Cecil Mack - R. C. McPherson
Little is known about R. C. McPherson, who wrote the lyrics to many popular songs from the turn of the century to 1924. However, this much is clear: Cecil Mack had an amazingly fortunate career in show business for a man with no formal training in music or the theater. It was a career marked not only by his own success, but also by the respect of peers who put him into the position of heading what was probably New York's first African-American music publishing company..
Cecil Mack was born Richard C. McPherson in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1871. He was educated at the Norfolk Mission School and attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania but failed to graduate due to lack of funds. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School for one semester
In 1901, Mack wrote the lyrics to Good Morning, Carrie. Its sheet music cover featured Bert Williams and George Walker, who sang it on their historic recordings for the Victor Company. By 1904, Mack had written lyrics for more songs including The Little Gypsy Maid for the play, The Wild Rose, and Zono, My Congo Queen. In that year, he wrote his first big hit, Teasing, with Harry Von Tilzer, a white New York songwriter and publisher.
Early in 1905, Mack organized the Gotham Music Publishing Company. Actual ownership of the company is unknown. However, in its four months of existence, the majority of its songs were composed by African-Americans including Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe, and Mack himself.
About this time, another New York firm, the Attucks Music Publishing Company, was formed, taking its name from Crispus Attucks, the first black killed in the American Revolution. This company's catalog was also dominated by the works of blacks, among them Alex Rogers, Jesse A. Shipp, Chris Smith, and Bert Williams, and many of its covers featured pictures of Williams and Walker. In less than a year, the company issued about 20 songs.
On May 29, 1905, Cecil Mack was part of a group that founded the Gotham-Attucks Music Publishing Company, a merger of the two companies. Again, while the ownership of this company is unknown, in July of 1906, the New York Age referred to McPherson as Gotham-Attucks's "secretary and treasurer and general business director." Whether Cecil Mack was the sole owner or was in partnership with other black musicians and songwriters, this was likely the first African-American-owned publishing company in New York, and as such, it performed a vital service to the black music scene
In the six years of its existence, The House of Melody published the music from two of the famous Williams and Walker musicals, In Abyssinia and Bandana Land. The covers of their sheet music broke new ground in that they did not resort to the racial stereotyping used by other companies, and the few coon songs included in their catalog were never labeled as such. However, after 1908, for unknown reasons most of the black songwriters except for Mack and Chris Smith left the company..
Cecil Mack wrote the lyrics for many songs between 1908 and 1910. His I'm Miss Hanna From Savannah was written exclusively for Ada Overton Walker, George Walker's wife. He composed the lyrics to James Reese Europe's music for The Black Politician, produced in 1907 for the Smart Set Company, a musical-comedy touring company formed by Ernest Hogan and minstrel Billy McLain that served as a training ground for many black songsters and musicians.
In 1910, Gotham-Attucks published a song used by Ada Walker in another famous African-American road show called His Honor the Barber. The name of the song with words by Mack and music by Ford Dabney was That's Why They Call Me Shine, and it became famous. Now simply known as Shine, the tune was redone with success years later by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ry Cooder. According to Perry Bradford, himself a songster and publisher, the song was written about an actual man named Shine who was with George Walker when they were badly beaten during the New York City race riot of 1900. In his thinly veiled work of fiction published in 1912, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson included a character called Shine who was probably based upon the same individual.
In 1911, when Gotham-Attucks was bought by Ferdinand E. Mierisch, the story of the first African-American-owned music publishing company in New York came to a close. Cecil Mack's most famous work became a musical hallmark of the twenties. It is a song that everyone danced to, that made a lot of money, and that will never be forgotten. But ironically enough for its lyricist, it is a song that no one remembers the words to--the "Charleston." .
The Charleston was composed in 1913 by African-American James P. Johnson, who played it at dances for black longshoremen recently moved from South Carolina. Johnson was the master and originator of a style of piano playing known as "stride." He had also written some instrumentals during the teens, including the Steeplechase Rag and the Twilight Rag. In 1923, after the success of Shuffle Along, when Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, two comedians who had shared in that production's prosperity, decided to put together a new show, they asked Johnson and Cecil Mack to provide the songs.
The name of Miller and Lyles's show was Runnin' Wild, and the Charleston was one of the songs performed. Soon after the show opened, America went Charleston crazy. Variety reported that "in Boston's Pickwick Club, a tenderloin dance hall, the vibrations of Charleston dancers caused the place to collapse, killing fifty." The New York Times reported in 1925 that the dance was so popular one criterion in hiring black domestic workers was that they be able to teach the dance to their white employers. In his book of spirituals, James Weldon Johnson wrote that when the dance was introduced in the play they: did not depend wholly on the orchestra--an extraordinary jazz band-- but had the major part of the chorus supplement it with hand and foot patting. The effect was electrical and contagious. It was the best demonstration of beating out complex rhythms I have ever witnessed; and, I do not believe New York ever before witnessed anything of just its sort.
It is fortunate that the songs from Runnin' Wild were performed at all, as there were some financial differences between the songwriters and Miller and Lyles. According to Perry Bradford, Johnson and Mack had tied up the show in Pittsburgh with "a royalty accounting rope."
Mack became a member of ASCAP within the first ten years of its existence. This was not an easy task for an African-American composer. Harry T. Burleigh and James Weldon Johnson had been charter members, but it took twelve years before another eight black musicians and lyricists, including W. C. Handy, Will Marion Cook, and Maceo Pinkard, were invited into this exclusive profit-sharing club. The prerequisites were strict, and only the most established artists could afford to become members..
The success of Shuffle Along, Runnin' Wild, and other shows of the period finally broke down the barriers that had kept black productions from prospering. The shows were popular not only in New York but also on the road, and with their popularity came profit. Doors opened for more African-American performances as well as for such African-American shows produced by whites as Lew Leslie's outstanding Blackbirds series, in which Mack's Cecil Mack's Choir made its debut.1
In 1931, his choir performed in Lew Leslie's Rhapsody in Black. Along with George Gershwin, Rosamond Johnson, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, and W. C. Handy, he also wrote lyrics and music for the show. The versatile Mack did the vocal arrangements for its spirituals and folk songs as well. Richard C. McPherson died in New York in 1944.