Title: Celebrated, 1895-1896
Artist: Unique Quartette
Formats: 10-in. Vinyl EP, Digital
Release date: May 29, 2020
The Unique Quartette, a pioneering African American vocal group founded and led by Joseph M. Moore, holds the distinction of being the first black quartet to record commercially. According to newspaper accounts, the group was actively performing in the Northeast by the mid-1880s and remained quite popular until disbanding around 1899. The quartet made its first recordings in December 1890 for the New York Phonograph Company, intended for playback on coin-slot phonograph machines. Two of their early wax cylinder recordings were issued in 2005 on Archeophone Records’ GRAMMY-winning two-disc compilation, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891–1922, which bears the title of the book by Tim Brooks. In his chapter devoted to the Unique Quartette, Brooks’ concluded: “Were it not for the few, fragile brown wax cylinders that have survived from the early and mid-1890s, we would know little of a style of black quartet singing that was polished, engaging, and highly popular in its day.”1 Archeophone’s new release, Celebrated, 1895-1896, offers the opportunity to hear six exceedingly rare and expertly restored cylinders by the Unique Quartette, all but one revealed for the first time in nearly 125 years.
As producer Richard Martin states in liner notes, “a few key bits of information have come to light since Lost Sounds publication in 2004.” One important discovery was the 1899 sheet music cover to “Where the Sweet Magnolias Bloom” that includes the only known photograph of the Unique Quartette. Though the lineup of the group varied, photos and biographies of six of the members most likely to have performed on these cylinders are included in the accompanying booklet. The most crucial recent discovery was a collection of cylinders “originally owned by a 19th-century Pennsylvania leather tanner named William Mosser, which were ultimately transmitted (battered, piecemeal, and needing conservation and research) into the early 21st-century hands of [cylinder experts] David Giovannoni and John Levin.” Of the six tracks on Celebrated, five were from the Mosser collection. As an added bonus, the songs have been transcribed and full lyrics are printed on the sleeve.
Selections on Celebrated from the Unique Quartette’s 1895-1896 recording sessions include two songs also featured on the Lost Sounds compilation: “Who Broke the Lock” (same recording, newly remastered) and “Mama’s Black Baby Boy” (same song, but a later version), the latter composed by Charles Hunn, who was the brother of quartet member Ben Hunn. Also included are “I’se Gwine Back to Dixie” with piano accompaniment, the 19th century chestnut “The Old Oaken Bucket,” the earliest known version of “Jubilee: Down on the Old Camp Ground” featuring call-and-response and syncopated rhythms, and “Hot Corn Medley” which concludes with a burst of yodeling. The sound on all of the tracks is remarkably clear for cylinders of this era, thanks to the expert transfers by Giovannoni and Levin and remastering by Martin.
In the words of Rob Bowman, a professor at York University in Toronto who wrote the jacket notes: “From the vantage point of ethnomusicology in general and African American studies in particular, these recordings are of astounding historical importance . . . [providing] sonic windows into another time and place.” Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss