In “Turn Every Page,” the New York Historical Society’s celebration of Robert Caro, there’s ephemera galore. Fragments from the author’s notebooks, interviews, and rough drafts line the corridor of the building’s third floor exhibit. But where words should hold court, perhaps it’s this image of three New York legends — and big Caro muses — that commandeers the show:
(1) La Guardia, Smith, and Moses. On the Mall in Central Park. June 27, 1940.
First off, it’s not only rare to find a photo of Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Al Smith (1873-1944), and Robert Moses (1888-1981) posing together, it’s nearly unimaginable to uncover one of them sharing a laugh. In fact, there’s such life in the image you can still hear them howling across the decades.
So what brought them together then? A new playground opening somewhere? A big baseball game? A posh ceremony giving away keys to the City? No, it was much more improbable: a love of singing. They were judging the finals of a barbershop quartet contest.
The American Ballad Contest
Looking to add to its roster of summer entertainment, the Parks Department sponsored the first ever City-wide “American Ballad Contest” in 1935. Apparently the brainchild of James V. Mulholland, the Department’s Director of Recreation, Moses was so enchanted with the idea he became its chief promoter. In fact, he was so successful, the contest persisted even after he retired as Parks Commissioner in 1960.
According to the Department’s press release archive, the event ran annually from 1935 to 1967. For 29 years, the City finals were held at the Naumburg Bandshell on the Mall in Central Park. On two occasions, they were transferred to Randalls Island Stadium — the site of today’s Icahn Stadium — on Randalls Island. And for the competition’s last hurrah, they were staged at the Singer Bowl — the site of today’s Louis Armstrong Stadium — in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. When the City played host to the National finals during the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, the festivities were also centered in Flushing Meadows. Participants sang in the New York City Building — now known as the Queens Museum.
The rules were simple. Quartets consisted of baritone, bass, 1st, and 2nd male tenors. (Women weren’t initially invited, but that changed when they were allowed to form “Gibson Girl Trios” outside the main contest in 1939.) The quartets could bring one instrument for support: a lute, banjo, mandolin, guitar, or zither. They could sing up to eight minutes, but perform only songs from a pre-approved list. Those from the “classic barbershop era” of the 1890s like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Swanee River,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “Sweet Adeline” were typically selected. Finally, and perhaps most important, none of the singers could be professionals. This was a strictly amateur affair.
To qualify for the City finals, quartets first had to be among the best of their borough. Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island each sent two representatives forward. But as the contest grew in popularity, quartets from places outside the City like from Westchester, Jones Beach, and Bloomfield (New Jersey) were also allowed entry. In some years, up to 18 quartets were invited to perform on the Parks Department’s stage.
(2) 5th Annual American Ballad Contest. On the Mall looking at Naumburg Bandshell. 1939.
And what a stage it was. Designed by William H. Latham (1903-1987), a consulting Parks engineer and later aide to Moses, it transformed the Naumburg Bandshell into an old tonsorial parlor. As the New York Times reported then, the original 1935 stage featured a barber’s pole, china spittoons, red plush barber chairs with gold fingers, a pot-bellied stove, a long rack of initialed shaving mugs, and “a fly-speckled clock that doesn’t tell the right time.”
And what did a winning quartet receive? Well, the prizes varied by year, but in 1935, each member of the victorious group was given a straight shaving razor and lavender mug. The mugs were engraved with both the winner’s initials and a London Plane tree leaf — the Parks Department’s logo. There was also the penny. Each member was given one because, as the Times explained, “the old-time barber vocalists [had] a superstition that money takes the curse off a sharp-edged gift like a razor or knife.”
In the Judge’s Box
Al Smith, Robert Moses, and Fiorello La Guardia were all on hand for the inaugural contest, but only Smith actually filled out a scorecard. Moses emceed while La Guardia handed out the awards. But from 1936 to 1944, they became the event’s mainstay judges.
Joining them in the box were an array of friends and luminaries. Their most frequent collaborators were Sigmund Spaeth (1885-1965) and Luther Steward (1877-1966). Spaeth, a musicologist and writer, was known as the “Tune Detective” for his radio programs that analyzed the components of popular songs. Steward, on the other hand, was a former assistant superintendent of Ellis Island who rose to become the president of the National Association of Federal Employees.
(3) Luther Steward. 1921.
(4) Sigmund Spaeth. 1932.
Later, as the contest grew in scope, the team expanded to include Jack Norworth (who wrote the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), W. C. Handy (the musician whose “Memphis Blues” was among the first blues songs ever published), Geoffrey O’Hara (the composer of “K-K-K-Katy,” a popular World War I tune), George Rea (President of the New York Curb Exchange), Frank Smith (President of Con Edison), James Evans (Secretary of the New York State Council of Parks), and Paul Winslow (Secretary of the Taconic State Park Commission)
In reviewing a quartet, the judges analyzed tone, harmony, choice of costume, and how the members interpreted the song. The whole affair was given rapt attention. As La Guardia reminded the Times at the World’s Fair in 1940, “This is a real musical event. It is a serious business with these contestants.” And he reacted in kind. “La Guardia,” the Times noted while watching how he judged, “was by far the most enthusiastic man in the audience. With his glasses up over his forehead, the Mayor kept time with his hands and feet and frequently sang to himself.” It was if he wanted to take the stage too.
(5) Moses and La Guardia, 2nd and 3rd from the left, at the World’s Fair. 1939 or 1940.
And sometimes he did. At the 1939 World’s Fair, he led a spontaneous quartet with Smith, Moses, and Spaeth. They performed a few numbers during a break in the competition. It must have been something. Nearly 30 years later, in 1967, Moses could still describe the foursome’s antics. As he stressed to the Times, “Al Smith had a gravelly voice.” But overall, “We didn’t have much voice at all,” he acknowledged. “Just fun.”
And that’s the impression the old photos and stories lend: fun. At the 1939 City finals, for instance, Smith was so besotted with the proceedings he pulled Spaeth and Norworth together for quick stanza and chorus. They sang something called “The Bowery” and a writer for Times bemoaned his paper’s absence. “Friends, we have lost a night,” his article read. “Thursday night. Why weren’t we at Central Park Mall and the American Ballad Contest for Barber Shop Quartets? We missed… Al Smith’s singing.”
(6) Smith accompanying a quartet at the World’s Fair. July 23, 1940.
At the 1942 City finals, Smith was at it again. This time, he plucked Moses, Rea, and Evans from the judge’s table to run through a tune called “Honey, That I Love So Well.” The Times hadn’t heard it before, but dubbed it “an added attraction.” The Smith quartet, the paper said, was “roundly applauded by the audience of 1,500 persons when it stopped signing.” In their own right, apparently, the judges were the stars of the show.
(7) Moses conducting two quartets at the World’s Fair. July 22, 1940.
The Grand Central Red Caps
Perhaps the most famous singers of the Smith-Moses-La Guardia era were the Grand Central Red Caps. Hailing from Central Harlem, the quartet of William Bostic, Robert Ward, Owen Ward, and 14-year-old Jack Ward took home top honors at the 1941 City finals. As champs, they earned the right to compete in the national finals in St. Louis, Missouri. But they’d never be allowed to go. They were a group of African-Americans.
Founded in 1938, three years after the Parks Department’s first competition, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) was in charge of nationals. They were, as jazz historian Lynn Abbot wrote in his paper “Play That Barbershop Chrod” , the “quasi-official custodian and standard-setter” for barber shop music in America. Unfortunately, in its early years, the Society’s “members and supporters…made it seem that barbershopping was [only] a white tradition.” SPEBSQSA “discouraged black membership” and “thus divorced itself from possible contact with the African-American roots” of barber shop music.
But neither Smith, Moses, or La Guardia thought that sentiment would disqualify the Red Caps from nationals. Above all, they had pull with the organization. La Guardia was the chairman and Smith and Moses vice chairmen of SPEBSQSA’s nascent New York Chapter. They were also more vested than anyone else in choosing the best quartet to represent the City. Besides that, they’d just done the Society a favor. They hosted the national competition at the World’s Fair in both 1939 and ’40.
However, on June 27, 1941, O. C. Cash, one of the Society’s founders, changed their minds. He sent off a letter and telegram to James Mulholland’s office at the Parks Department advising them of his board’s decision. He typed
The question of allowing colored signers to compete with others in the contests has been discussed a numbers of time at our meetings, and last year the board came to the conclusion that to keep down any embarrassment we ought not to permit colored people to participate.
Many of our members and chapters are in the South, where the race question is a rather touchy subject. [I am not] narrow about such matters, but I know from discussing the matter with…the St. Louis brothers that they do not want to get involved in a question of this kind.
When word reached Smith, he responded immediately. Resigning from his role as vice president of the Society’s New York Chapter, he told the Times: “I was very greatly surprised [the Red Caps were] ruled out because they are colored men. I assume the New York State organization will go on independently of the national organization.”
La Guardia resigned too, but Moses was more vindictive. According to Matthew Beals, a writer for The Harmonizer magazine, Moses printed out copies of the letter Cash assumed would be confidential. He passed to the New York press corps and soon Cash’s words were everywhere. Moses resigned from his chapter position too, but not before authoring a lengthy rejoinder to Cash. He shared it with the Times, and when the paper ran in on July 3, 1941, here’s some of what Moses scribed:
We are now informed by your recent letter and telegram that colored quartets many not compete in the National Finals in St. Louis. If we had know this before, we should immediately have dropped out of the national organization, a step which were are now compelled to take.
It is difficult for me to see any difference between your national ballad contest and a national track meet in which colored men run in relays or compete individually. This in not a social event, but a competition which should be open to everybody.
Let me add that if American ballads of Negro origin are to be ruled out of barber shop singing, most of the best songs we have will be blacklisted….
Along with many others who found pleasure in the harmless amusement of American ballad contests, I am very sorry that this sour note has marred our pleasant harmonies.
By barring the Red Caps from competing, SPEBSQSA apparently committed itself to doing what Moses warned against: Blacklisting, or obscuring the African-American roots of barbershop music. Sadly, the lineage was lost for decades.
In the early 1990s, however, SPEBSQSA confronted its past. Now called the Barbershop Harmony Society, the name seems to signify the reckoning. On its website, the Society concedes, “Many of us hadn’t realized the extent of the presence of barbershop harmony in African-American culture until 1992, when Lynn Abbot published an article called ‘Play that Barbershop Chord.'”
One of Abbot’s discoveries concerned how barbershop was recorded. In the early 20th Century, African-American quartets rarely saw the inside of a studio, so their songs were rarely heard. White quartets, on the other hand, were often recorded and their tunes mimicked the fashion of their African-American predecessors. Like SPEBSQSA, many of the people who heard the tapes just assumed the music was white. On the other hand, those who regularly heard barbershop in person — like Smith, Moses, and La Guardia — knew the real story.
(8) The Grand Central Red Caps win City finals. June 26, 1941.
All photos edited by Rick Stachura.
(1) Photo by Rick Stachura. From Robert Caro’s “Turn Every Page” exhibit at the New York Historical Society. January 23, 2022.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, former Governor Al Smith, and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses judging the 6th Annual American Ballad Contest. On the Mall in Central Park. Original photo by the New York Times. June 27, 1940.
(2) Photo by the Parks Department. Contestants posing at the 5th Annual American Ballad Contest. On the Mall looking at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. From the New York Municipal Archives. September 14, 1939.
(3) Photo by Unknown. Luther C. Steward. From the Library of Congress. 1921.
(4) Photo by the National Broadcasting Company [NBC]. Sigmund G. Spaeth. From wnyc.org. 1932.
(5) Photo by Unknown. Moses and La Guardia judging the SPEBSQSA National Barbershop Finals at the World’s Fair. In the New York Building, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. From the New York Public Library. 1939 or 1940.
(6) Photo by Unknown. Smith accompanying the St. Mary’s Horseshoers at the SPEBSQSA National Barbershop Finals at the World’s Fair. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. From the New York Public Library. July 23, 1940.
(7) Photo by Unknown. Moses conducting two unknown quartets at the SPEBSQSA National Barbershop Finals at the World’s Fair. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. From the New York Public Library. July 22, 1940.
(8) Photo by the Parks Department. The Grand Central Red Caps receive their awards — customized suitcases — after winning the 7th Annual American Ballad Contest. On the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. From nycparks.org. June 26, 1941.