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Remembering 'Shuffle Along,' the first Black Broadway hit, as it turns 100

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/30/2021 Jim Beckerman, NorthJersey.com
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What do the following have in common: Judy Garland, President Harry Truman, a milestone in African American culture, a singing frog?

The answer is a song. "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

The hit tune, covered by everyone from Garland to Alice Faye to Peggy Lee to Al Jolson, became the theme of Harry Truman's 1948 presidential rallies. In 1955, it was belted out by the maddening Michigan J. Frog in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon "One Froggy Evening." Daffy Duck sang it as well. More recently, it turned up on "Downton Abbey."

Eubie Blake et al. posing for a photo: "Shuffle Along": Eubie Blake and the ladies © Glasshouse/Shutterstock "Shuffle Along": Eubie Blake and the ladies

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That song — and the show it came from — celebrates its 100th birthday this year. But "Shuffle Along," the first Broadway hit written, composed and performed by African Americans, left a legacy much bigger than a couple of cartoons and a presidential campaign.

Indeed, author Caseen Gaines argues that its fingerprints can be found all over American culture, in the hundred years since it opened on May 23, 1921.

a group of people walking down the street: "Shuffle Along" plays out of town © glasshouse "Shuffle Along" plays out of town

"This show intersected with so many people's lives, and so many significant cultural moments, and yet the show itself has been forgotten," said Gaines, a cultural historian whose book "Footnotes" (Sourcebooks, $26.99) views "Shuffle Along" through the widest of historical lenses. 

The rise of Harlem as a Black cultural capital — through a series of dodgy real estate maneuvers — enters into it. So does World War I, and the vaudeville and Broadway of the era. So do a lot of famous names.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Al Jolson, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Fiorello La Guardia, Langston Hughes and the once-famous Southern humorist Irvin S. Cobb ("Judge Priest") have walk-ons. Along with them, a galaxy of stars who passed through the show or its revivals: Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, classical composer William Grant Still, Fredi Washington ("Imitation of Life"), Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey.

"It was a watershed moment for representation, and a proof that Blacks could find success in all-white spaces," said Gaines, who teaches literature, drama and journalism at Hackensack High School. 

In 1921, as today, America was just coming out of a pandemic. Broadway was in the doldrums.

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Caseen Gaines © Calle Caseen Gaines

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, burst a show the likes of which theatergoers — white theatergoers — had never seen. There were high-stepping chorus girls, dancing with an energy that left the audience breathless. There were hijinks by comedians, and a score that was as fresh as the new music seeping into America from the tenderloins: jazz. And there was one dangerous novelty. A love song — a real one, not a comedy number — sung by a Black man to a Black Woman.

It did not come out of nowhere.

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The hard way

"Shuffle Along" was the confluence of dozens of talents, brought together by luck, and brought to Broadway's doorstep by sheer nerve.

"I think through the lens of this story, you get to see so much about not only what Black artists had to endure in order to achieve success in this country, but more broadly what Black men and women had to endure in all aspects of American life," Gaines said.

Eubie Blake, the composer, was and is considered the foremost "modernist" among the ragtime greats. His "Charleston Rag," written as early as 1899, is often considered a transitional work, halfway to jazz.

Noble Sissle, the lyricist, had been a lieutenant in World War I — he fought with the French, because the Americans wouldn't allow African Americans to serve — and had been vocalist for the famous bandleader James Reese Europe, who more than anyone else popularized jazz at home and abroad. He even invented the term "gig." When Europe was unexpectedly killed in 1919 — stabbed to death by a disgruntled drummer — the music world was in shock, and Sissle was at loose ends.

a group of people holding a sign: "Footnotes" cover © Sourcebooks "Footnotes" cover

Sissle and Blake had met in 1915. Now, after Europe's death, they created an act, The Dixie Duo, that played the top vaudeville theaters. It was not the kind of act white folks were used to seeing. Sissle and Blake came out not in plantation rags and blackface, but in the spiffiest evening attire. In 1923, the two appeared in one of the very earliest talkie shorts: the first African Americans ever to speak on screen.

"Eubie Blake coined the term 'talkie,' " Gaines said. "It was the first time someone referred to it that way. Noble Sissle says, 'Well, here we is in the movies.' And Blake says, 'Brother, this ain't no movie, this is a talkie.' That was four years before 'The Jazz Singer.' "

During their tours, they had met the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, who had been bringing down the house with a play called "The Mayor of Dixie." Why not join forces? And why not — while they were at it — aim for the brass ring: Broadway.

"Shuffle Along," about a pair of scoundrels (Miller and Lyles) who try to disrupt a mayoral race, was essentially "The Mayor of Dixie" with music. But what music! There was "I'm Just Wild About Harry" — originally written as a waltz until singer Lottie Gee insisted it be turned into a peppier one-step — which quickly became the hit of the show. There was "In Honeysuckle Time," "I'm Simply Full of Jazz," "Everything Reminds Me of You" and the toe-tapping "Baltimore Buzz."

a person wearing a suit and tie: Noble Sissle. Eubie Blake © Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock, Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock Noble Sissle. Eubie Blake

And then there was the groundbreaking number that gave the creators the most agita: the ballad "Love Will Find A Way."

"It was incredibly risky to have two Black actors expressing genuine emotion for each other on stage," Gaines said.

Before "Shuffle Along," Black women were relegated to a few stereotyped roles on stage: Mammy, Jezebel, Tragic Mulatto. "None of these types was just a woman in love with a man," Gaines said. "They actually received telegrams to the theater, warning of potential race riots. The show had had a pre-Broadway tour; it had been written about. There were concerns that the white audience would not stand to see this on stage."

When the song came on, opening night, some backstage were making plans to flee the theater. But white people — this time — were on board. "Love Will Find a Way" went over, just like the rest of the show. "It really validated Black people's humanity in a way that hadn't been done on stage before," Gaines said.

So did the female dancers — who were cast, contrary to all known laws of Broadway, for their talent, not their legs. The show created several huge stars, among them Florence Mills and the toast of Paris, Josephine Baker. 

"It was a really significant show for women, because it was the first time that women in the chorus on stage were celebrated for their vocal abilities and their dance abilities, not their beauty," Gaines said.

"Shuffle Along" came to Broadway with few advantages. The team had to beg money to get from town to town for their tryouts. The costumes were hand-me-downs. Their venue, a disused lecture hall on 63rd Street that had been retrofitted into the semblance of a theater, was not in a league with the swank playhouses farther downtown.

But still, word got out. "Shuffle Along," with its wild comedy, catchy tunes and gyrating dancers unlike anything Broadway had seen, was suddenly a hot ticket. Coming on the heels of World War I and a terrifying pandemic, it was just what the doctor ordered.

"It was such a perfect storm in 1920," Gaines said. "New Yorkers were looking for escapism. This show was a novelty that provided just that escape."

The show got Broadway humming again: The 1920s are often considered its greatest decade. And it played a big role in the Harlem Renaissance, Gaines believes.

"People came from all over the U.S. to see 'Shuffle Along,' " Gaines said. "Langston Hughes chose to attend Columbia because he wanted to see 'Shuffle Along.' He credits the show with single-handedly kick-starting the Harlem Renaissance. The show served as a siren song for so many Black artists to come to Manhattan."

Touchy subject

From this distance, "Shuffle Along" is a mixture of the extraordinary and the problematic.

The score was delicious. The singing lovers were ahead of their time. Blake and Sissle — who appeared in the show — were in tuxes, just as they had been in their vaudeville act.

But the comics Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles did their antics in blackface, and their dialogue was full of dats and dems. "Shuffle Along" had been designed to appeal to both Black and white audiences — but likely they saw such things through different lenses, Gaines said. 

"Black audiences knew that what Miller and Lyles was doing was humor, and wasn't a true representation of all Black people," he said. "It was a caricature; it was silly. But there were some in the Black intelligentsia who were very concerned that the white audience would see it as a true representation of Black life." 

Even the term "shuffle" might have been seen differently, according to the eye of the beholder. To whites it called to mind a lazy, shiftless minstrel show caricature. To Black audiences, and to the show's creators, the shuffle in "Shuffle Along" meant something else. "If you lose, don't start a-singing the blues," the lyrics run. "Keep smiling and shuffle along." 

"The lyrics really point to, even when things aren't going right, you just have to put one foot in front of the other,"  Gaines said. "Even if you're not walking, just shuffle. Get yourself there. It's about perseverance."

Troubling as it might seem today, the comedy of Lyles and Miller was actually a big part of the show's success in 1921. They were master comedians, and if they trafficked in old stereotypes, it was much more deftly than audiences were used to. "It's really quite snappy and witty," Gaines said. "Miller once said the blackface was the bait to draw the audience in. Once inside, they would appreciate their fine art."

They, too, entered the cultural bloodstream. 

Seven years after "Shuffle Along," a new radio show made its debut in Chicago. The two actors who created and performed "Amos 'n' Andy" — both white — lifted the Lyles and Miller antics wholesale, even down to catchphrases like "I'm regusted" and "let me resplain to you." It became radio's biggest hit. "So much of their humor was appropriated," Gaines said. 

a couple of guys posing for a picture: From top: Flournoy Miller, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake. Aubrey Lyles © Maryland Center for History and Culture From top: Flournoy Miller, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake. Aubrey Lyles

Lyles and Miller sued, dropping the lawsuit only after they were promised a show of their own. Eventually — and ironically — Miller went on to write for "Amos 'n' Andy."

Meanwhile, the success of "Shuffle Along" turned Broadway Black overnight. "There were more Black artists working on the great White Way in 1923 than there are today," Gaines said.

Among them was a composer-pianist, James P. Johnson, who wrote a score for a 1923 show called "Runnin' Wild" that featured a hot dance number called "The Charleston." Instantly, it became the anthem of the Roaring Twenties. Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson were among the African American artists who, in the 1920s, made a splash on Broadway. There was a sudden, enormous white appetite for Black song and dance. Rich folks started making the trek to Harlem, "in ermine and pearls," as Lorenz Hart put it, to see the jazz and the girls at the Cotton Club. "Shuffle Along" had started something.

Sissle and Blake spend the rest of their lives trying to duplicate the success of their biggest show. They were doing, or proposing, revivals as late as the 1950s and beyond: The 1978 Broadway revue "Eubie!" had begun as yet another revival of "Shuffle Along." Blake, who lived to be over 100, by his own reckoning — he died in 1983 — became the grand old man of ragtime, but he never had another success quite like it.

"Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed" — a sort of meta-adaptation by George C. Wolfe that jettisoned the problematic humor — had a brief Broadway run in 2016, lasting only 100 performances. Gaines attended, seeing it two performances before the close. But out of that came his book "Footnotes."

"I saw the 98th performance, a matinee," said Gaines, author of "A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic" and "We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy," and a contributor to New York, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

"I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the talkback, and it was unlike any experience I ever had in a Broadway theater," Gaines said. "It wasn't celebratory. It was almost funereal. There was a palpable sense that this story was being lost yet again."

As soon as he got home, he started Googling: Noble Sissle. Flournoy Miller.  And he was hooked.

"It was a labor of love," he said. "The more I was writing, the more I fell in love with these people and their stories."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @jimbeckerman1 

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Remembering 'Shuffle Along,' the first Black Broadway hit, as it turns 100

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