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The Charleston in the 1920s: the Dance, the

Composers, and the Recordings.

By Albert Haim


The Charleston dance became a world-wide craze in the Roaring Twenties. The dance
and the song, composed by James P. Johnson (music) and Cecil Mack (lyrics), were
introduced in 1923 in the Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild, and became the quintessential
jazz age symbols: flappers dancing frantically to the Charleston rhythm and drinking
prohibition booze. The success of the Charleston was not confined to the U.S.: Europeans
and South Americans went wild over it. We will see below that some of the first
recordings of Charleston were made in Buenos Aires and Berlin. Part of the huge success
of the Charleston in Paris was due to Josephine Baker’s doing the dance in 1926 at the
Folies Bergère.
Runnin’ Wild, a two-act musical comedy taking place in Jimtown and St. Paul, MN, about
the adventures of two likable scamps played by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, was
presented in other eastern cities before it opened on Broadway. The show had a
successful two-week run in the Howard Theatre in Washington DC beginning on August
25, 1923. From there the show moved to the Selwynn Theatre in Boston, MA where it
was reviewed very favorably. It then opened in the New Colonial Theatre on Broadway at
63rd where it ran from October 29, 1923 to May 3, 1924, and again, as a new edition,
from June 23, 1924 to June 28, 1924. The theatre, with a capacity of about 1300, was
inaugurated in 1905 as the Colonial Music Hall. In 1917, it was renamed New Colonial
Theatre, and in the 1920s it presented musical comedies based on black themes, The
Chocolate Dandies among them. Runnin’ Wild was produced by George White (famous
for his Scandals productions), music by James P. Johnson, book by F. E. Miller and
Aubrey L. Lyles; lyrics by Cecil Mack, choreographed by Lyda Webb. Oddly enough, the
tune Runnin’ Wild, composed by Johnson and Mack in 1922, was not included in the

Interestingly, the feature tune of the show was Old Fashioned Love. The August 30, 1923
issue of Variety declared “Of the musical numbers, which are the work of James Johnson
while the lyrics are by Cecil Mack, there isn't one but that will register. The "love
number" is the theme song and will undoubtedly be one of the big sellers of the coming
season.” Of course, the tune that went on to become the “theme song” of the jazz age
was Charleston. Among the performers on opening night on Broadway were Adelaide
Hall and Elizabeth Welsh. The number was sung by Elizabeth Welsh with the male
chorus line singing and dancing the Charleston. The reviewer of the show for the October
30, 1923 issue of the New York Times wrote, “Runnin’ Wild excels in eccentric dancing-
some of the most exciting steps of the season (steps is not always the word, for knees are
used more often than ankles) are now on view at the Colonial.”
Cover of Sheet Music for Charleston.

After its run on Broadway, the show traveled in the vicinity of New York City for two
years: the Shubert Theatre in Newark, the Opera House in the Bronx and Werba’s Theatre
in Brooklyn. The show was revived in 1926 in the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. In 1928,
a traveling group brought the show to London.

Charleston, the Dance.

There is evidence that some of the dance steps used in the Charleston number of the
Runnin’ Wild production were danced long before the show opened on Broadway. Golden
and Grayton, a couple of white minstrel artists performing in blackface, claimed to have
danced the Charleston in 1890 in their Patting Rabbit Hash dance number. According to
Leroi Jones, the Charleston comes from an Anshati ancestor dance. Noble Sissle recalled
learning the dance in Savannah in 1905. Rubberleg Williams stated that “The first contest
I ever won was a Charleston contest. It was in Atlanta in 1920.” [1] Several productions
in theatres and nightclubs had dancers performing some of the steps of the Charleston;
examples are Liza (1922-1923), How Come (1923) and the Ziegfield Follies of 1923. One
of the numbers in the production of Liza was called Charleston Dancy [sic]. It was
composed by Maceo Pinkard (music) and Nat Vincent (lyrics). How Come included two
numbers, Charleston Cut-Out and Charleston Finale. Garvin Bushell [2] traces the roots
of the Charleston to a Geechie dance done in the Georgia South Sea Islands. James P.
Johnson himself noted, “These people were from South Carolina and Georgia where the
cotillion was popular- and the "Charleston" was an offspring of that. It was a dance figure
like the "Balmoral." A lot of my music is based on set, cotillion and other southern
country dance steps and rhythms." [3] In a letter to the New York Times dated December
19, 1926 and published on December 26, 1926, composer William Marion Cook stated
that the Charleston rhythm was introduced by Thomas Morris in his 1923 composition
Charleston Strut.
Although there may have been some steps similar to those in the Charleston before it was
introduced in the production of Runnin’ Wild, it is clear that the extraordinary popularity
of the dance came about as a consequence of the success of the song and the show.
Harold Courlander wrote [4] “It is, of course, possible to perceive in the Charleston
certain steps or motifs extracted out of Negro tradition, but over all it was a synthetic
creation, a newly-devised conglomerate tailored for wide spread popular appeal.”
Josephine Baker dancing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère, Paris, in 1926

One of the claims for the origin of the Charleston seems a bit fanciful. In a full-page
article in the August 8, 1926 issue of the New York Times, reporter Fred Austin titles his
piece “The Charleston Traces Its Ancestry Back 400 years” with the subtitle “Its parents,
so the experts say, was the Branle [6], a favorite dance for centuries at the Royal Court in
France.” Austin continues, “Monarchs and princes, dukes and duchesses and courtiers of
all degrees, clad in cloth of gold and precious stones, went through paces but slightly
removed from the Charleston routine of a musical comedy hoofer of today.” This claim
had been previously made by Leo Staats, director of the ballet at the National Opera in
Paris. At the 48th annual convention of the American Society of Dancing Teachers in New
York in June 1926, Staats stated, “It [the Charleston] showed plainly the influence of the
Moyen Age when Le Greves, pas tortilles, pas levees, ru de vache and the Bransles [6]
were in vogue.”
Soon after the introduction of the Charleston in Runnin’ Wild, the dance craze swept the
country and the world. People danced the Charleston in dance halls, at the beach, on
college campuses, on the roof of a London taxi (filmed by Pathé News), on boardwalks
and at home. A headline in the sports section of the March 11, 1926 New York Times
declared “(Coach) Bezdek Makes Football Squad Charleston. Penn State Adopts Dance
as Exercise.” The Prince of Wales reportedly was a big fan of the Charleston. According
to the Modesto News-Herald of November 6, 1926, “The Prince of Wales has mastered
the Charleston and dances it with the skill and rhythm that only professional dancers can

Headline in the December 3, 1926 issue of the New York Times.

The Prince of Wales was not the only member of the British royal family to indulge in the
Charleston. On March 26, 1927, Prince George of England won a Charleston contest in
the Sporting Casino in Cannes, France.

Headline in the March 28, 1927 issue of the New York Times.

Other royalty was also fond of the Charleston. In the Fall of 1926, Queen Marie of
Yugoslavia and her daughter Princess Ileana were in Paris on their way to their
forthcoming visit to the U.S. It was reported that, although the Charleston was not
popular in the courts of Europe, Princess Ileana “had learned the Charleston in
preparation for her American visit.” [7] In contrast, Queen Victoria of Spain disliked the
Charleston and barred it in Society circles beginning in March 1927. The Charleston was
first danced at the Elysée, the official site of the French presidency, on January 26, 1927.
President Gaston Doumergue, after he ordered an exhibition of the Charleston by a
military attaché and a stenographer and did not find it objectionable, decided to allow the
dance at a diplomatic dinner followed by a reception and a ball. [8] On the other hand,
according to the Prescott Evening Courier of July 16, 1926, the Sultan of Morocco, after
attending an exhibition of Charleston at a fashionable establishment in the Bois de
Boulogne in Paris, “registered marked disapproval at the livley motions of the dance.”
It is noteworthy that the Charleston was banned in various places around the world for
sociological/political/religious/health reasons. Of course, the Charleston and other
American dances such as the fox-trot were banned in Russia as symbols of American
decadence and were tagged the “immoral manifestation of bourgeois luxury.” The
archbishops of Rome and Vienna banned the Charleston for their parishioners citing
moral reasons. At a world convention of dance teachers in Paris in 1926, a universal
boycott of the Charleston was considered because “The negro dance is immoral and not
fit for good society.” A plan to “purify” the Charleston was put into effect. [9] Several
colleges in the U. S. banned the dance for being too “scandalous” or for lacking “grace
and beauty.” According to the New York Times of December 10, 1926, “The Christian
Churches of South Africa have declared war on the Charleston on the ground that it is
essentially a Kaffir dance and that the performance of it by whites lowers their prestige in
the native eyes.” On November 6, 1926 (report in the New York Times edition of
November 7, 1926), the Prague, Czechoslovakia police chief implemented an order that
prohibited the Charleston in all public places. The Minister of the Interior went farther: he
forbad dancing of the Charleston in private places where public officials or diplomats
were present. Such bans were repeated across Europe and England. One member of the
District Council of Dayton (one of the most populous London suburbs) declared that “the
man who invented Charleston was a fit candidate for the lunacy asylum and that the fools
who attempted to dance it were balmy.” A Polish archbishop condemned the Charleston
in March 1927 as an “unpardonable sin.” The Charleston was banned in Mexico City in
August 1926 because it was likely to cause heart failure. Municipal authorities in
Constantinople, Turkey banned the Charleston in November 1926 because it was a
“menace to health.”
The Charleston was also banned in several cities in the US and around the world
ostensibly because of building safety considerations. After a roof collapsed in the
Pickwick Dance Club in Boston, MA on July 4, 1925 during a Charleston dance and
killed 44 people, dancing to the rhythm of the Charleston was viewed as too dangerous
and was banned in several cities. As reported in the New York Times of August 30, 1925,
the Charleston dance was banned in halls of Passaic, New Jersey by the Chief of Police
with the backing of the Supervisor of the Bureau of Buildings. The supervisor claimed
that “old type halls were not strong enough to stand up under the strain of the
Charleston.” “The Charleston is all right morally, so far as I know,” added the chief.” In
contrast, the Buffalo city inspector justified the ban on the basis of both safety and moral
reasons: according to the Schenectady Gazette of November 21, 1925 the chief declared,
“The physical being of the young upstarts may be shattered with their morals through the
agency of the Charleston.” A ban was also implemented in Concord, NH because the
dance halls could not withstand the “strain caused by the Charleston.” An exception to
the ban on dancing the Charleston in Berlin was made for a restaurant built 365 feet
above ground near the top of the radio tower of a German radio corporation. This was
reported in the New York Times of September 8, 1926 with the headline “Charleston
Tower to Immortalize Charleston.”
Fatal accidents and illnesses were associated with the Charleston. Sixteen-year old Arthur
Tessier, a Charleston contest winner, danced the Charleston in a rowboat in the St.
Charles River, MI while seven youngsters aged 13-16 in the boat clapped and sang. The
boy lost balance, toppled, and caused the boat to capsize. Seven of the boys and girls
drowned. [10] A physician blamed the death of Evelyn Myers, 17, of Seneca, KS to her
“dancing the Charleston.” The physician declared that “the extreme physical exercise of
the Charleston is particularly dangerous for young women and that it may easily induce
inflammation of the peritoneum.” [11] In the case of Geneva Tully, 16, of Cincinnati, OH,
who died of heart disease following her Charleston contest win, the headline in the June
6, 1926 issue of the New York Times proclaimed “Charleston Caused Death.” A Paris
physician described the problems of thousands of patients, caused by bending the knees
sideways, as “the Charleston Knee.” [12]
In spite of all the negative press, composers, record producing companies, and music
publishers made serious efforts to capitalize on the success of the Charleston. Several
songs had the word “Charleston” in the title; for example, Charleston Mad, I’m Going to
Charleston Back to Charleston, Charleston Stampede, Charleston Geechie Dance,
Charleston Crazy, Charleston Clarinet Blues, etc. At least two songs were described as
“Charleston Swing songs”: Sweet Georgia Brown composed in 1925 by Ben Bernie,
Kenneth Casey and Maceo Pinkard, and Sweet Man composed in 1925 by Maceo Pinkard
and Roy Turk. Thinking of You, composed in 1926 by Walter Donaldson and Paul Ash,
was a ballad foxtrot; however, when Julian Fuhs band recorded it for Elektrola EG 457,
the tune is described on the record label as a “Charleston.” Two legendary actresses
started their careers as Charleston Dance Contest winners. Fourteen-year old Ginger
Rogers won the Texas State Charleston contest in 1925 and Joan Crawford won her first
Charleston contest in a café in Kansas City in 1924. A Charleston contest took place in
front of the St. Louis City Hall on November 13, 1925.
Courtesy Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection.

The biggest ever Charleston contest took place on June 27, 1926 at the Polo Grounds in
New York.

Ad in the New York Times, June 18, 1926.

Twenty thousand people attended the event, including Mayor Walker. One hundred
dancers competed for the $1,500 in prizes. The music was provided by the bands of Ben
Bernie, Vincent Lopez, Roger Wolfe Kahn and Eddie Elkins. Several well-known
personalities from stage and sports made appearances – Fanny Brice, Harry Houdini, the
Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, Jim Corbett, Benny Leonard, etc. The one-thousand dollar
first prize, presented by Al Jolson, went to Mary Suchier, a twenty-year old woman from
Manhattan. In addition, she was to get a part in a Broadway show and in a Fox movie.

The Composers.
James P. Johnson.
In 1957, Thelonious Monk, while listening to one of his solos, remarked, “That sounds
like James P. Johnson.” A year later, Dick Wellstood wrote, “Strangely enough, Monk
does sound like James P. from time to time, and so do Fats, Basie, Tatum and Duke (as
well as Willie Gant and Q. Roscoe Snowden). Since James P. has had such a strong
influence on so many well-known pianists, it is amazing that most people have never
heard of him.” [5] With Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson is one of
the early, seminal jazz and ragtime pianists. James P. Johnson is known as “the father of
stride piano” because he developed this style of playing in Harlem, New York in the
1910s. Willie “The Lion” Smith, Luckey Roberts and Fats Waller were other master
practitioners of the stride piano.

James Price Johnson was born in New Brunswick NJ on February 1, 1894.

He was a most influential pianist and composer in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of the hit
songs he wrote are “Old Fashioned Love”, “Don’t Cry Baby”, “Charleston”, “If I Could
Be With You One Hour Tonight”, “Runnin’ Wild”, “Porter’s Love Song to a
Chambermaid”, “Snowy Morning Blues”, “Eccentricity Waltz”, “Carolina Shout” and
“Keep Off the Grass”. For his accomplishments as a songwriter, James P. Johnson was
inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

His most widely known composition is Carolina Shout. Tom Lord’s discography lists 124
recordings of the tune. James P. Johnson first recorded the tune in piano rolls (1918 and
1921). He then recorded it on disc, as Jimmie Johnson’s Jazz Boys in October 1921 (Arto
9096, Bell P96, Cleartone C96, Globe 7096, Hy-Tone K 96) and then as a piano solo on
October 18, 1921 (OK 4495-B), viewed by some critics as the first jazz piano solo
James P. Johnson also wrote music for Broadway shows: Plantation Days, Runnin’ Wild,
Keep Shufflin’,” etc. His symphonic music and film scores include: Harlem Symphony
(performed in 1945 at Carnegie Hall with James P. Johnson at the piano and Joseph
Cherniavsky as conductor), Symphony in Brown, African Drums, Piano Concerto in A-
flat, Mississippi Symphonic Suite on St. Louis Blues, Yamacraw: A Negro Rhapsody”(re-
orchestrated by William Grant Still in 1928 and first performed in a Carnegie Hall
concert organized by William C. Handy with Fats Waller on piano substituting for
Johnson who was conducting the orchestra for the Broadway hit show Keep Shufflin’),
De Organizer, Dreamy Kid, Kitchen Opera, Manhattan Street Scene and Sefronia’s

At the invitation of organizer John Hammond, James P. Johnson participated in the 1938
and 1939 “Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography Online lists nearly 200 recordings by James P. Johnson:
piano rolls, piano solo recordings, accompanist for female singers (Bessie Smith, Lativia
Turner, Trixie Smith, Ethel Waters, etc.), leader of a jazz band that included such well-
regarded musicians as Red Allen, Sid Catlett, J. C. Higginbotham, Pops Foster, etc.),
sideman (Original Jazz Hounds, Clarence Williams, King Oliver, Count Basie), important
participant in the Dixieland revival of the 1940s. With J. C. Higginbotham (tb), Sidney
Bechet (sop), Richard Alexis (b) Paul Barbarin (d), he was one of Louis Armstrong’s Jazz
Foundation Six.

James P. Johnson’s lifetime achievements were recognized by the United States Postal
Service with a 32-cent stamp issued on September 16, 1995.
Courtesy of doctorjazz.com

Other honors include his election to the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame (1973), the ASCAP
Jazz Wall of Fame (2007), and, as mentioned previously, the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

James P. Johnson suffered a severe stroke in 1951 and died four years later in Jamaica
NY on November 17, 1955. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens
NY. The grave was unmarked until 2009 when a headstone paid by the James P. Johnson
Foundation was placed on the grave.
Courtesy Find A Grave Website

Cecil Mack.
Composer, author and publisher, Cecil Mack was described as a genius in an account of
the success of The Blackbirds in the Moulin Rouge in Paris, France. [13] “We understand
that the whole [the Blackbirds Choir] is the work and the design of Cecil McPherson. Mr.
McPherson is a genius. A genius is one who, after intense study and effort of penetration
into the very soul of things, evolves something new. One leading paper said that the Cecil
Mack’s Choir opened new visions of Negro art.”

Richard C. McPherson, better known as Cecil Mack, was born in Norfolk, VA on

November 6, 1883 (according to the ASCAP Biographical Dictionary) and died in New
York on August 4, 1944. The date of birth must be in error. Richard C. McPherson is
listed in the 1900 US Census of age 25, born in November 1875 in Virginia, profession
stenographer. Interestingly, the enumerator for the page of the US Census is Richard
McPherson himself. Mack attended Norfolk Mission College and Lincoln College in
Pennsylvania (class of 1897). He enrolled in the medical school of the University of
Pennsylvania, but did not complete his studies. In the 1910 US Census, Richard
McPherson gave 32 as his age and “Music Publisher” as his occupation. Cecil Mack’s
wife, Gertrude Curtis, was the first woman African American dentist. Interestingly,
Richard McPherson gives his occupation in the 1920 U.S. Census as “Manufacture
Dental Supplies” and his age as 42. In the 1930 US Census, he is 45, occupation
“Magazine Writer.” Finally, in his World War II Draft Registration Card, Richard C.
McPherson gives his date of birth as November 6, 1880 and his place of birth as
Portsmouth, VA. If Cecil Mack graduated from college in 1897, he most likely was born
in 1875 as listed in the 1900 census.
World War II Draft Registration Card

In the early 1900s, Cecil Mack wrote lyrics for several songs such as The Little Gypsy
Maid, Zono My Congo Queen and the major hit Teasing, in collaboration with white
music publisher and songwriter Albert von Tizer.
Courtesy Johns Hopkins University, Levy Sheet Music Collection

In 1905, Cecil Mack founded the Gotham Music Publishing Company, the first African
American music publishing house. The company lasted only a few months and merged
with the Attucks Music Publishing Company, to form the Gotham-Attucks Music
Publishing Company. It will be seen that the motto of the company was “House of

Courtesy of jass.com

Mack was the head of the company. Although the company lasted for only six years, it
developed a good reputation and specialized in the publication of works by distinguished
African Americans such as Will Marion Cook, Bert Williams, Alex Rogers, and Chris
Smith. The company was one of the pioneers in using high quality art on the covers of its
sheet music. In 1911 the company was sold to song-shark Ferdinand E. Mierisch, and
quickly lost its reputation. In May 1912, Mierisch changed the name to the Ferd Mierisch
Music Publishing Company and soon after was no longer heard of. [14]

One of Cecil Mack’s compositions during this period, written in collaboration with Ford
Dabney was That’s Why They Call Me Shine, later, a jazz standard known simply as

Courtesy of jass.com
Several Broadway shows featured songs with lyrics written by Cecil Mack: The
Southerners (1904), Mrs. Black Is Back (1905), Marrying Mary (1906), Bandanna Land
(1908), His Honor the Barber (1911), Runnin’ Wild (1923-24), Kilpatrick’s All Time
Minstrels (1930). The Cecil Mack’s Choir participated in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (1930)
and Rhapsody in Black (1931). The latter, a Lew Leslie production, was a musical revue
billed as a “jazz concert.” The lyrics and music were by J. Rosamond Johnson, Cecil
Mack, W. C. Handy, George Gershwin, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Cecil Mack
made the vocal arrangements for the spirituals and folk songs and led his Cecil Mack’s
Choir. [15] Two of the stars of the show were Ethel Waters and Valaida.
Ad in the New York Amsterdam News August 26, 1931.

Cecil Mack’s last Broadway production was Swing It (1937) for which he wrote the book
and the lyrics and co-staged it with Jack Mason. The music was by Eubie Blake and
Milton Reddie.
Courtesy Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries

In an obituary for the Christian Science Monitor reprinted in the New York Age of August
19, 1944, Cecil Mack’s output is described as follows: “His songs were as American as
Stephen Foster’s—one or two of them may be remembered as long—and were typically
representative of the pre-radio era when fortunes were made over the 10- cent-store
sheet-music counters. Cecil Mack's songs were pure fun and never had an off-color line.”

Recordings of Charleston in the 1920s.

First, a rather unusual fact: James P. Johnson never recorded Charleston on discs. He cut
two piano rolls of the tune. The first was the 1924 Piano Roll QRS 101027, a Runnin’
Wild medley that consisted of Charleston, Old Fashioned Love, Open Your Heart and
Love Bug. The second was the June 1925 Piano Roll QRS 3143 of Charleston. Other
piano rolls of Charleston published in the mid 1920s were Ampico 206191 by Zez
Confrey, QRS 8691 by J. Lawrence Cook and Melodee Maker 47091 by Freddie Rich.
Considering the enormous popularity of the Charleston, there is a surprisingly small
number of recordings of the tune in the 1920s. There were two recordings in 1923 and
about a dozen recordings in 1925, none in 1926-1930. This provides some evidence that
the popularity of the Charleston peeked in the mid 1920s and began to fade in the second
half of the 1920s. Moreover, there were only about half a dozen recordings of the tune in
the 1930s and 1940s.. It was not until the 1950s that Charleston was recorded frequently,
about 170 recordings between 1950 and 2011. The two 1923 recordings are as follows.

The Ambassadors, New York, Oct 1923, Voc 14686 Old Fashioned Love (Intro
Charleston), Beltona 403 (as Palm Beach Players), Coliseum 1886 (as Mayfield Dance
Orchestra), Homochord H-638 (as Homochord Dance Orchestra), Guardsmen 7007 (as
Original Black band).
Arthur Gibbs and His Gang, New York, Oct 10, 1923, Victor 19165, Charleston (Intro
Open Your Heart)
It is noteworthy that both recordings include other tunes from the show “Runnin’ Wild.”

Several of the recordings in 1925 were waxed abroad.

Euleterio Yribarren, Buenos Aires, 1925, Nacional 8494.

Bert and John Firman, London, Sept 21, 1925, Zonophone rejected.
Bela Dajos, Berlin, Oct 26, 1925
The Excellos Five, Berlin, Oct/Nov 1925, Grammophon G-20410.
Savoy Orpheans, Hayes Middlesex, Jul 7, 1925, HMV B-2076. This is of particular
interest because the band leader introduces the number with these words: “This record is
unique in that it uses a distinctly new syncopated rhythm. From the top!”
Leslie Jeffries and His Rialto Orchestra, London, Jul 1925, Aco G-15753, Beltona 845,
Coliseum 1791, Duophone B-5076, Homochord H-838.
Edison Bell Dance Orchestra, London, Oct 1925, Edison Bell Winner 4297.
Jean Wiener et Clement Doucet (Piano Duet), London, Dec 14, 1925, Columbia (F)
D13013, (E) 8988.

Courtesy Norman Field

Several American bands recorded the tune in 1925: California Ramblers, New York,
Apr 2, 1925, Edison 51542; The Knickerbockers, New York, Apr 10, 1924, Columbia
355D (issued as Original Charleston); M. B. Roseland, New York, March/April 1925,
Emerson 10903; Waikiki Hawaiian Trio, Los Angeles, April/May 1925, Sunset 1107;
Texas Ten, New York, May 5, 1925, issued under various pseudonyms for a variety of
labels; Paul Whiteman, New York, May 10, 1925, Victor 19671; Ben Selvin, May 13,
1925, Vocalion 15038; Varsity Eight, New York, May 13, 1925, Cameo 724; Carlyle
Stevenson, Los Angeles, July 1925, Sunset 1114; The Tennessee Tooters, New York,
Aug 12, 1925, Vocalion 15086; Isham Jones, Chicago, Oct 2, 1925, Brunswick 2970
(issued as Original Charleston).
Special mention must be made of the April 1925 recording of Charleston by Lovie
Austin and Her Blues Serenaders. It was issued on Paramount 12278 with the title
Charleston, South Carolina with a vocal by Priscilla Stewart, perhaps the only 1920s
recording to feature a vocal.


The Charleston was introduced in New York in late 1923, and, within a little over a year,
became a world-wide craze. The popularity of the Charleston lasted for a few years –
peaking in 1925-26 and beginning to fade by the late 1920s. In fact, already in 1926 there
were signs, in the U.S, of a decline. The Toledo News-Bee of June 29, 1926 reported that
members of the American Society of Dancing Teachers “were inclined to the belief that
the Charleston fad was on the wane.” A headline in the Miami News and Metropolis of
August 24, 1926 warned, “Craze for Charleston is waning fast.” And the September 21,
1927 issue of New York Amsterdam News mentions “The waning Charleston.” “The
Charleston Is Dead in Paris” proclaimed the Evening Tribune of May 5, 1929. However,
while in vogue, the Charleston was danced in the US, Europe and South America by
royalty, professional dancers, high society and middle class folk, as well as lower income
people. It was banned in dance halls, schools, official functions and blamed for death,
accidents and illnesses throughout the world. In spite of the highly unfavorable press, the
Charleston was widely embraced and its acclaim was unparalleled. Today, we think of the
Charleston as the archetypal symbol of the jazz age and of prohibition, but at the time,
although extremely popular and influential, it was a relatively short-lived phenomenon. It
was displaced by other dances such as the Black Bottom, the Dixie Stomp and the Varsity

Coda: A Fascinating Tidbit.

According to George Johnson, tenor saxophonist of the Wolverine Orchestra (that
included Bix Beiderbecke), the Charleston began its popularity in September 1924 at the
Cinderella Ballroom.[16]
At about the time we started at the Cinderella, a famous
dance team featured at one of the shows in New York a
new dance called the Charleston. It is not generally known
that this dance started its country-wide popularity at the
Cinderella to the music of the Wolverines. The dancers
found our particular rhythm perfectly suited to the Charleston,
and the management did everything in its power to forward
the popularity, offering prizes for the best team and in many
other ways helping it to make it the craze it became.
I have not been able to find confirmation of George Johnson’s claim. But I will point out
that Pee Wee Russell stated, “I remember they used to have a Sunday afternoon thing at
the Arcadia Ballroom. Ordinarily, the band would complain about the extra work, but Bix
would really look forward to it. He said he liked to see the kids dance. He liked to watch
them do things like the Charleston. He said he liked it because the kids had a fine sense
of rhythm. And in their way, the kids knew what Bix was doing. They knew he was doing
something different because he made them want to dance.”[17]

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Robert Rothberg for information about the British

issues of Charleston recordings.

[1] Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns,
Da Capo Press; 2nd edition, 1994. For a detailed report on several accounts as to how the
Charleston was incorporated into Runnin’ Wild, see The Wicked Waltz and Other
Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th centuries by
Mark Knowles, McFarland, 2009.
[2] Jazz From The Beginning by Garvin Bushell, Da Capo Press, 1998.
[3] Tom Davin, "Conversations with James P. Johnson," The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, No. 5
(June, 1959).
[4] Negro Folk Music U.S.A. by Harold Courlander, Dover Publications, 1992.
[5] Dick Wellstood, “Review of W. C. Handy Blues. Sung by his Daughter Katharine
Handy Lewis. Accompanied by James P. Johnson. Folkways FG3540,” The Jazz
Review, Vol 1, No. 2 (December, 1958).
[6] The dance is spelled “Bransle” or “Branle” in different sources.
[7] The New York Times, October 8, 1926.
[8] The New York Times, January 28, 1927.
[9] The New York Times, May 15, 1926.
[10] The New York Times, June 21, 1926.
[11] The New York Times, February 16, 1926.
[12] The New York Times, April 29, 1928.
[13] New York Amsterdam News, July 31, 1929.
[14] The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 79-112.
[15] A Century of Musicals in Black and White: An Encyclopedia of Musical Stage Works
By, About, or Involving African Americans by Bernard L. Petersen, Greenwood Press,
[16] The Wolverine Days by George Johnson, in Swing Music, Fall 1936.
[17] Chapter by Charles Edward Smith in The Jazz Makers, edited by Nat Shapiro and
Nat Hentoff, Greenwood Press, 1957.

Recommended Reading.
James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Scott E. Brown, Institute of Jazz
Studies, Scarecrow Press, 1992.