“If the younger people would take the time to listen to the songs of the old quartets, they’d be surprised how much they’d like that music.” -Howard Daniel, Sr.
About this video: You most often hear this recording with just the song, or truncated to Bing just doing a short lead-in. This is the full-length lead-in and song, as sent to my dad by Howard Daniel, Sr., the bass singer of the Charioteers. Howard mailed a tape taken from the 16″ transcription record of AFRS Jubilee.
Note: This article was written by my dad, Peter Grendysa. I have it (with permission) to share with all of you! I’m thinking of making great music articles like this a supplemental feature of my author’s blog. We shall see. 🙂
©2018 Peter Grendysa
(based on interviews with Howard Daniel, Sr. by Peter Grendysa, 1980)
The popularity of “jubilee” quartet singing on black campuses in the late 1920s and early 1930s may have actually been part of a wave of nostalgia such as the one the USA is experiencing right now. Despite the continuous popularity of choral groups such as the Fisk University Singers, there had been a period in the second decade of the 20th century when there was strong opposition to the singing of what were regarded as “old plantation songs”. The belief (particularly among black college students) was that the establishment was forcing or pressuring black singers to restrict their singing to folk songs, and black choral groups and quartets to the so-called “plantation hymns”.
Students at Howard University went on strike in 1909 and again in 1919, refusing to sing songs that were to them degrading reminders of slavery. Wilberforce College, the oldest college for blacks in this country, never had this problem – “negro folk songs” had been banned there from the beginning. The popularity of these same songs in the 1920s was therefore not “nostalgia” for slavery days, but rather it was a fond recollection of songs heard as a child, and perhaps a celebration of black culture and musical innovation, whatever their origins.
By the 1930s, quartet singing in colleges had reached the status of a sweeping fad. Every black college boasted a dozen or more amateur singing groups, and local and regional contests between jubilee groups were very popular. It’s not too surprising in light of this that the Charioteers came out of Wilberforce College singing some of those once-banned songs, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses”.
The Charioteers out-sang and out-performed dozens of similar groups, both black and white, at the All-Ohio State Quartet Contest in 1934, emerging with first prize, which carried with it a short sustaining program on WLW-Cincinnati and a two-record contract with Decca Records. It was instant big-time for Wilfred “Billy” Williams, tenor lead extraordinaire, fellow students Peter Leubers, second tenor; John Harewood, baritone; James Sherman, piano accompanist; and their music teacher and mentor Howard Daniel, who sang the bass parts.
The times were right for publicity and success. Wilberforce College was celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Wilberforce College Octet (four men and four women) had been touring and broadcasting since 1933, and the Mills Brothers of nearby Piqua, Ohio were on their way to national prominence on radio and recordings. A quartet such as the Charioteers, singing with fine precision and emotion and featuring the exceptional high tenor lead of Billy Williams, had the necessary elements to take full advantage of the opportunities.
The two Decca records issued in 1935 were not widely successful, but the local radio programs were and by 1936 the Charioteers were in New York City doing a 15-minute show over the Mutual Network each Sunday. Howard Daniel came along with his students, and has never looked back at his teaching career. Radio and concert appearances were the primary activities of the group at first, with little time left over for recording until 1937, when they were coaxed into Vocalion’s studios and their astonishing recording career began in earnest.
Vocalion had been a part of the long-ailing Brunswick Radio Corporation since 1924, and in 1937 it had only two years of existence ahead of it. The Charioteers recorded only sparingly for Vocalion, switching to the parent label Brunswick in 1939, the last year of Brunswick’s independent existence. On Vocalion, the group did popular new tunes, the odd and remarkable “Laughing Boy Blues” and, in a brief return to the label in September, 1939, sang backing vocals for Mildred Bailey.
Bailey, a Native American woman with a lovely crystalline voice, was the darling of the pre-war “jazz” singers, and the Charioteers backed her on “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”, a slave song from Mississippi that originated before 1860. Brunswick had the group concentrate on old spirituals, releasing some as by “The Southern Male Quartet”. The unique style of the Charioteers was in a stage of rapid development, best exemplified by “Water Boy” and the two-part “De Glory Road”. A few more old-timey songs such as “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “Old Folks At Home” and the group again found themselves working for a different label.
The takeover of Brunswick by the newly-formed Columbia Record Company division of CBS was completed in early 1940. A large number of older Brunswick cuts were reissued on Columbia during 1940, and the original Charioteers never recorded for another label during their long career.
Columbia considered the Charioteers to be a pop group, and they recorded new pop tunes almost to the exclusion of anything else. Radio broadcasts continued to be very important to the group, and they appeared on rival networks NBC Blue and Mutual on Saturdays, working NBC in the morning and Mutual in the evening. In addition they became regulars on Bing Crosby’s immensely popular radio programs.
1940 also brought their first motion picture appearance, “Road Show”, a United Artists film starring Adolphe Menjou and Carole Landis. “Calliope Jane” (Columbia 35779) was featured in this film. At the same time they started a four-and-a-half year term with the touring musical revue “Hellzapoppin’.” “My Heart’s On Ice” (Columbia 35851) is from this show, and when Irving Berlin contributed “Any Bonds Today?” to the production in July, 1941, it was given to the Charioteers.
Although they were switched to Columbia’s 35-cent OKeh label in 1941, they continued as one of the mainstays of Columbia’s artist roster, and when the threat of the American Federation Of Music (musician’s union) ban on recording became a certainty, the company stockpiled Charioteers tracks to weather the storm and out-wait the union. Seven trips to the studios in 1941 produced 17 cuts. As it turned out, however, the heavy release schedule of Columbia/OKeh in that turbulent year before our entry in the war depleted this stockpile. There were 13 new Charioteers records in 1941 and when the rationing of shellac added to the record industry woes, Charioteers releases ceased for over two years.
Although commercial recording for the group was at a standstill, the Charioteers were enjoying some of their best years. War bond sales rallies and the were added to their already feverish personal appearance schedule, radio broadcasts and “Hellzapoppin’” were rolling along as before. Our entry into the war produced as a sidelight the V-Disc (V for victory, of course), standard 78’s produced exclusively for the boys and girls in uniform, so they wouldn’t be deprived of the latest hit tunes while digging foxholes.
V-Discs usually contained two songs per side and were, fortunately, exempt from the AFM recording ban. The only requirement was that the V-Disc had to use newly-recorded material not duplicated on commercial releases. The Charioteers did several V-Discs on their own and paired with Pearl Bailey and Bing Crosby. Despite their long-time association with Crosby on his radio programs, his contract with Decca and theirs with Columbia made it impossible for them to make commercial recordings together.
The war years also produced a remarkable bit of Americana in the Armed Forces Radio Services transcriptions. Hundreds of complete radio programs were produced for airing to servicemen over AFRS stations, usually on 16-inch 33 1/3rpm standard groove records, the microgroove LP still being some years in the future. Of paramount interest to fans of black music is the AFRS “Jubilee” series, devoted almost exclusively to black artists. Many tunes available no place else can be found on these recorded broadcasts. For example, the Charioteers’ “Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet!” is not available by them from any other source, or only in truncated versions.
The war between the AFM and Columbia ended before the war between the United Nations and the Axis Powers, and the Charioteers were recording again for Columbia in January, 1945. They also did a session with Frank Sinatra at this time. After the war, the record business went into a slump, suffering a reconversion blues that reflected the malaise in American society. The Charioteers as a unit were getting a bit frayed around the edges themselves.
Tagged as a pop group, they had no part in the exciting rise of rhythm & blues, and had to suffer along with the insipid pop tunes the industry was producing (and wondering why sales were dropping). They went into the studios often, but usable cuts were getting fewer and farther between from those sessions. Ten trips to the studio in 1947 produced only 26 sides, and four of those sessions were done in haste in December, 1947 to “beat the ban” – another AFM recording ban set to begin on January 1, 1948.
Columbia sharply reduced its release schedule to conserve masters during the ban and the glut of recorded material by the Charioteers did not match this new schedule. The group was called into the studio only twice in 1948 and not at all in 1949. In the first week of 1954, Billy Williams, the readily-identifiable lead voice of the group, left to form his own Billy Williams Quartet.
The driving force and on-stage star of the Charioteers since the beginning, Williams had never received the recognition he deserved and desired. The names of group members were never listed on the record labels. Headlining his own group with Eugene Dixon, Claude Riddick, and John Ball, his career skyrocketed. TV appearances and records for MGM, Mercury, and Coral kept the Billy Williams Quartet, later expanded into an eight or nine-man musical revue, in the public eye well into the 1960’s. On the other hand, the Charioteers without him floundered through a succession of personnel changes and unsuccessful recordings for minor labels before evaporating completely sometime in the middle 1950’s.
The Charioteers left a legacy of fame as America’s favorite radio vocal quartet during the 1940’s, and their fascinating tale of sudden fame and fortune is told best by their founder, Dr. Howard Daniel, an educator who realized the dream of all teachers–seeing his students realize their highest level of achievement.
The following narrative was compiled from a series of interviews with Howard Daniel, Sr., by Peter Grendysa. In Howard’s own words:
* * *
“I organized the quartet at Wilberforce University. You see, I was professor of music at the time, and I had charge of the Glee Club. When we went on tours, I wanted a quartet to sing along with the Glee Club, instead of having just Glee Club numbers or solos. I organized the Charioteers so we would have another group to go along with it. Of course, the group was not called the Charioteers then, they were called the Harmony Four.
“We really were not the school quartet, I just organized the group for Glee Club purposes. We used to just sit around on campus and sing acappella, just for our own benefit. The Harmony Four consisted of Pete Leubers, John Harewood, Wilfred B. Williams, and myself. As soon as I graduated from Northwestern in 1929, I went to Wilberforce to teach in the music department in the fall of 1929. The group started in 1930.
“The school quartet was out of town and there was to be a state-wide quartet contest in Columbus, given by the Knights of Columbus. The president of the school, Wilbert Jones, asked me if I could send my group up to Columbus since the other group was out of town. So I took my group up there and we won the contest–they had about 28 quartets in the contest. This was in 1930. We only knew two songs, ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ and ‘Let The Church Roll On’.
“When you got up to Columbus you had to pick a number, and I picked Number 13. You had to do a song on stage with the curtain up so the audience could see you. Then when it came time for your elimination number, they dropped the curtain and the audience couldn’t see you. There was a white quartet that was just about four quartets ahead of us and, man, they sang ‘Steal Away’ as their elimination number! So, we didn’t know what to do and I said, ‘Well, we’ll just go on and sing our arrangement of it, that’s all.’
“That’s what we did and we won the contest. When we sang it there was a hush all over the audience. The recording we made later for Brunswick of that song is the same arrangement that won the contest. The Library of Congress has a recording made then of our song, made for the Governor of Ohio.
“After we won that contest, we heard that there was an opening down at WLW in Cincinnati and we got on the station. The Riff Brothers were on the station already when we got there–that was Deek Watson, Slim Green, Orville Jones, and James Campbell. They had come to WLW from Indianapolis. We were on a show with them called The Rhythm Club, with Fats Waller, Una Mae Carlisle, an organist by the name of Chandler and a little swing violinist. We stayed at WLW for about two-and-a-half years and then we went to New York.
“I continued to teach school during that time and we would drive down to Cincinnati every morning from Wilberforce. I’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning–I lived in Xenia. We had a show with Paul McCarmody, a western show, at 7 o’clock in the morning. The boys were all still in school, so I’d drive to Wilberforce, about three miles, pick them up, and then we’d drive to Cincinnati–55 miles one way. That was every morning, and then we’d have to came back and try to make classes. I had a ten o’clock class.
“We did that for two-and-a-half years and sometimes we’d have to go back in the evening for a show called Moon River that came on at midnight. Quite a few stars got their start on WLW–the Boswell Sisters, Rosemary and Betty Clooney. We worked with the Boswell’ later on, and much later we were on Rosemary Clooney’s TV show.
“We were the Harmony Four when we went down to audition. The music director, Grace Raines, heard us and liked us and asked, ‘What are you going to use for a theme song?’ So we sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot'” and she said, ‘That’s it, call yourselves the Charioteers.’
“Our manager was Jean Goldkette, and he had most of the black bands coming out of Ohio. He’s the one who built the Greystone Ballroom in Detroit. WLW sent us to New York, to WOR an the Mutual Network, and that’s where we met Goldkette. That was in December, 1934 and the boys had graduated from Wilberforce.
“The Oleanders had been the school quartet at Wilberforce. They came to New York soon after we did. Two of my boys went back home after about two years and I got two of the Oleanders–Edward Jackson and Ira Williams. Pete Leubers became a teller in a bank in Cincinnati and John Harewood was principal of a high school in Dayton, Ohio.
“All of our work had been acappella and when we got to New York we found out that we couldn’t make any money that way, singing spirituals. After we got with Jean Goldkette, we got a studio in Carnegie Hall with a grand piano and we went to work. We would start about 9 o’clock in the morning and work until 12, then go across the street to the Horn & Hardart, came back and rehearse until 7 o’clock at night. Jean got us a friend of his, a German boy, as a pianist, and he played for us for a year or so, but he died. This left us in pretty bad straits. In the interim, Teddy Wilson played for us about two years.
“Wilson didn’t want to leave us. At the time we were rehearsing ‘Glory Road’ by Jacques Wolfe at Teddy’s house, when he got a telegram from Benny Goodman in Hollywood asking him to come and work with the band in his first picture. Teddy didn’t want to go, but we told him’ you go! We’re new here in town and we can always get us another pianist: ‘Now, if you can get us a pianist, that’d be great, but he’s got to play exactly like you.’
“Teddy said, ‘Oh wow, I’ve got just the boy for you. He’s downstairs with my brother and he just got in from Buffalo.’ So he goes down and gets this boy and it turns out to be Jimmy Sherman. Jimmy had been playing with Stuff Smith and my brother-in-law George Clark was in the same band. Jimmy got the job with us, but he was on probation with the Musician’s Union.
“At that time, probation with the union was six months. He could only work three nights a week with us. And then we had to get somebody else to play for us. We were doing radio and clubs and he couldn’t do all that work yet, until his probation was over. During this time, we had Hazel Scott; I went over to her house and she consented to play for us. She was with us about three or four weeks. Then we had Charlie Beal, the brother of Eddie Beal, and he carried us through until Jimmy’s probation was over.
“Before that, when we were doing acappella work, we were the first quartet to do three commercial shows on three stations, and it hasn’t happened since–NBC, Mutual, and CBS. We were doing work with Paul Douglas, the great sports announcer Ted Husing, a show with them, then we had Wildroot Hair Tonic, Sa1-Ray with Benny Venuti, man, this is all coming back to me now – that’s so long ago I had forgotten all about it myself. We used to broadcast from a studio in Brooklyn, right where you come across the bridge.
“We were on Horace Heidt’s radio show, we did the Fred Waring show for Chesterfield with the Pennsylvanians, in fact we taught the Glee Club to sing their first spiritual and it was ‘Steal Away To Jesus.’ We also appeared on the Rudy Vallee show. We had our own instrumentation even though we were still doing acappella. The instrumentation was funny–we had violin, cello, bass, oboe, viola, and drums. All they did was give us an introduction and we took it from there, and they picked us up on the last four bars. So you know we had to be on perfect pitch. We’ve done a lot of work with Count Basie and he always used to call us the “musician’s quartet”.
“I didn’t know that Brunswick put out ‘Glory Road’ as by the Southern Male Quartet–that’s us on there and no quartet sang that song but us. We did it the night Jean Goldkette gave a concert in Carnegie Hall and we did some numbers with him on the show. We did ‘Glory Road’ and Jacques Wolfe was there and he came up afterwards and said, ‘That’s the way I wanted that piece done!’ Paul Robeson had done it, but Wolfe liked our version better. That’s what he wanted, and you know that made us feel good.
“When we went out to Hollywood to do ‘Road Show,’ they told us we couldn’t go unless we got a quartet to take our place in ‘Hellzapoppin’’ while we were gone in the summer. So, Rene DeKnight was a friend of mine. In fact, Rene could have been my pianist during that time I was looking for one.
“He auditioned for us and he said, ‘Oh, no, I can’t do it!’ He was nervous, you know.
“I said, ‘You can do it,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, I can’t,’ and he wouldn’t take the job. Soon after that I saw he was in the Delta Rhythm Boys. When we went out to do the picture, I got the Delta Rhythm Boys to take our place in ‘Hellzapoppin’.’ That was good exposure for them; they are a fine bunch of boys. Lee Gaines is my buddy, we used laugh and talk and see who could go down the lowest in singing. He goes pretty low, but I had him in those days, he’ll tell you.
“We were with Bing Crosby when the war started, from October, 1942 until May 9, 1946 on the Kraft Music Hall. From 1941 to 1945 we were on the road quite a bit and busy with Bing, so we didn’t get time to record. We used to do all the camp shows with Bing. We took a show to all the various camps in California like Pendleton and Young. Once a week we would visit the camps and entertain. We’d take a lot of stars with us, like Judy Garland, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. Bing would always send a station wagon down for me to take the boys in. A lot of performers would take the bus, but we used Bing’s station wagon. We only went out there to audition for two weeks after Bing had seen us in ‘Hellzapoppin’.’ Bing sent us our fare, round trip tickets, and we ended up staying about five years.
“While we were with Bing, we used to do a show at a club up in the Valley. And one night Billy Williams was sick and couldn’t go on. Now, the Mills Brothers and I are good friends. I used to play golf with Donald all the time. I called him up and said, ‘Look here, man, come out and sing with us because Bill is sick.’ He went on out there and filled in. That’s the way the quartets would help each other then, it was a beautiful relationship. All the groups were very close during those times.
“After we were out with Bing a year or so, we had 13 weeks off in the summer, and we used to do three months in Wildwood, New Jersey. We only did ”round the world’ once because we never did like that circuit. ‘Round the world’ was the Apollo, the Howard, the Earle, and the one in Baltimore. We did play the Strand and the Paramount, and we went to Europe. We used to do the Flamingo in Las Vegas twice a year.
“Whenever we took our 13 weeks off, Bing had to stay on. While he was off, we had to stay on. During that time we had all the great artists on there as guest hosts, such as Eddy Duchin. After Bing left Kraft he went with Philco for a year, and we went along with him. By then he was making too much money and he gave up show business for awhile–that’s why we had to leave him. We did the Amos ‘N’ Andy show for a year–we only sang on there, we didn’t do any script work. That was live.
“Billy Williams was drafted while we were with Bing. He only stayed about six months. He got out on a medical discharge. He wouldn’t eat. He ate nothing but chocolate bars and he developed migraine headaches and all that kind of stuff. He finally got out. He wired me and said, ‘Send me some money.’ They were getting ready to send him up in the mountains in Wyoming – up in that cold area. He was in the hospital and the CO came in and said everybody that can walk has got to go! He had applied for his discharge and it came just in time. They had even put his duffle bag on the truck. Bing helped to get him out. During the time he was in, we used Arthur Lee Simpkins in the group.
“Our biggest hit was ‘So Long.’ It was played throughout the war years. After the war, a lot of guys came up to us when we were performing and said, ‘We wanted to shoot you guys!’
“We said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘You put that “So Long” record out, and we were falling in love with these chicks and marrying them and going into the war, and when we came back, we couldn’t find them! Those chicks had all said, so long! Man, they wouldn’t let us come off the stage unless we sang that song.
“‘Ride, Red, Ride,’ ‘Gaucho Serenade,’ ‘Sylvia,’ ‘No Soup,’ those were all big for us. ‘What Did He Say (The Mumble Song)’ was quite a hit. I did the mumbling part. We were imitating Joe Louis on that song, if you remember how he talked. We were all good friends. I used to take my kids up to his camp and go riding with Joe in the boat and play golf with him.
“Those AFRS shows used recordings and patched them together. After President Roosevelt died, they did a show for Mrs. Roosevelt from Hollywood with all the stars on it. That was taped and we sang a couple of spirituals on the show. It was sent to Mrs. Roosevelt’s house. Bob Hope, Bing, Frank. Sinatra, everybody was on that thing. It’s about six or eight double records-12-inch 78’s. It’s beautifully bound–they had one made up for each of the performers on the show.
“When Bing gave up show business, we went to Europe and played the Palladium in London. They wanted us to go up in the provinces but we could not because we had a commitment at the Paramount Theater. We made the first trip over on the Queen Mary after the war, and we gave a concert on the ship. We found out the different stars that were on the boat and we all got together and gave a concert. We had programs printed up and everything. Of course, we closed the concert by singing ‘Glory Road’ and broke it up.
“It was a beautiful trip over–we made it over in three-and-a-half days, the fastest crossing ever up to that time. When we got to Cherbourg you couldn’t go in because of the ships that had been sunk. You could see the tops of them sticking up out of the water. Then we went up the Channel and docked at Southampton and took the train on into London. We had a wonderful time there. We stayed at 3 Cork Street, right off of Bond. I don’t know how this stuff is coming back to me! I didn’t know my memory was this good, but you’re bringing it back right before my eyes. Thanks, Pete!
“We replaced Billy Williams with Herbert Dickerson, out of Philadelphia. Then we had a boy named Henry King. Henry is with me now, and so is Bob Bowers. The group now is Henry King, Bob Bowers, Ira Williams, and myself. We are still good friends and we get together and sing around amongst ourselves. No touring or recording.
“Everybody says, ‘Why don’t you go back into show business?’
“I say, ‘Not me!’
“I had enough of that show business. I took sick up in Quebec City, in fact, I passed out on stage. They grabbed me as I was going down after we finished ‘Ride, Red, Ride.’ I was bowing and I wasn’t coming up. They grabbed me by my arms and backed off the stage. I went in the hospital that night. Boy it was cold up there.
“The next morning I told the doctor, ‘Doc, I’ve got to work, the contract was renewed for a couple more weeks.’ They tapped my stomach, took out 50cc’s of water and my stomach went down like a balloon. I told them I know I’ve got to work tonight, so they worked on me all day. They put a tube in my side and gave me a little bottle and I kept that in my pocket. I worked like that for two weeks, two shows a night. Then I went back home and had an operation on Christmas Eve. After another operation a month later I was O.K. after that.
“We stopped touring in 1957. I got tired of it and decided to give it up. Tired of the road and being away from the family. I didn’t want to die on the road and we’d been in all kinds of snow and bad weather. My wife wanted me to give it up, too. She had looked after the kids for a long time.
“If the younger people would take the time to listen to the songs of the old quartets, they’d be surprised how much they’d like that music. If we could just come back and start all over again, it would run all this rock music out. You can’t understand this stuff–it’s only rhythm that they’re doing now. You can’t sing along with any of the songs because there’s no music to it. They can’t repeat it themselves on stage. You can just listen to it and laugh. There’s no sentiment, no love, no feeling in those songs–just a whole lot of jump stuff. I sing in church, Carter’s Community AME Church. I go there and keep my voice up. And I enjoy showing the youngsters how to do it.”
(Howard Daniel, Sr. died October 7, 1998 at the age of 73.)