We had the opportunity to see “Shuffle Along,” while it played at the Music Box on Broadway, NYC.   We were lucky to see it, as it closed shortly after.  We originally pictured this be a recreation of the groundbreaking black musical that took the entertainment world by storm when it opened at the 63rd Street Music Hall in 1921.  But the current “Shuffle Along” is much more than that.  It’s actually about the making of the 1921 musical sensation and all that followed, set to the music and dancing of the original show.

The 1921 “Shuffle Along” was the first major African American written, produced and acted Broadway musical. The music was written by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake and the script written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles.  Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were with bandleader James Reese Europe whose 369th Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band had distinguished themselves both as war heroes and as the musical group that spread the new form of music, jazz, throughout Europe.  When Europe was murdered in 1919 by one of his own band member, Blake and Sissle began thinking of how to bring a black musical to Broadway.  The original “Shuffle Along” ran for 504 performances – an unusually long run for the 1920’s. It launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Adeline Hall. Florence Mills, Hall Johnson, William Grant Still and many others.  Prominent in the original musical was a vocal quartet called the Harmony Kings.

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First, let us say that the new “Shuffle Along” was outstanding, completely deserving of it current Tony nominations. [“Shuffle Along” has been nominated for 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical.]  Singing, acting and dancing are all top-notch.  Audra McDonald does a fabulous job as Lottie Gee, but then we expected that.  Clearly the most memorable song in the musical is “I’m Just Wild About Harry” though you would have to know the plot of the 1921 musical to understand who “Harry” is.

As vocal harmony fans, we were anxious to hear the Four Harmony Kings, who did a great job, though their appearances were sparingly short and far between. A little about the history of the original Harmony Kings, of whom we have a number of records by in our archives.

According to Tim Brooks, author of “Lost Sounds: Blacks & The Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919,” the Four Harmony Kings grew out of a gospel group and hit the big time in the Broadway musical, “Shuffle Along,” in 1921. They enjoyed a long career thereafter, performing in Europe and America and recording for several labels.  The group’s founder was bass singer William A. Hann, who first sang with the Midland Jubilee Singers, who later became Hann’s Jubilee Singers.  This group contained a young Noble Sissle around 1911.  Hann formed the Four Harmony Kings around 1916.

In April 1919, the Four Harmony Kings (William Hann, William Howard Berry, Charles Exodus Drayton and Ivan Harold Browning) met James Reese Europe while appearing in Chicago. Europe hired the Four Harmony Kings to be his band’s resident vocal quartet, already having a vocal sextet, the Singing Serenaders.  Europe had already recorded for the Pathe’ label and scheduled his next recording session for May 7 and 8, 1919.  During that session, Europe recorded six songs by the band and two with the vocal quartet, called on the record label Lieut. Jim Europe’s Four Harmony Kings.

The Harmony Kings traveled to Boston on May 9 for one final performance before their return to NYC.  During intermission, Europe berated one of his drummers, Herbert Wright, of unprofessional behavior during the performance.  Wright had walked off the stage when other were performing.  Wright became angry and lunged at Europe with a pen knife.  Three of the Harmony Kings were in the room when the attack occurred.  While the wound to Europe’s neck seemed superficial at first, it apparently nicked an artery and Europe was dead in a few hours.  A jazz pioneer and hero of World War I was silenced.

Europe’s May 1919 recordings, including those of  the Four Harmony Kings were released after Europe’s death.  Initially the Path label 78’s were pressed on vertically cut discs.  By the time of their 1920 release, vertical cut records were already obsolete and could  not be played on most phonographs.  {they were reissued in1923 on the more common laterally cut discs.)

Shuffle Along” debuted in May 1921 with a quartet called the Palm Beach Four.  For reasons we can only speculate on, this quartet was dropped from the musical in September and the Four Harmony Kings took their place.  The Four Harmony Kings were an instant success and drew rave reviews.  The Four Harmony Kings continued recording..

About a month before “Shuffle Along” closed on Broadway in July of 1922, Hann left due to illness and was replaced by a young Paul Robeson.  Robeson considered his month in “Shuffle Along” as the beginning of his professional singing career.  William Hann rejoined the Four Harmony Kings, who continued with “Shuffle Along” as it toured the United States and Canada in 1923 and 1924.  With a couple personnel changes, the Four Harmony Kings also joined the new Sissle & Blake show, “The Chocolate Dandies.”  Following the rest of the Harmony Kings career is beyond the scope of this article but can be found in great detail in Tim Brooks’ “Lost Sounds: Blacks & The Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919”.

Here are some of their records plus sheet music from the Classic urban Harmony Archives.  Scroll down for Discography, Audios and a Video of the group.


Four Harmony Kings Discography

Lieut. Jim Europe’s Four Harmony Kings

Pathe’ 22187                                      Swing Low Sweet Chariot Verticle                       1920
”                                                           One More Ribber To Cross

Pathe’ Actuelle 020851                     Swing Low Sweet Chariot                                    1920
”                                                           [by Jim Europe’s Singing Serenaders]

Pathe’ Actuelle 020871                     One More Ribber To Cross                                  1920
”                                                          [by Jim Europe’s Singing Serenaders]

Perfect 11058                                   One More Ribber To Cross                                  1920
”                                                          [by Jim Europe’s Singing Serenaders]

Four Harmony Kings

Black Swan 2016                             Ain’t It A Shame                                                     1921
”                                                         Goodnight Angeline

Black Swan 21061                           Love’s Old Sweet Song                                          1922
”                                                         [by Silvertone Quartette]

Emerson 10675                               Sweet Adeline                                                         1922
”                                                         [by Strand Quartette]

Paramount 12009                           Doan Ya Cry Ma Honey                                          1922
”                                                        Sweet Adeline

Vocalion 14941                               When The Saints Go Marching In                            1924
”                                                        My Lord’s Gonna Move This Wicked Race

Original Four Harmony Kings

Edison Bell Winner          [UK Releases, Pairings and label # unknown]                         1926
”                                                       Ain’t It A Shame
”                                                       Jesus Moves In De Middle Ob De Air
”                                                       Little David Play On Your Harp
”                                                       Long Ago Lullaby

Edison Bell Winner 4403              Dis Wicked Race                    [UK Release]             1926
”                                                       Heabben

Edison Bell Winner 4419              A Calliope Yodel                     [UK Re;ease]             1926
”                                                       De Gospel Train

Edison Bell Winner 4440             Rolling And Rocker Dem In HIs Arms   [UK Rel.]      1926
”                                                      Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho

Dominion                        [UK Releases, Pairings and label # unknown]                          1926
”                                                     Shout Hallelujah! Cause I’m Home
”                                                     Beautiful
”                                                     Dixie Dawn
”                                                     When Eliza Rolls Her Eyes

Click YouTube below to hear the Four Harmony Kings sing “When The Saints Go Marching In” (done slowly as it was sung in New Orleans funerals around 1900 before the song was “jazzed up”.  The song was originally an old African American spiritual.).

The video below is from a rare early Pathetone filmed in London 1934. Watch the Harmony Kings sing “The Cabin In The Pines”.  We’re not sure if this is the same Harmony Kings or not, but it probably is a later version of the group.