Eugene singer Craig Phillips was just looking for new repertoire for his classical vocal quartet. Instead he discovered a treasure trove of music manuscripts by one of the country’s top recording groups of the 1920s and ’30s.
With three other singers, Phillips plans to bring another quartet called The Revelers back to life in a performance this summer in New York City.
“Much of the pop music of today grows out of the 1920s,” says Phillips, who admits his admiration for The Revelers borders on obsession. “I’ve gone down the rabbit hole. My wife thinks I’m crazy.”
A trim, intense man of 46, Phillips — a baritone who teaches voice at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance — is a founding member of New York Polyphony, a male singing quartet whose recordings have twice been nominated for Grammy awards.
In late 2013 he began listening to early American popular recordings — made in the early 20th century soon after the invention of acoustic recording equipment — in an effort to find new music for his group, which had previously mostly performed medieval and renaissance vocal music.
“I found The Revelers because they were so wildly different than what came before,” Phillips says. “They redefined quartet singing, really.”
Jazzing up barbershop
Little-known today, The Revelers were once among the top performers in the United States. In 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, the quartet was raking in $200,000 a year — the equivalent of more than $3.6 million today.
With regular appearances on NBC Radio, The Revelers sang the music of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin, himself a huge fan of the group. They inspired such later ensembles as The Ink Spots and The Andrews Sisters. Perhaps most important, they helped introduce jazz to an early 20th-century audience that was tiring of the sentimental sounds of barbershop quartets.
Barbershop music — and male quartet singing in general — was very popular in the first decades of the century, in part because strong male tenor voices were well-suited to early acoustical recording equipment.
“These were young guys,” Phillips says of The Revelers. “They were sick of singing in an old style. They added a hot, jazzy pianist-arranger and started producing music in a style that was ground-breaking.”
Originally performing as The Shannon Four, a male quartet that began singing in 1918, the group consisted of tenors Franklyn Baur and Lewis James, baritone Elliott Shaw, bass Wilfred Glenn and pianist Ed Smalle.
In 1925 they changed their name to The Revelers and released a single — there wasn’t any other kind of music recording at the time — titled “Dinah.”
Though pretty tame to a contemporary ear — it starts with a line from a popular spiritual — the song has quirky rhythms and just a touch of jazziness.
It swept the world. The 10-inch, 78-rpm record sold 2 million copies. It was a breakout moment for quartet singing, moving music away from the corny, sentimental, heart-and-home songs of an earlier day to something with an urban pulse. (Check out YouTube for a 1927 sound film of The Revelers doing this first hit.)
“Dinah,” written by Harry Akst, would be covered by Dinah Shore, by Bing Crosby, by the Mills Brothers. The Revelers’ recording brought them to the attention of NBC, which signed the group as one of the network’s first musical acts. They were regulars on The Palmolive Hour, which ran on the network from 1927 through 1931.
From there The Revelers released a steady stream of recordings that were popular around the country through the rest of the 1920s and well into the ’30s, among them “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” “Happy Feet” and “Birth of the Blues.” (Look them up on YouTube as well, especially the delightful “When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba (in Cuba).”)
Phillips practically vibrates as he talks over drinks one evening at a downtown café of his admiration for the group, which he says discarded the stilted, sentimental style of an earlier era for one that was energetic and musically sophisticated.
“We treat the songs as an orchestra would,” Revelers baritone Shaw told a reporter in 1930. “We use the various voices as so many instruments and have entirely eliminated any suggestion of the old time barbershop quartet.”
The New Yorker magazine said Smalle, the pianist who arranged much of the music, had “revolutionized quartetting.”
Their success took them to Europe, where The Revelers played in vaudeville houses, cabarets and music halls. In 1930, The Hartford Courant wrote of an appearance in Vienna, which it noted was “the province of Brahms, Beethoven and Liszt,” that The Revelers “drew such a crowd of musically seasoned Viennese that two hundred of them had to be seated on the stage, and there was hardly room for the young Americans to make their proper entrances and exits.”
The music was always classically tinged. In fact, one of The Revelers, tenor James Melton, would go on from the group to debut in 1942 (as Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute) at the Metropolitan Opera, where he would continue to sing into the 1950s.
The Revelers also helped break down racist disdain for jazz, which was sometimes dismissed as “Negro music.” A 1928 review of the group’s Paris debut that ran in The Christian Science Monitor noted that, “Many of our countrymen, indeed, proved systematically hostile, not only to the ideal of the [phonograph] but also to its repertory. Jazz and Negro music was spoken of only with scorn. Now, [The Revelers] appeared so musical, so distinguished in writing, so ingenious in harmony, and so well thought out in tone color, that their fame spread like a puff of powder.”
But then it all blew away. In the late 1930s The Revelers stopped touring and cut their radio performances to one show a week.
They went off the air altogether in 1940, Phillips says, the year of their last known concert performance, which was for a Rotary Club in New Jersey.
A quest for the score
Once he began listening to their recordings, Phillips was determined to find out everything he could about The Revelers and their output. Because of its sophistication, he was certain the music was scored — arranged and written down. He wanted to find the original Revelers scores.
Phillips reached out to everyone he could think of who might have leads. He called on the Whiffenpoofs, the Yale University a cappella group whose early roster included Cole Porter; he checked in with the Barbershop Harmony Society in Nashville. “Talk about a wacky organization!” Phillips says. No one had anything.
Finally, as he was scrolling through a blog post one day about Frank Black, an influential Revelers pianist who later became NBC’s music director, Phillips found a note from the son of a late member of The Revelers, baritone Hugh Berberich.
It turned out The Revelers were re-formed in 1947 by founding member Glenn and toured, with less success, until 1955, when Glenn sold the name — and the music library — to a tenor named Thomas Edwards. Edwards kept the group alive, in a different form, until the 1970s.
The final owner of The Revelers name and library was Berberich.
It was his son writing on the blog.
“Hello All,” the note read. “My father was a Reveler in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and left us about nine milk crates full of original hand-annotated Frank Black scores. I am wondering if there is any interest out there for these. It is a very large collection…”
Phillips sent the guy an email. “He contacted me. I called to explain who I am. He texted me photos.
“This was the mother lode.”
Success and a final ‘Rhapsody’
That was during spring break in 2015. Phillips, who was then finishing his doctorate (on, of course, The Revelers) in North Carolina, hopped in his car to drive the 600 miles to Connecticut, where he and Chris Berberich sat down over one bottle of wine, and then another. Berberich pulled out boxes of original Revelers music, all handwritten scores, divided into parts for the different singers of the group.
Phillips found himself looking at 512 handwritten arrangements used by the original Revelers, broken into parts for different singers.
“Birth of the Blues.”
“I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”
The manuscripts, notated in pencil, are signed either by Ed Smalle or Frank Black.
But a few things are missing.
“The vexing thing about these compositions is, there are no piano scores, with the exception of two or three songs,” Phillips says. He thinks the pianists, Smalle and Black, may have improvised their parts instead of reading from scores.
A final piece of the puzzle remains to be solved. In his research, Phillips discovered that composer George Gershwin in 1926 or 1927 gave Black permission to adapt his “Rhapsody in Blue,” originally written for piano and jazz band, for — no kidding — piano and male quartet.
The Revelers performed it on radio in 1929. Variety wrote, “Get a load of the Revelers’ version, with lyrics, of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsodie in Blue.’ It’s a pip. They did it on The Palmolive Hour, last hour, and should make a peach recording for Victor.”
Phillips found the lyrics, by jazz crooner Vaughn De Leath (who also wrote “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”), in a concert program from Switzerland. They include this verse:
Play me that rhapsody in blue! Please, do!
That theme has majesty sublime,
I’m carried away each time I hear them play
That plaintive strain again.
Phillips has found neither a recording nor a score of the Gershwin piece.
“I remain hopeful that I’ll find a score for Frank Black’s arrangement of ‘Rhapsody,’ but it’s very unlikely that a recording exists,” he says. “An archived radio broadcast is the only possibility.”
As it turned out, Phillips’ fellow singers in New York Polyphony passed on the opportunity to include The Revelers in the group’s repertoire, not sharing his enthusiasm for their music.
But this summer, with a grant from the UO, he and three other singers recruited from around the country will rehearse the rediscovered music in a workshop July 10 and 11 at OPERA America’s National Opera Center in New York.
The other musicians include Anthony Patterson, piano; Joseph Gaines, tenor; Bryon Grohman, tenor; and Jesse Blumberg, baritone. Phillips will sing bass.
The workshop will conclude with a performance of selected songs for an invited audience. The performance will be live-streamed, so you can watch from Eugene online; see revelersproject.com for details. ■