A brief but influential existence

Have you ever heard of the Black Swan record label? Neither had we (and it’s not something we’re proud of, given we’re all about pop and jazz of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s), but we were intrigued by Michael Pollak’s recent story in the New York Times and felt the Cladrite community might find it of interest, too.

Black Swan was the first major black-owned record company. It managed to remain in operation for just a couple of years, but its influence was wide-ranging and long-lived.

Black Swan was founded by one Harry H. Pace, a banking and insurance worker and disciple of W. E. B. Du Bois, who had previously paired with W. C. Handy in forming the Pace & Handy Music Company, a music publishing concern.

Nine years later, Pace made history when he parted with Handy and started Black Swan Records. Many of the established labels at the time would not record African-American performers, but Pace was not satisfied with merely rectifying that injustice, he set out to demonstrate the breadth of the talent in the African-American community, to, as Pollak writes in the Times, “challenge white stereotypes by recording not just comic and blues songs, but also sacred and operatic music and serious ballads.”

Black Swan would have achieved a certain degree of importance if only because the great Fletcher Henderson played piano on many of the label’s early recordings, but Black Swan rose to greater heights in signing Ethel Waters. Her blues recordings made a splash, and a vaudeville tour featuring Black Swan artists managed to make the label what Pollak terms “a national one.”

But Black Swan’s success led more established labels to realize what they’d been missing in not recording black artists, and in an effort to elevate the nation’s image of African-American performers, the label opted not to sign blues singer Bessie Smith to a contract.

That was a costly mistake.

The label did introduce the likes of Waters, Henderson, Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter, but after only two years, it was relegated to the dustbin of American music history. But during its brief existence, it had, as Pollak notes, awakened the music business, an impact that is still being felt today and for which we are all the richer.

Snapshot in Prose: Gordon & Revel

Though he would go on to work with other composers (and have his songs be nominated for the best original song Oscar nine times), Mack Gordon spent the 1930s paired with English pianist and composer Harry Revel. The duo were very successful indeed, penning a string of popular songs that included “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” “College Rhythm,” and our personal favorite Gordon-Revel tune, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”

This Snapshot in Prose captures the pair in 1934, at the height of their shared success. Read to the end of the piece, and you’ll find some of our favorite renditions of a few Gordon-Revel compositions.

MACK GORDON and Harry Revel must often grin these days and ask each other if they are not a couple of dreams walking.
They were born with an ocean between them but that couldn’t keep their words and music apart.
Mack Gordon is a native of Brooklyn. He is only now twenty-nine. While he was a youngster in school, Mack had a great flair for writing poems. Today, his lyrics are keeping millions of us romantic.
As soon as he was knee-high to a grasshopper he was trying to write shows for the whole school. Every one in the neighborhood knew him as “the little fat comedians.”
Mack’s family wanted him to be a lawyer He was too agreeable to disagree with them. So he went to law school. But not long, for he convinced his family he’d never make a lawyer.
After a year or two, Mack knew that he belonged to the theatre, to you and me.
From 1923 to 1930, Gordon played in vaudeville. Again he pitched in to run the show. He wrote his own entire acts—sang, danced, and clowned.
Of course, the lyrics writers soon cocked up their own ears and listened. Generously, they exclaimed:
“Why don’t you leave the stage and write songs?”
They were real friends, those Tin Pan Alley boys. Fortunately for Mack, he finally took their advice.
About this time, something prompted young Harry Revel to leave England and come to America. Though he had travel all over the world, Harry felt a terrific urge to try his luck as a composer in New York.
Harry had played in orchestras in many countries and when the orchestras didn’t play, Harry turned to his other talent, languages. Acting as interpreter, not matter where he happened to be. For Harry speaks, reads and writes nearly a dozen languages. It is fun to watch this London chap, American songwriter (for he is now a naturalized citizen), calmly reading Chinese.
We mention Harry’s extraordinary gift for languages because it seems to us to illustrate the marvelous sensitiveness of his ear to sound. Whether on his travels Harry heard Russian, Spanish or Hungarian, his ear held the impression of the words like a phonograph record.

Mack Gordon and Harry Revel met at a little dinner party in New York.
Mack heard Harry ripple off a few of his melodies, and said: “Boy! You’re pretty good.”
Then Revel listened to Mack’s impassioned recital of some of his love lyrics. He whistled, and said: “Bully! You’re even better than pretty good!”
With this exchange of orchids was born the popular team of songwriters.

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