Attic music speaks quietly – and with wide-open possibilities. A secret garden, perhaps?
Stacks of printed music found in closets and attics – having survived the decades by accident or design – often lose their purpose along with the last person who sang or heard the music. And re-discovering that purpose can confound the smartest historians with pages stored out of order and on paper that can crumble when touched.
No such barriers, however, seem to be stopping The Revelers from resurrection. This quartet of million-selling recording artists from the 1920s and ’30s found their voices again on July 11 in a workshop performance at New York’s National Opera Center through the efforts of Craig Phillips, best known as a member of the Renaissance music group New York Polyphony. For the past three years or so, he has researched how The Revelers tumbled from the ultimate mainstream fame to complete obscurity. Recordings can be found on YouTube, but they don’t exactly find you.
“I found The Revelers because they were so wildly different than what came before,” Phillips told a journalist at the University of Oregon where he teaches. “They redefined quartet singing, really.”
The heyday was roughly 15 years between 1925 (the invention of electrical recording) and 1940. Versions of the group were heard from the late 1940s on into the ’70s, but hardly at the center of popular culture that the Revelers once occupied. Via the internet, Phillips stumbled upon a descendant of one of the later group members who had numerous cartons full of vocal charts. Yes, classic attic music. And the reconstruction – which had Anthony Patterson re-creating the many missing piano parts – took a decisive step forward on Wednesday when, with one day of rehearsal, Phillips & Co. sang 15 songs by the group, starting with its first hit, “Dinah.”
My first comparison was that of a liberated barbershop quartet. The harmonies are closely voiced, but the expressive range is far broader, enabling solo voices to pop out of the blend. At times, The Revelers seemed to have the best of several worlds with the color of an ensemble and room for individual charisma. In fact, one of the original Revelers was the tenor James Melton, who later had a solo radio career and several seasons singing at the Metropolitan Opera.
Other charts were complicated. You thought you knew “Dancing in the Dark?” Well, you got to know a different side of it from these guys. They liked snazzy rhymes, as in the novelty number “When Yuba plays the Rumba on the Tuba.” After the hour-long workshop, the quartet – which consisted of Joseph Gaines, Bryon Grohman and Jesse Blumburg in addition to Phillips – talked about voicings and chord changes that suggested Alban Berg. Twist endings seemed to be a specialty.
First-class singers are necessary. But so is showmanship. And when called upon to “sell it” – Blumberg contributed some whistling – these neo-Revelers pulled it off. Phillips confessed to feeling guilty for having had his group perform 15 songs with one day’s rehearsal. Even 15 songs was a lot of singing.
Why did The Revelers go missing?
Unlike the Andrews Sisters, The Revelers perhaps didn’t define its era. Though the group had personalities, the group lacked a single face to show to the world. Maybe they were perceived as having been bested by later groups such as The Hi-Lo’s. Phillips suggests that the posthumous reputation was marred by their recordings having stopped at the edge of the magnetic-tape LP era, with sound too antiquated for re-release.
Significant pieces of the puzzle remain missing. The “Holy Grail” of Revelers repertoire is a sung arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue, sanctioned by George Gershwin (who described The Revelers as “marvelous, not merely in their perfection of rhythm, but also in their unique ability to get unusual and skillful orchestral effects with the voice.”).
And without a fuller picture, it’s hard to know in what form The Revelers could re-enter the larger world. If presented with ironic observation of the music’s quaintness, you’d have something like the 1950s sendup Forever Plaid. Build a plot around it and you’ll have something like the showbiz musical Harmony about the Comedian Harmonists that was written years back by Barry Manilow. The Revelers would require some kind of a theater/cabaret hybrid – with some Max Raabe-ish high style? – sincere but not too serious. It’s worth a try.