In the 1920s, the Revelers introduced Americans to a new style of pop vocal harmony. Once a household name, they and their music eventually drifted into the mists of history.
Now, a University of Oregon professor is bringing the group’s music back — and he found the key to its revival in a Connecticut attic.
The journey began when Craig Phillips, an assistant professor of voice, began hunting down intrinsically American music for his group, the Grammy-nominated vocal quartet New York Polyphony. After digging, Phillips came across a treasure trove of quaint, quirky tunes by the Revelers.
The group, which began performing under the name of the Revelers in 1925, grabbed hold of the day’s latest recording technology — a gadget called the microphone. The band released its first song, “Dinah,” in 1926 on 10-inch shellac records. The song sold 2 million copies in its day, according to Phillips.
For about 13 years, until 1940, the quartet was the house vocal group for a fledgling radio network known as NBC. While their voices were still distinguishable, the Revelers often took the name of whichever company was sponsoring the show.
Performing under different names is a reason why the Revelers faded from history — but it’s not the only one. The quartet’s career predates the arrival of magnetic tape, which was used to archive radio broadcasts.
In the early 1930s, the Great Depression blew a hole in the recording industry. By the time it rebounded, the Revelers’ music was a little passé, according to Phillips.
Having first heard the group on YouTube through a vinyl collector’s uploading, Phillips noticed that the arrangements were complex. They weren’t something just made up in the studio. There had to be scores.
Phillips began searching for these scores in libraries and by scraping the internet. About to give up, Phillips returned to a blog he had visited before about Frank Black, the principle arranger of the Revelers, to see if he had missed something. He had.
Scrolling down the page, a commenter mentioned that his father was in the group. He had inherited nine wooden crates full of scores.
With some internet sleuthing, Phillips found the commenter’s phone number and cold-called him. The next day, Phillips drove from North Carolina to Connecticut.
That’s where he discovered hundreds of hand-written scores in the attic.
Damaged, dirty, dusty and moldy, some were out of place and others were missing. Over time, through painstaking work, Phillips began stitching the scores back together.
Over two days in mid-July, Phillips brought together a group analogous to the Revelers at the National Opera Center in New York where they workshopped and performed the scores. Their rendition of “Dinah” got some chuckles, which can be heard on the broadcast.
“There’s such a smile behind this repertoire, and the audience really picked up on that,” said Phillips.
Looking toward the future, Phillips is hoping to restore many more songs that were never on records. Since the songs were on the radio, but not archived, it might be the first time an audience hears the arrangements in almost 80 years.
In the modern age, Phillips says he thinks there’s relevance to the Revelers’ music since it exists for the fun of it.
“There’s no agenda. There’s no … heavy message. It’s just complete, easy consumption,” he explained.
To hear more from “Think Out Loud’s” conversation with Craig Phillips, click the “play” button at the top of the page.