Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson
Bob Cole was born in Athens, Georgia, on July 1, 1868. His earliest published songs were issued in 1893, and one of his earliest stage jobs was with Sam T. Jack's Creole Show, the first African-American show to break from the strict minstrel tradition of all male performers. Cole also performed as an actor and directed the All Star Stock Company at Worth's Museum in New York, the first such company organized by African-Americans.
When he was 27 years old and performing with Black Patti's Troubadours, Cole was engaged by the Troubadours' producers to write an entire show with Billy Johnson, his first collaborator. After a dispute over ownership of his music, Cole and Johnson left to organize Cole's own company. Elaborating on his early short sketches, he created a full-length musical which was performed off-Broadway in New York's Third Avenue Theater during the 1898-99 season. A Trip To Coontown was the first musical entirely written, performed, produced, and owned by African-Americans. Unlike other black entertainments of the time, Cole's production had a book and lyrics that could sustain a dramatic subplot. After the show closed, Cole and Billy Johnson broke off their working relationship, and Cole met the two men with whom he was to create his most successful songs.
J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson were born in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon in 1871 and Rosamond in 1873. By the age of four, Rosamond was already an accomplished pianist. Later he studied classical music at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but left after six years because his real interest lay in musical comedy. By age 23, he was touring as a vocalist with the company of Oriental America, said to be the first African-American show on Broadway to differ from a burlesque house act.
His brother James Weldon studied both piano and guitar. After graduating from Atlanta University, he took charge of the Stanton Public School, wrote poetry, and founded a short-lived newspaper called The Daily American. Later he studied law and became the first African-American in Florida to seek and gain admission to the bar through open examination.
Around 1898, Rosamond returned to Jacksonville, and at his insistence, the brothers began work on their first musical, Toloso, "a comic opera satirizing the new American imperialism" after the Spanish-American War. In 1899, they decided to go to New York to seek their fortunes
Though Toloso was never produced, its songs were later used in Broadway musicals, and it introduced the Johnsons to others in the business, including Oscar Hammerstein, Williams and Walker, and Will Marion Cook. It also introduced them to their future partner, Bob Cole.
From the very beginning of their relationship, Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers seem focused on one major goal: elevating the lyrical sophistication of Negro songs. The team's first collaboration was Louisiana Lize, a love song written in a new lyrical style which left out the watermelons, razors, and hot mamas typical of coon songs. For $50, they sold the singing rights to May Irwin, who was then known as a singer of coon songs. Irwin used it in her next show, The Belle of Bridgeport, and the song was later published by Jos. P. Stern and Co.. Its success encouraged the team that their goal was not out of reach, and during the next seven years, Cole, Johnson, and Johnson wrote over 200 songs, working in a unique form of collaboration in which they each took turns writing words, composing melody, and acting as critic.
By 1901, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson had put together a sophisticated vaudeville act. Dressed in evening clothes, Rosamond played classical works on the piano, then the pair sang their own compositions and ended the act with a soft-shoe routine by Cole. According to Rosamond, they were walking back uptown after a performance one day when he began to hum the African-American spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. Hearing the song, Cole got the idea to rearrange it and work it into their act. When Rosamond objected that this was sacrilegious, Cole responded, "What kind of a musician are you anyway? Been to the Boston Conservatory and can't change a little old tune around." By the time Rosamond finally conceded, Cole had already written the words. The resulting song, Under the Bamboo Tree, sold over 400,000 copies, making it one of the biggest sellers ever.
With Cole's and Rosamond Johnson's popular vaudeville act touring much of the time, James Weldon Johnson began to pursue other interests. At the request of Charles Anderson, a leading black New York politician, he managed the Colored Republican's Club. He also attended Columbia University, studied English, and began work on a novel, The Auto-Biography of an Ex-Colored Man, which was eventually published in 1912.
In 1903, the trio signed an exclusive three-year contract with Klaw and Erlanger, major Broadway producers. In exchange for a monthly salary and royalties, they agreed to write exclusively for Klaw and Erlanger's shows.
When the contract expired, having earned them more than $25,000 a year in royalties, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson decided to resume their vaudeville routine. With James Weldon as their manager, they toured throughout the United States and performed in both Paris and London. Legend has it that Under the Bamboo Tree was the last thing they heard as they set sail from New York for Europe and the first thing they heard when they arrived in Paris.
Following their successful tour, Cole and Rosamond Johnson started their own theatrical company. In 1906, they produced and starred in a musical called The Shoo-Fly Regiment. After helping to write the songs for this show, James Weldon decided that it would be the last piece of work they would do together.
Charles Anderson, now a member of the Roosevelt Administration, encouraged him to join the foreign service, and soon after, James Weldon Johnson went to Venezuela as the United States consul. In 1909, he was appointed consul to Nicaragua where he served for over three years.
In 1908, Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson produced and starred in a new show with an Indian theme. Red Moon was called the best African-American show that had ever been produced because of its superior book and well-written songs.
Soon after Red Moon closed, Cole's health began to fail. Although he recovered briefly and toured with Rosamond for a time in a new vaudeville act, he fell ill again. Rumors of syphilis began to surface. Cole died on August 2, 1911.
Rosamond Johnson went on to write the music and conduct the orchestra for the 1911 revue Hello Paris. It was the first time an African-American conducted a white orchestra for a performance with a white cast in a New York theater. In 1912, Oscar Hammerstein appointed Rosamond musical director of his Grand Opera House in London. On June third of the following year, he married Nora Floyd, and after two years in London, they returned to New York and started the Music School Settlement for Colored People.
In 1917, Rosamond directed a singing orchestra which appeared in a series of ground-breaking plays given by The Coloured Players at the Garden Theater in Madison Square Garden. The plays opened on April 5. The United States declared war on Germany the following day, and although the production continued for a while, the war finally brought it to a close.
Rosamond joined the army and served as a second lieutenant with the 15th Regiment. He appeared in Porgy and Bess in 1935, but never wrote another musical comedy. Rosamond Johnson died on November 11, 1954.
James Weldon Johnson continued to engage in a variety of activities. For ten years, he wrote editorials for the New York Age, a prominent African-American newspaper. He was one of the founders and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, and he became field secretary for the NAACP in 1916. In 1925, he edited two authoritative volumes of spirituals for which Rosamond arranged most of the music. Five years later, he wrote Black Manhattan, a history of African-Americans in New York, and in 1933, he wrote his autobiography, Along This Way. The 1900 composition Lift Every Voice and Sing, which he wrote in collaboration with his brother Rosamond, is considered by many to be the Negro national anthem. James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.