Unlike many of the white groups that frequented the recording labs of the 1890s the Unique Quartette was not just a studio group, they had national recognition as a salable act, putting on concerts mostly in the New York City area but also as part of touring theatricals. As the earliest Black quartet to reach a level of fame, and to leave behind recordings that we can enjoy, they have been the subject of quite a bit of research.
In 2004 Tim Brook’s released what is probably the masterpiece of American music research this century. Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919 is a massive and seemingly exhaustive survey, and yet it has become the jumping off point for additional research. He covers in eight pages everything then known about the Unique Quartette, and discusses their three known recordings, one of which was too rough to be released. The other two recordings appeared on an accompanying double disc from Archeophone, where they were fan favorites.
New research has uncovered five additional recordings from this important group, released here for the first time. The sixth track, “Who Broke the Lock”, has received a much better restoration than was possible in 2004. It is likely sung by Ben Hunn, the brother of the songwriter Charles Hunn, who also wrote “I’m the Father of a Little Black Coon”, which was recorded by former Quartette member Charles Asbury. It was a small world.
The Unique Quartette was formed by Joe Moore in 1886, if not earlier, and Moore stuck with the Quartette throughout its history, replaced only briefly in 1900 before the group disbanded. Several of the other members were with the group for long stretches, or in and out of it. All of the groups recordings were made between 1891 and 1896 with the recordings presented here from the end of that period. They never recorded for the major labels like Columbia, and it is unclear which small labels these specific records were made for.
From the start the group included the best African American performers on the circuit, including Charles Asbury, known now for early banjo recordings brought to light by Archeophone two years ago.
Three of the longest serving members of the group appear in a newly discovered photograph of the band, the first known. It was found on sheet music published in 1899. Some of those faces may be behind the voices on this six track, 10″ LP, and the liner notes take a stab at determining who is who. For those who desire a deeper dig, Archeophone goes into greater detail in one of two blogs about this release on their website.
The liner note biographies often offer more information about what these obscure artists did after the quartet then during their time with it. This is because all of these musicians had careers for at least another decade into the 20th century. They were integral to the Black entertainment community that began to grow up in New York city in the 1890s, became somewhat dormant during the teens, (at least where stage productions were concerned,) and then blossomed at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of them appeared as singing waiters at hotels along the Jersey Shore.
The substantial liner notes included with this package may leave the impression that you are missing something if you don’t have access to the Lost Sounds book. No fear, they do a good job of highlighting the important points from that work while incorporating new research and clarifications. You absolutely should read that book, but this record includes with it enough information to give you a full understanding even if you haven’t.
In addition to the notes a short description of each title is included on the record sleeve, followed by the lyrics. Lyric sheets are a blessing when listening to early wax cylinders. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the choice to release these songs on vinyl adds a warmth that overcomes any acoustic deficiency in the source material. It also testifies to the historical importance of these recordings. This is a special set, meant to be respected and treasured, and the packaging asserts that in a way a six track CD never could.
The tracks include a second recording of “Mama’s Black Baby Boy”, that can be compared to the earlier version heard on the Lost Sounds release. Developments are evident, and it is another example of a group keeping a recording in their catalog the way a band today might keep a hit in their live show. At the time, when a recording sold out, you were called back to the lab to record some more copies, directly to cylinder, through an acoustic horn.
“I’se Gwine Back to Dixie” was a very popular tune in the era, and having this early example from a professional Black quartet lends insight into the performance style of the times The unusual addition of piano accompaniment adds pizazz to the recording.
“Old Oaken Bucket” is an interesting find because it was a title typically sung by white quartets. Public demand and musician availability may have contributed to this version being called for. When compared to other known versions by white groups it illustrates the Unique Quartette’s distinct approach to material.
The version of “Jubilee: Down on the Old Camp Ground” heard here is now the earliest known. It replaces a recording from 1902 by a later Black quartet.
The most surprising highlight of the album is the ending to “Hot Corn Medley”. After a series of song fragments the group breaks into an impressive yodel ensemble. Yes, a black barbershop quartet yodeling 125 years ago.
The Unique Quartette: Celebrated, 1895-1896
Archeophone.com (10”, six track EP with a 4-page folio)