The recent revival of 1921’s Shuffle Along, the first Broadway show to be written and performed by African-Americans, is a welcome event. The score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle is intact in the new Broadway version even if the story has been greatly changed.
But while “I’m Just Wild About Harry” came out of that production, the most successful black musical revue on Broadway in the 1920s was actually Blackbirds of 1928. Ironically its music was written by a pair of notable whites (composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields) but its performers, which included singer Adelaide Hall and dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, were African-Americans.
Impresario Lew Leslie had had success with the show Blackbirds which played in London during 1926 and starred the short-lived singer Florence Mills. Its successor, Blackbirds of 1928, ran for 518 performances and introduced such songs as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Diga Diga Do,” “Doin’ The New Low-Down” and “I Must Have That Man.”
The Famous Blackbird Revues, a recent reissue, has the most significant recordings that came out of these productions. There are six selections from the original Blackbirds show; four performed by 1926’s Plantation Orchestra and two numbers recorded in 1928 by Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds Orchestra. While none of those songs became standards, the playing of the two hot dance bands is excellent, Also included are two songs from the short-lived Blackbirds Of 1930 performed by Duke Ellington’s orchestra with vocals by Dick Robertson. Both of the Blake-Razaf songs caught on with “You’re Lucky To Me” getting many recordings during the era and “Memories Of You” becoming Blake’s biggest hit.
The remainder of this CD is as close as possible to an “original cast” album of Blackbirds Of 1928 even though it was recorded during late-1932/early-1933 and (other than Adelaide Hall and Bojangles) features performers who were not in the show. These recordings were originally released as a set of four 78s. Featured are the Mills Brothers, Ethel Waters, Bojangles (with Don Redman’s orchestra), Adelaide Hall, and Duke Ellington’s big band, all in prime form.
The CD concludes with a seven-song medley of the hit songs from Blackbirds of 1928 played by Ellington’s orchestra which is only fitting since Duke (who was not directly associated with the show) helped to make “Diga Diga Do” and “I Must Have That Man” famous.
Hopefully someday Blackbirds Of 1928 will receive its own revival.