“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.

BluesMuse46. Exactly ninety-eight years ago this month,
a song many traditionalist rate as the greatest blues standard of all time was
recorded for the first time. It was December 1915 and the song was St. Louis Blues, written and published a year earlier by that great African-American bandleader, W. C. Handy. The track was first recorded in two takes,
probably in New York, by the all-white Columbia house band, led by the
descendant of two U.S. Presidents, Charles Adams Prince. You might find it incredulous to find that all American blues recordings up to 1920 were made by
white singers and orchestras, but those are the facts. W.C. Handy, incidentally, also wrote the very first
blues recorded, The Memphis Blues, which had three different versions cut in
1914. (See 11 Dec 2013 archive.)

Released in Britain before anywhere else in 1916, Prince’s recording of St.
Louis Blues is generally regarded as the track that introduced blues to the
world. In an interesting aside, 1916 was also
the year that Handy offered the delta blues pioneer, Charlie Patton, then
aged 25, a position in his band as the guitarist. Charlie turned it down,
preferring to stay solo. 1916, to add some perspective, was also the half-way stage of World

Dan Kildare’s Ciro’s Orchestra cut world’s first black blues

War 1.

Now, I feel that I’m on
the verge of a massive blues scoop here, because it’s long been considered that
the first black artist ever recorded singing or playing the blues was Mamie
Smith. This was in August 1920. Mamie sang Crazy Blues while standing in for
Sophie Tucker. But now staring me in the face is the fact that the first
version of St. Louis Blues with vocals was recorded in London in September
1917, by the Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, a group of black American musicians working
in England. You’ll have to forgive the tastelessness of the band’s name. Coon
songs were by now out of fashion in America, due to the fact that people were
beginning to realise how insulting a moniker that was. As a result, coon
shouters like Sophie Tucker were then becoming known 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),
but 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

A 1920s sketch of Ciro’s interior

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. 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 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 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 unfortunate 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. (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 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 probably 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
then on, Dan Kildare’s life hit that drugs and alcohol-fuelled downward spiral so
commonly familiar to rock, jazz and blues musicians, from Buddy Bolden being
banged up for insanity in 1907, onwards.
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
married a lady who owned a local pub, a Mrs Fink. On 21 June 1920, Dan Kildare,
aged 41, walked into Mrs Fink’s pub, shot her dead, shot and killed Mrs
Fink’s sister, then killed himself with a bullet in the head. His legacy is now almost forgotten and it would be nice if Dan Kildare started getting the recognition he deserves in 2014, the centenary of the first ever recorded blues.
And 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.
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