Black musical history found in Topeka

Trista Pinick

Looking at the music scene, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of ethnic bands, but that wasn’t always the case.

The Topeka Capitol Band was an all black group that was founded in the late 1860s and received a warm reception from Topeka audiences. Its first performance was Feb. 11, 1870. The Capitol Band played outside for Gen. John Ritichie, a local celebrity at the time.

The band continued to perform until 1876. At that time, the group was recognized, as a full brass band comprised of 14 members.

Another group to gain local respect was The Gospel Four, an black quartette founded in 1930.

The quartette was founded when Rev. Ray S. Jackson of the Church of God heard four men singing in his choir who had a knack for harmonizing. There was some hesitation at first since there was already a quartette in the church. However, after a little bit of convincing, Leo Anderson became first tenor, Oscar Lewis filled the position of second tenor, Fred Redmond became the baritone and Sheldon Sudduth the bass.

Sudduth, 21 years after the quartette had been together wrote a small book called “The Gospel Four,” in which he chronicled the above story as well as many of the events that took place during their time together.

The quartette’s first performance was done when Jackson was away from his church at 12th and Lane and was preaching for another congregation. The group went with him and had a rocky time, but Jackson insisted that they had done “just fine,” Sudduth wrote in his book.

The Gospel Four never used a pitch pipe or music and never charged for its performances. There was usually, however, an offering that was taken up to help the singers pay for their travel and food.

The group had decided to sing wherever the Lord would be glorified and so found no need to make it hard on anyone to hear them by charging. This enabled it to play in small and large towns throughout the United States. The quartette traveled for at least 28 years, going back to many places more than once.

The singers of The Gospel Four also performed on WIBW and when it was suggested to the members that they should incorporate some popular songs into their repertoire, the group replied that they would “sing for the Lord only,” according to the Topeka Shawnee Bulletin.

Another group of black performers was the “Negro Festival Choir.”

It was originally a choir assembled for one performance, but at the group’s debut, the members received many requests to become a permanent addition in Topeka.

So the choir was officially founded March 15, 1934.

On Dec. 2 of the same year, the Festival Choir sang on WIBW. The singers were invited to perform after the radio’s talent scout heard them at one of the concerts.

This was the beginning of a long relationship between WIBW and the choir, which appeared regularly on WIBW’s programs for two years.

The choir’s members were active in performing for the community. They sang “Kingdom Come” for the Topeka Council of Christian Education at Washburn in 1935, but its first major show was “Emancipation,” written by Maj. N. Clark Smith.

The next year their second big concert, “Music of a race” by Mary E. Gaines, the Festival Choir’s director, was performed.

Perhaps the group’s most memorable performance was June 29, 1936. It was “Promised Land” performed in Moore Bowl at Washburn.