Thursday, March 17, 2016

Earl Fatha Hines on KDKA

I have written often about the beginnings of black radio: the first appearances of African Americans in broadcasts that also demographically target African Americans. There were blacks portrayed on Amos & Andy but no one could honestly refer to it as black radio. But outside documented appearances we have some that are more apocryphal... such as this. But the site Pittsburgh Music History flat out claims "He and Lois Deppe were the first African American musicians ever to perform on radio in 1921. "

Thus it is reputed that Earl "Fatha" Hines performed on KDKA-AM as early as 1921. It it can be firmly corroborated it would make him one of the first African Americans on radio ever. The KDKA call sign was assigned in November of 1920, So it is just this side of possible. But the first problem is that Earl Kenneth Hines was only born on December 28, 1903. That would have made him just 18 years old at the time of the broadcast. But the plausibility meter ticks upward from there.

Hines was born in Duquesne, PA; just 12 miles from Pittsburgh. Earl's father was a musician, his mother a church organist. Hines took lessons from an early age and by the time he was eleven he was playing organ at his local church. By the time he was 17 he'd left home to play with Lois Deppe & his Symphonian Serenaders. This band toured regionally and played New York City. It was this group that broadcast over KDKA.

Defining "firsts" in the earliest days of radio is a very dubious proposition. Earl Hines makes the claim in his autobiography The World of Earl Hines (written with Stanley Dance). Academic journals such as the African American Review have repeated the claim. The definitive text on black radio, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio by William Barlow also makes the same claim and further quotes Deppe describing the community reaction "the street was all blocked with people and we were just mobbed..."

But the most reputable claim is often the oldest. A July 1953 issue of Jet Magazine shows Hines and Deppe celebrating the 32nd anniversary of their appearance on KDKA. The article gives the date of that appearance as Saturday, July 9th 1921. The article also claims they are "The first Negros to appear on an American radio station."It's not a contemporary reference. So far as I have ever found it's only stated by one prior publication: a 1951 issue of Negro Digest. It's 30 years after the fact but the consistency of the statements over time gives it a lot of credence.