie,” was first and foremost, a ragtime piano player who also composed popular songs and jazz tunes. He died five days after his 100th birthday and was quoted saying, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” In 1981, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Noble Sissle was a jack-of-all-trades. He was a jazz composer, lyricist, singer, playwright and bandleader. Incidentally, the great Worcester trumpeter Wendell Culley was once a member of his orchestra. Sissle was also a member of the famous James Reese Europe’s popular WWI 369th Infantry Band.

Shuffle Along was often remembered for featuring the song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which later became Harry Truman’s campaign song. But, as author Brian D. Valencia points out, “it was the popular success of Shuffle Along among mixed-race audiences and the musical's embodiment of all things jazz that separated it from its predecessors.”

Noble Sissle
When Shuffle Along opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921, it “marked the return of all-black musical shows to Broadway after nearly a decade-long silence,” said Valencia. “The last successful musical wholly written and performed by African Americans to be performed south of Harlem had been the George Walker–Bert Williams vehicle Bandanna Land in 1908.”

Note: Inez Clough appeared in that show as well. She also appeared in In Dahomey with Walker and Williams. This landmark show is considered one of the first African-American written musicals to be presented on the "legitimate" New York stage. Jesse Ship is responsible for the book. Will Marion Cook, along with James Weldon Johnson (author of Lift Every Voice and Sing), Alex Rogers and Williams supplied the music and the lyrics were penned by the great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Valencia notes that “Because of the long dry spell that preceded it, Shuffle Along has often been called the ‘first successful African-American Broadway musical,’ a title it cannot claim … . Nowhere was this felt more than in Sissle and Blake's innovative score, Shuffle Along's greatest artistic legacy, described by one reviewer as a 'breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie!' 

Unidentified actresses, possibly Clough
"Its fresh, steady supply of foxtrots, one-steps, two-steps, rags, and the blues induced involuntary physical reactions from both the performers and the audience, as the second number concedes: "When they see me shake, it makes them shiver. / When I do a break, it makes them quiver. / ... / I'm just full of jazz, jazz, jazz..."

More unidentified dancers in Shuffle Along

Unidentified dancer in Shuffle Along 
Sissle and Blake wrote the music and lyrics. The book was written by a couple of actors/comedians, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The show is responsible for launching the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall, and Paul Robeson.

In the book, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by
Marshall Winslow Stearns, Jean Stearns, the writers state that, “Shuffle Along made its own stars. A cast was assembled from all over the country, whose talents were known chiefly to Sissle, Blake, Miller and Lyles: four singers from a Chautauqua circuit; several performers from cabarets in San Francisco, New Orleans and Memphis; and a few members from the former Pekin Stock Company.”

Shuffle Along orchestra with Blake on piano
Shuffle Along ran for more than 500 performances before closing on Broadway. Gilbert Chase in his book, America's Music, from the Pilgrims to the Present said, “After the New York run came 15 weeks in Boston, a run in Chicago, a nationwide tour that lasted until the summer of 1923. Of course, it played to mixed audiences in white theaters – which was a triumph for the American people as well as for show business.”
Josephine Baker, age 16

In July 1922, Clough joined the road show of Shuffle Along. One of the highlights of her tenure was the show at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., in which Bessie Smith appeared as an added attraction. In between various stops along the way Blake, Sissle, and company recorded songs from the show on a variety of labels.

In his assessment of the show, Langston Hughes said, it “sounded the keynote” of the Harlem Renaissance. Commenting on its legacy, the writers of This Day in Civil Rights History, said, “Shuffle Along and its subsequent success were large contributing factors to the flourishing of an era that has since become known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Blake said: “The proudest day of my life was when Shuffle Along opened. At the intermission all those white people kept saying: ‘I would like to touch him, the man who wrote the music.’ Well, you got to feel that. It made me feel like, well, at last I’m a human being.”

Though not as successful as Shuffle Along, Chocolate Dandies was also a landmark production in black American theater. The show was the creation of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle with assistance from Lew Payton, who helped to write the book for this musical comedy.

The Chocolate Dandies opened at The New Colonial Theater in New York City on September 1, 1924 and featured a cast that included future sensation Josephine Baker, Valaida Snow and Elizabeth Welch. A young Lena Horne appeared in the chorus line. Singer Ivan Harold Browning played the romantic lead. Trumpeter Joe Smith was the show’s featured soloist. Inez Clough starred as the leading lady, Mrs. Hez Brown, the wife.

An early “tryout” version of The Chocolate Dandies, first called Bamville, toured for six months with stops in Chicago and Boston before appearing in New York. Though fairly successful, The Chocolate Dandies, received mixed reviews.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, “Some critics praised it as highly as Shuffle Along, but others said that it pandered too much to the stale ideas and expectations of white audiences.”

Writer Nadine George-Graves stated that according to Eubie Blake, "production was headed to Broadway, the producers brought in Julian Mitchell, a white dance director, to give it a ‘Broadway-touch.’

This was a common story at the time,” says George-Graves, “the enthusiasm for ‘blacks’ contributions to musical theater often did not translate into economic gains for the artists.”

It should be noted that a spate of jazz bands, calling themselves The Chocolate Dandies were spawned in the shows’ wake, namely, bands led by Don Redman, Sam Wooding, and Benny Carter.

The book, African-American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, states: “With a cast of 125, Dandies was an elaborate musical modeled on the revues of Florence Zeigfeld and George White … .”

The book goes on to describe the plot of the show in great detail saying, “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, ‘Sons of Old Black Joe:’ ‘Though we’re a dusky hue, let us say to you / We’re proud of your complexion.’”

Chocolate Dandies closed in May of 1925, after 96 shows, at a loss of $60,000. Still, according to the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Blake considered the show among his finest work.
Unidentified black actors in blackface with Josephine Baker

Gates and Brooks Higginbotham also note that, “Sissle and Blake were able to create a musical comedy that was enjoyable, but also mildly critical of musical theater’s racist history.” The authors also note that the cast reflected “some of the greatest performers of their day” including Inez Clough.

Though she is highly touted elsewhere and went on to star in a host of other theater productions, Clough is not singled out for her performance in The Chocolate Dandies.

Profiles of African American Stage Performers and Theatre People, 1816-1960 stated this about her: “She was an outstanding and versatile actress-singer of the concert, musical, vaudeville and dramatic stage, who appeared in several landmark shows during her long career.” 

Clough retired from show business in the late 1920s. She died of peritonitis on November 24, 1933, in the Cook County Hospital in Chicago after a long illness. Honoring her memory, the writers state: “Her career is a demonstration of talent and perseverance in the face of the great obstacles that were placed in the way of black actors and actresses. She was instrumental in establishing acting in the legitimate theater as a possible option for African-Americans.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com.  Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you.


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