Music halls

Belle Davis, music hall star and choreographer

In Victorian and Edwardian England a number of African-American singers and performers achieved success and celebrity. Some, like Elizabeth Greenfield, Marie Selika Williams, and Sissieretta Jones performed at prestigious venues for aristocratic audiences (including the Queen), while others including Amy Height performed at music halls and theatres up and down the country for a more mixed audience.

One of these music hall stars was singer Belle Davis. I first encountered her when I was researching the story of dancer Josie Woods, because it was Davis that recruited Josie and her brother as teenagers in Canning Town and trained them as professional dancers, eventually taking them to Paris to perform in La Revue Nègre which had previously made Josephine Baker a star. 

 Belle Davis, 1919

Belle Davis, 1919

I tried to find out a little more about her. While details about Davis' life are scant, it's likely that she was born in born in New Orleans between June 1873 and September 1874, and first visited Europe in 1901 aged 27. In June 1904 Belle Davis married saxophonist and band leader Troy Floyd, and at some point later she married  comedian Eddie Whaley. 

According to drummer Gordon Stretton, Davis "was a mezzo-soprano; tall black girl, native from New Orleans, very beautiful..." Some accounts mention that she had a light complexion, and apparently booking agents would sometimes try and persuade her to "darken down", presumably to fit the stereotype of an 'exotic' African-American singer.

In her act Davis was accompanied by two young black boys who danced and sang, described as 'piccaninnies' in their promotional literature, revealing the appetite for racist caricatures among white audiences at the time. Among the first of these boys were Sneeze Williams, age 9, and Sonny Jones, age 7, both of whom went on to have careers as jazz musicians in 1920s Europe. It was not uncommon for orphans to be targeted for these showbusiness roles and then exploited, but according to trumpeter Arthur Briggs, who met Belle Davis in Europe she was different. 

Davis' act was very popular and she became an international star. She toured Europe until at least December 1917, appearing on stage in Britain many times before and during the First World War. She appeared at several East End theatres and music halls including Hackney Empire, Stratford East, East Ham Palace and the Mile End Paragon on numerous occasions.

Less is known about Davis' movements after the War. Between about 1925 and 1929 she became choreographer at the prestigious Casino de Paris, and was responsible for the annual revues. It's at this point in her career that she recruited Josie Wood as a young dancer, so we know that in 1926 she was in Canning Town, looking for star potential among the local youngsters. She found it in Josie. 

Belle Davis was last heard of in Paris in 1929 and may have died there. She is one of countless women who was well known in her lifetime, even a celebrity, but have all but vanished from history. 

 

Sources

Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, Jayna Brown

Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, Jeffrey Green

Black women in Britain 1850-1897, Jeffrey Green

"Belle Davis and Her Piccaninnies: a Preliminary Bio-, Disco-, and
Filmography
", Rainer E. Lotz, Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal  Vol.25, No. 2, Fall 1994

The Music Hall and Theatre History Site, Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904, Matthew Lloyd

 

Josie Woods, dancer and strike leader

Josie Woods, dancing in later years
Josie Woods, dancing in later years

Josephine Lucy Wood was born in Canning Town in 1912 to Charles, a Dominican merchant navy quartermaster on the local docks, and Emily, who described herself as a "gypsy girl".

Sailortown and Draughtboard Alley

In the early 20th century Canning Town - known as 'Sailortown' - had the largest black population in London. Crown Street became known locally as 'Draughtboard Alley' because both black and white people lived there.

Although on the whole there were good relations between different ethnic groups, during and after the First World War tensions erupted into violence, and Josie recalled race riots during her childhood.

Sewing in Aldgate to dancing in Paris

At 14 Josie was working for a Jewish tailor in Aldgate. She got her break into show business when music hall star Belle Davis chose Josie and her brother Charlie to train with the Eight Lancashire Lads, a popular clog and tap dancing group with which Charlie Chaplin also started his career.

Later Charlie, Josie, and three other girls went with Davis to Paris as a tap dancing group called the Magnolia Blossoms. They joined La Revue Negre, the show which had made Josephine Baker a star a few years earlier.

In 1932 Josie and her brother joined a group called the Eight Black Streaks and came back to London. The Streaks were the first established black British dance troupe, described as "the world's fastest dancers". Josie toured with them for eight years, appearing at the London Palladium and in two films: Night Club Queen and Kentucky Minstrels, both 1934.

In 1933 Josie escaped an abusive marriage and made a vow never to allow a man to control her again. She formed several successful personal and professional partnerships with male performers, including singer Eddie Williams and Nigerian actor Willie Payne.

Jitterbug jamboree

She also performed several times with comedian and musician Cyril Lagey demonstrating the latest dance crazes from Harlem to British audiences. In 1940 they launched a new dance called the 'jitterbug' in London, in a show called Jitterbug Jamboree at the Astoria Old Kent Road.

Josie told dance historian Terry Monaghan that she was so captivated by the jitterbug sequence in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day At The Races that she stayed in the cinema and watched the film several times in a row.

"She learnt it from the screen," Monaghan said. "She featured it in her act, entered jitterbug competitions, and in dance halls she would teach it to anyone who was interested."

Film extra and strike leader

As the popularity of music halls waned in the 1940s and 50s Josie found work in television variety shows and in films. She guest starred in Nitwits on Parade (1949) and appeared as an extra in Old Mother Riley's Jungle Treasure (1951).

When the latter was being filmed she organised a strike for the black extras over late payment, and confronted the film's producer, saying: "Either you pay us what we are owed, or you can kiss my black ass!"

Later years

Josie continued working into the mid 1960s as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. In 1956 she had a son, Ralph, who went on to become a successful saxophonist.

In 1997, at 85 years old, her story was covered by the BBC documentary Black Britain.  Josie moved to the USA in 2001 to be near her son, where she died in 2008.

Sources