UPDATED: JULY 11th 2018

Is this a world exclusive?

Well, I’d never seen it mentioned when I first wrote this five years ago. And I haven’t seen it mentioned since.

BluesMuse46. Nearly 103 years ago, a song was recorded that many blues and jazz traditionalists rate as their genres’ greatest of all time. It was Christmas 1915, and the song was St. Louis Blues, written and published a year earlier by that great African-American bandleader, William Christopher Handy. The track was first recorded in two takes in a New York studio, by the all-white Columbia Records house band, led by their patrician bandleader, Charles Adams Prince, a direct descendant of two U.S. Presidents.

What is incredulous is that all American blues recordings, up to 1920, were by white singers and orchestras. St. Louis Blues’ composer, W. C. Handy, incidentally, also wrote the very first blues ever recorded, The Memphis Blues, which had three different versions cut in 1914. (See my archive of 11 December 2013 – but this was so long ago, it hasn’t been re-formatted for this site as yet.)

Released in Britain in 1916, before the USA or anywhere else, Prince’s recording of St. Louis Blues is generally regarded as the track that introduced blues to the world. From London, it was taken to France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, back to the United States where it had been recorded.
In an interesting aside, 1916 was also the year that W. C. Handy offered the Delta Blues pioneer, Charlie Patton, then aged 25, a position in his orchestra as band guitarist. Charlie turned the job down, preferring to remain a solo performer. 1916, to add some perspective, was also the half-way stage of World War One.

Dan Kildare’s Ciro’s Club house orchestra. As far as I know, they were the first black performers in the world to make a blues recording. P.S. I have nothing to do with the above record. I’m featuring it because such a rare recording needs to be heard.

 

Now, I feel that I’m on the verge of a massive blues scoop here, because it has long been written that the first black artist ever recorded singing or playing the blues was the American burlesque singer, MamieSmith.

This was in August 1920 when Mamie was persuaded to cut Crazy Blues while standing in for the white singing star, Sophie Tucker.

(Some of us, believe it or not, remember watching Sophie performing live on TV. I must add, too, I wasn’t too impressed with the way she simply hollered out her songs.)

But now, staring me in the face, is the fact that the first version of St. Louis Blues with vocals was recorded in London, between August and October 1916.

It was made by a band unfortunately called the Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, a group of black American musicians working in England.

 

Please forgive the tastelessness of the band’s name but I would rather report things as they were rather than airbrush them from history.

Coon songs were highly popular in the USA during the 1880s and 1890s but, by 1916, had thankfully fallen out of fashion in America, due to the fact that people

were beginning to realise how insulting a moniker the genre fell under. As a result, coon shouters like Sophie Tucker were then becoming known in America as

blues shouters instead. Britain, obviously, was a bit behind the times when it came to the evolution of musical genres.

By my reckoning, this 1917 UK recording of St. Louis Blues makes Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra the first black artists ever known to have put blues on record, a fact I’ve never seen in print before. They were very nearly three years before Mamie Smith opened the door for all those African-American blues divas who would, during the 1920s, formulate the blues singing style that is now taken for granted. And would you believe it, I actually have a link to this historic recording.
The quality’s not good, the singing’s hard to distinguish and the main instrument seems to be a banjoline (thanks, Al). Please take a listen:

So, who was Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra and what were they doing in England during the First World War? First up, Ciro’s was a swanky nightclub located in Orange Street, just off the Charing Cross Road in London’s exclusive West End. Decorated in Louis XIV style, with a sliding roof and a dance floor on springs, it was the place in London for bright young things and high society to be seen.

A 1920s sketch of Ciro’s interior

The Ciro’s Club’s house band was led by a Jamaican pianist called Dan Kildare, born in Kingston in 1879. By his early twenties, Dan was doing well for himself in New York until NY Musician Union issues and racial politics encouraged him to sail to Liverpool, England, in 1915. Kildare took with him a number of African-American musicians from New York’s famous Clef Club (a social club and booking agency) and they secured themselves a year’s contract at the Ciro’s Club, not far from the intersection of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in London W1.

Under the name of Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, Dan Kildare’s band cut a series of records in August and October 1916 for the Columbia label in the UK including several novelties, a handful of Hawaiian numbers and the first version of St. Louis Blues ever recorded with vocals. (Coincidentally, some 55 years later, I’d find myself working for the same organisation – CBS Records, then in Theobald’s Road, London

As the gossip columnist for the UK’s upmarket Tatler magazine of September 1916 wrote:

 

I don’t know what one would do to keep one’s spirits
(up during WW1) if it weren’t for the theatres and
restaurants, and the little dances, with Ciro’s band to
bang away till breakfast time. The coon music, by the
way, isn’t getting depressed at all – in fact, it’s madder
than ever.”
Tatler, September, 1916
Dan Kildare. His was the first black band to record blues.
Dan Kildare’s group of African-American musicians also played many high society gigs during their time in London, including a garden party at Grosvenor House, attended by Winston Churchill and the British Prime Minister, Lord Asquith
Kildare’s orchestra would have been known as a string band in those days. And featured on their historic St. Louis Blues recording were Dan’s brother, Walter Kildare, who provided the vocals; Vance Lowry, banjo; Ferdinand Allen, banjoline (a mandolin with a banjo body, says Al at Resoguitar); Sumner “King” Edwards, bass, and Hugh Pollard, drums.
When Ciro’s Club was shut down for selling unlicensed booze in 1917, most of the band, including Dan’s brother, headed for France to join the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Apparently, many African-American troops were attached to the French army which was the catalyst that started the French jazz craze following WW1.
From then on, Dan Kildare’s life hit that drugs and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral so commonly familiar to rock, jazz and blues musicians, from cornet player Buddy Bolden being banged up for insanity in 1907, onwards.
The Jamaican pianist stayed in London, performing in Dan and Harvey’s jazz band with the drummer, Harvey White, and publishing original compositions. Apparently, he was earning good money and doing well.
Dan, by now, had achieved what many men dream of. He married a lady who owned a local pub, a Mrs Fink.
Yet, on 21 June 1920, Dan Kildare, aged 41, walked into his wife’s pub, shot her dead, shot and killed Mrs Fink’s sister, then killed himself with a bullet in the head. With his legacy now virtually forgotten, it would be nice if Dan Kildare started getting the recognition he deserves.
If you know of any black musician who may have recorded a blues track before Dan Kildare and his Ciro’s Orchestra in 1917, please let me know. It’s almost odds-on your musician will turn out to be the world’s first recorded blues artist. Apologies for the formatting. This post has been transferred from my old blogspot site and getting the type in any sort of order is like wrestling an octopus.
Please check my blues book America’s Gift at and my YouTube blues videos and songs at
In the UK, get your FREE How Blues Evolved Volume One and Two previews on this link below:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=how+blues+evolved+volume+one  
 In the USA, get your free previews on this link:

 

 

 

 

“Interesting and a very good read. #blues #blogs.”
PhillyCheeze Reviews @phillycheeze, Cedar Rapids, IA, USA. May 23, 2015.

“The main instrument sounds like a banjoline; a mandolin with a banjo body. It recorded very well with the primitive equipment.”
Al (@Resoguitar), December 26, 2013.

“I’m enjoying your blog. Entertaining and informative.” 
SassySalassi (@dinkydo1), Southern state, USA, December 21, 2013.

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