African American singing quartets recorded on cylinder (for instance, the
Unique Quartette in 1890), a young quartet based in Philadelphia appears to
have been the first to record on a flat phonograph disc.
On Wednesday, October 29, 1902, Sterling C. Rex (lead and first
tenor), J. Clarence Meredith (second tenor), Harry B. Cruder (first bass) and
James mantel Thomas (second bass), all members of the Dinwiddie Quartette,
recorded three songs at the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company,
located at Tenth & Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. They returned on October
31, to record three more songs. All six songs were then released on seven-
and ten-inch one-sided discs, appearing on the Victor and Monarch
labels over the next few years.
The Dinwiddie Quartette had gotten together at least three or
four years earlier, in order to raise money for the John A. Dix Industrial
School of Dinwiddie, VA (also known as the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial
School). The Dinwiddie School was the first black school in that area of
southeast Virginia. Whether the personnel of the original group was the same
as that which recorded is unclear. What is known, is that the Dinwiddie
Quartette spent two years touring for the school, singing in Y.M.C.A.
buildings, churches and similar venues. It has been reported that the group
raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school.
Sometime in 1902, the Dinwiddie Quartette ceased representing
the school and joined the cast of a touring black vaudeville show, called the
Smart Set. Headlined by Ernest Hogan and Billy McClain, the Smart
Set was a huge success and ran for many years. But it was in October
1902, while the Smart Set was playing Philadelphia’s National Theatre,
that the Dinwiddie Quartette was given the opportunity to record.
All six recorded songs were done acappella. All were
spirituals except the first song recorded, “Down On The Old Camp Ground,”
leading researcher George Moonoogian to once refer to this as “the first
rhythm & blues vocal group record.”
Victor released all six records in
December 1902. Copies have survived on the Victor, Monarch and
Victor Grand Prize labels. Tim Brooks reports that all six were issued on
both 7” and 10” one-sided discs. We at Classic Urban Harmony are only
familiar with the Victor 7” records, so the Monarch label may have been
used for the 10: discs. On record, the group was called, “The Dinwiddie
Colored Quartet”. At least “Down On The Old Camp Ground,” and maybe others,
were repressed over the next few years, indicating they were popular.
Both sides of the first black vocal group record, 1902
The Dinwiddie Quartette toured with the Smart Set through the
1902-1903 season. After that they toured on their own, still based out of
Philadelphia, where all four members of the group lived. By the end of 1904,
however, the group had disbanded.
Sterling C. Rex and James Mantel Thomas then joined the Bert
Williams and George Walker theatrical group, also appearing with the Williams
& Walker Glee Club. In 1905, Sterling Rex married Ada L. Guigesse, also a
member of the Williams & Walker group.
Sterling Rex (born in Pennsylvania, ca. 1880) and his wife Ada
(born in Louisiana, ca. 1882) continued living in Philadelphia. Census
records show their home in 1920 as 1026 South Colorado Street, and later as
1826 Fitzwater Street. Sterling Rex continued performing, mostly solo. A
1912 news clipping tells of his concert with the Philadelphia Concert
Orchestra at the Parkway Auditorium drawing a capacity crowd.
Many scholars have contributed to our knowledge of the
Dinwiddie Quartet over the past few years, including Rick Dembinsky and Doug
Seroff, but the definitive biography of the group is found in Tim Brooks’
outstanding book, Lost Sounds: Blacks And The Birth Of The Recording Industry
1890 – 1919, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL: 2004).
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