First released in 1995, Document's Earliest Negro Vocal Groups, Vol. 2 reaches back to 1893 for one of the earliest known recordings by an African-American singing group, unveiling a fascinating array of 27rarities by seven different ensembles, and ultimately inching no closer to the present day than 1922. As is the case with each of Document's sacred and secular vocal ensemble compilations, this installment is packed with recordings so rare as to fill the receptive listener with gratitude for access to such historic treasures. Fifteen years after its first appearance, this was released in a new edition with a different cover photo as Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets, Vol. 2.
The Unique Quartette became a working unit during the 1880s and operated out of New York under the leadership of vocalist Joseph M. Moore. "Mama's Black Baby Boy" comes from a scratchy old Edison phonograph cylinder which may be the sole remnant of their professional existence. The Standard Quartette came together in Chicago circa 1890 and spent a lot of time on the road with a topical revue in which they sang songs depicting a fictitious idyllic existence enjoyed by slaves in the South before the Civil War. (This kind of fabricated nonsense was still being emitted by Hollywood decades later, and reached its nadir in 1935 with the 20th Century Fox motion picture The Littlest Rebel, which starred Shirley Temple). At the time this compilation was released, "Every Day'll Be Sunday Bye and Bye" was one of only two extant Standard Quartette cylinder recordings. The other was reissued on the first installment in the series, Document's The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups 1894-1928 which appeared in 1991. Also included in that set were five of six titles recorded on one-sided Victor platters near the end of October 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. "My Way Is Cloudy" appears here as the final offering from this small ensemble which followed in the footsteps of the Fisk Jubilee Singers by raising monies for the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School in Dinwiddie VA, then dabbled in vaudeville before breaking up in 1904.
The Afro-American Folk Singers were founded under the auspices of the Conservatory of Music in Washington D.C. and were directed by composer Will Marion Cook, who conducted the chorus on two Columbia sides which were cut in March 1914 at his only known recording session. Possible participants include singing actress Abbie Mitchell and baritone Harry T. Burleigh. Two performances by the Right Quintette date from 1915 and include a second version of Cook's "Rain Song". This group, which came together in 1912, performed regularly in New York and featured ex-Dinwiddie member James Mantell Thomas. Tracks 8-13 constitute a sampling of vocal numbers from Lieutenant Jim Europe's final recording sessions which were held in the spring of 1919. The primary output from those dates feature Europe's 369th U.S. Infantry Hellfighters Band and was reissued by the Memphis Archives label in 1996. These vocal sides, which feature Noble Sissle and Creighton Thompson with either the Four Harmony Kings or Jim Europe's Singing Serenaders, constitute a fascinating appendix to those better-known syncopated military band recordings. The second half of this bracing mini-archive of historic audio-artifacts is filled out with a generous selection of recordings made in 1922 by the Excelsior Quartette, either drawing upon vaudeville and minstrelsy or singing religious melodies in a manner that seems to have been tailored to meet the preconceptions of white audiences. Its members have been identified as lead vocalist Theodore Lee, tenor voice and sometime manager James C. Brown; baritone singer Samuel Pierce, and basso William Gibson. The final two recordings were released on Harry Pace's Black Swan record label and compare nicely with earlier versions by the same group and, in the case of the "Jelly Roll Blues," by the Norfolk Jazz Quartet.