February 22, 1998

Black People: Entertainers of African Descent in Europe, and Germany.  By Rainer E. Lotz.  Bonn: Birgit Lotz Verlag, 1997.  398 pp.  Includes CD.  ISBN: 3-9803461-8-8.  Price: 100 deutschmark plus 10 dm postage.  Birgit Lotz Verlag, Jean Paul Strasse 6, 53173 Bonn, Germany (ph: 49-228-352808).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

The profusion of artist profiles and discographies pouring out of Germany, courtesy of Dr. Rainer Lotz, a banker whose real passion seems to be early recording history, is nothing short of remarkable.  From The Banjo on Record to Hitlers Airwaves to the multi-volume “German National Discography” (gulp!), he is documenting some of the most obscure corners of recording history with assiduousness and precision.

Like any good researcher, Lotz seems to realize that a historical investigation is never really finished.  New information turns up, and new insights are gained with the passage of time.  The present volume consists of 15 articles by Dr. Lotz.  All but one have been previously published, but many are so thoroughly revised or augmented with new information as to make this essentially a new book.  The earlier versions of these articles are in any event hard to find; several are from the early 1980s, and/or in obscure publications such as The Black Perspective in Music, South African Theatre Journal, The International Discographer (one issue published, in 1992) and the German-language Fox auf 78.  All text here is in English.

The subjects covered are primarily American black entertainers who performed (and recorded) in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Earliest are the Bohee Brothers, U.S. minstrels who moved to England in 1881 and who in the 1890s made some of the first recordings by blacks.  Their specialty was playing banjo while dancing. (Don’t believe it?  See the picture on page 47.)  Seth Weeks was an instrumentalist who recorded as early as 1900, and later played in jazz bands of the 1920s.  Belle Davis was a singer and dancer with a particularly unusual act (pictured here) consisting of black youths who danced and tumbled.  Pete Hampton was a former member of the Williams and Walker theatrical troupe who moved to England and made numerous recordings in the early 1900s, alone and with his wife Laura Bowman.  His repertoire included Williams and Walker songs and ragtime tunes.  Others who recorded early include Will Garland, Arabella Fields, the Black Diamonds, William McAllan and a group of Sudanese villagers recorded in Berlin in 1909.

Incidentally, the chapter on the Bohee Brothers perpetuates the claim that they may have been the “first Afro-Americans to record.”  This is based on the slender evidence of a March 1892 Australian newspaper report about a traveling phonograph exhibitor who was said to be playing cylinders by the Bohee Brothers, among others.  The exhibitor had left England in mid 1890, so it is speculated that maybe he brought the cylinders with him, and they were therefore made before he left–i.e., “early 1890”.  Then again, maybe he didn’t.  In any event I have documented the existence of recordings by black street performer George W. Johnson in the U.S. as early as May, 1890; this is from a list of cylinders in stock, so they must have been made before that.  These were commercial recordings.  If “first to record” means any type of recording, then Johnson’s experimental tin-foil recordings (cited in The Phonogram, November 1900) would predate 1890 by a decade or more.

Some acts profiled in Black People did not record (although some of their members did).  These include W.N. Spiller’s “The Musical Spillers,” actor/instrumentalist Edgar Jones, The Black Troubadours, and the “Louisiana Troupes” (a series of mixed and all-female groups).  Perhaps the biggest star profiled is dancer Louis Douglas, who began as a child actor at the turn of the century and went on to appear in major shows and feature films, all documented here.  The Douglas chapter is a good example of how much these essays have been expanded from prior versions.  Only a year ago Lotz published a 45-page essay on Douglas in The Storyville Yearbook 1996/97; here it has grown to 90 pages.

Since the performers profiled spent the major portion of their careers in Europe, most are not well known in the U.S.  Tracing their activities meant pouring through theatrical newspapers from various countries in different languages, as well as government files, ship’s registers and record catalogs from an assortment of international labels.  The author provides admirable source documentation for all this.  What emerges is a picture of a fascinating theatrical sub-culture: talented but second-rank black performers who would have been lost in the huge U.S. market, but who built respectable careers in more accepting countries.  Few of these artists would have had the opportunity to record in America, and their repertoire (often ragtime-oriented) would have been lost to us.

Black People is greatly enhanced by profuse illustrations drawn from newspapers, handbills, publicity stills and other sources.  Sharp and clear, they make the subjects come alive.  For example the chapter on Belle Davis, which previously appeared in the ARSC Journal (25:2), is augmented with new stills from a recently discovered 1906 film showing Davis’s frenetic young dancers in action.

Another bonus is the 21-track CD which accompanies the book, including music drawn from movies, piano rolls and music boxes, as well as recordings.  There is something a little eerie about hearing Scott Joplin’s famous “The Entertainer” reproduced from a crystal-clear 1902 Symphonion metal music box disc.  Lotz makes the point that black music was disseminated in many ways, not just through records.  That said, rare early recordings by Seth Weeks (1901), Belle Davis (1902), Pete Hampton (1904), Arabella Fields (1907) and others will be worth the price of admission for many.  The transfers, by Charlie Crump, are fine.

The book contains a lengthy and somewhat dense introduction by jazz expert Howard Rye, and a listing of jazz and hot dance reissues on the Harlequin label, many of which were produced by (and from the collection of) Dr. Lotz.

Most of Rainer Lotz’s books are limited editions.  Only 500 copies of this one were printed.  For anyone interested in early European recording history, or in black studies, this book is a must.


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