Thomas La Rue Jones:The Black Cantor
"The greatest wonder in the world/The famous Black cantor who has astounded all America in a concert of folk songs of Rosenblatt, Kwartin, Rovner, and others in all languages/Toyve the Black Cantor." The poster invokes the great Yoselle Rosenblatt, Zavel Kwartin and Zeidel Rovner, among the greatest cantor/composers of all time as proof positive about the deep cultural core of his show. (date unknown)
An imperfect portrait of Thomas LaRue emerges from the over 150 period articles, reviews and advertisements, found in the mainstream, African-American and Yiddish press. Take, for example, his name. In some places he is "Thomas LaRue" in others "Thomas La Rue," ( In Yiddish, "LaRue" is transcribed "larue" as there are no capital letters in Hebrew script.) He is also billed as "Thomas La Rue Jones," or, conversely, "Thomas Jones La Rue." (But never "Thomas Jones.")
Then there are his stage names: Reb Toyve Ha'Cohen, ("Reb," an informal salutation and short for "Rabbi" but without implying religious ordination) Toyve (one of the many endearments attributed to Moses) and Ha'Cohen implying descent from the priestly Cohanim in the Temple of Jerusalem. LaRue was also billed as Toyvele (the Toyve diminutive) a popular period honorific of nicknaming beloved cantors. Yet despite that dizzying array of names, it is his ubiquitous — der shvarter khazn — which reflects how he was billed and how the Yiddish theatrical public instantly knew him.
Yet, as the commercial press more or less accurately tracked his professional trajectory, outside of several unsubstantiated passing references to his singing in a Harlem synagogue, we know little about his personal life: LaRue seems not to have been a part — or product of — a Black community synagogue, or a white one, for that matter. Nowhere is LaRue shown to be affiliated with a synagogue or a particular Jewish community. LaRue then, would seem to have been "a part of and apart from" the white Ashkenazic world whose culture he internalized.
Though there is uncertainty about his personal life, one thing which is clear is LaRue's association with Newark, New Jersey which, like Harlem at the time, was a hotbed of Jewish and Black cultural life.
In the April 8, 1922 African-American newspaper The New York Age, columnist Lucien H. White introduces his readers to LaRue as:
"...a young Negro whose mother accepted the religious beliefs of the Hebrews and raised up her son in that way." He quotes LaRue: It began with my mother, She lived in Newark where she found race prejudice to be very strong. She could make friends only with Jewish women preferring the company of Jews to Christians. ' "
White notes that LaRue's mother — undoubtedly a single mother as no mention of a father is ever made — insisted he receive a traditional Jewish primary school education (Talmud Torah) and that he and his sister, should both be able to pray from a siddur (Hebrew prayer book). Despite her allegiance to Jewish forms and customs, it is not clear if LaRue's mother converted to Judaism despite LaRue saying he had a bar mitzvah at the proper age.
One anecdote about LaRue which was repeated so often it has the burnished patina of a creation myth, concerns a Sabbath service he attended as a young boy. During the service, the cantor was taken ill so LaRue quickly put on a prayer shawl and, before the congregation could orient itself, took to the lectern and in his soprano voice began to intone the prayers.
The congregation was ready to storm the podium to take him down but he sang with such great feeling that they remained standing and began praying.
Despite never intending a life of professional entertainment, LaRue received an offer from a concert manager who signed him for a tour of provincial Yiddish vaudeville circuit. One perspective on LaRue comes from a sniffy unsigned editorial in the December 27, 1923 issue of The American Israelite, a middle-of-the-road conservative publication in Cincinnati.
"There can exist no doubt as to the catholicity of the Yiddish public. For some time, as is well known, the singing of a Negro chazan has been something of a rage in Yiddish circles."
A piece of LaRue's vaudeville show is highlighted in a September 15, 1921 Harrisburg Telegraph review which describes LaRue "and a white 'cantar'" [sic] who, "between the acts, will have a challenge," the "challenge" being a cantorial version of the jazz "trading eights" in which increasingly ornate and dazzling improvised vocal riffs are passed back and forth.
Upon LaRue's return to New York, he was signed by producers Goldberg and Jacobs to appear in their play Dos Khupe Kleyd (The Wedding Dress) at their new Lenox Theater located at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 111th street in the heart of Harlem. The decision to hire LaRue was both a canny business decision and an expansive gesture acknowledging the shifting demographics in the uptown Black/Jewish enclave. And, while it is unclear just how many Black patrons attended the LaRue performances, the nightly packed houses attest to LaRue's draw and presence in the Jewish community.
Dos Khupe Kleyd (pictured above) was the first of the Goldberg and Jacobs "one-two punch" featuring LaRue whose premier appearance was backed by a multi-voiced Newark-based boy's choir and massive billing:
"A giant concert by the world renowned Black Cantor with a large Newark-based choir under the leadership of the renowned Jewish choir director Joseph Germansky. LaRue will astound Harlem with his amazing singing of the finest compositions from R' Yoselle Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota and Kwartin."
Goldberg and Jacobs next show was based on a popular long-running Yiddish newspaper series by humorist B. Kovner about a no-nonsense "gives-as-good-as she-gets" Jewish woman, Yente Telebende. This play—partly fueled by LaRue's featured appearance—would turn out to be an even bigger hit than Khupe Kleyd, ending up as one of the longest-running shows in Yiddish theater history (Check back for a future blog about Yente Telebende.)
A display ad for Yente Telebende in the February 22, 1922 Der Yiddisher Togblat (The Jewish Daily News.) La Rue, caricatured left (second from bottom) is touted as "A big 'treat'," (box on the right), in his Act four feature of "...Yiddish folks songs, Russian folk songs, and real down-home cantorial pieces."
As in Dos Khupe Kleyd where an entire sequence was constructed around him, in Yente Telebende LaRue had complete command of his featured turn. Theater scribe, Z. Karnblit of Der Morgn Zhurnal (The Morning Journal) in a November 4, 1921 feature called Have You Heard of the Famous Cantor Reb' Toyvele? describes how he sat slackjawed through LaRue's performance. Karnblit described LaRue's entrance:
"There he was: a slender, Black youth in a black frock coat and vest under which he wore a crisp white shirt, who came out singing a Yiddish song, a song beginning even before he stepped out on stage. I could not believe my eyes or ears."
....and LaRue's ending with the warhorse "Eli, Eli":
"When I hear at a concert that someone will sing Eli, Eli — it could be the best singer in the world — I run in the opposite direction as if cornered by a well-known pest dragging a steamer trunk full of exhausted moth-eaten anecdotes from decades past...This, however, was a new Eli, Eli by a Black cantor which was so very heartfelt, and which drew so deeply from Jewish martyrdom, the Jewish cry, begging God why he has forsaken him, and producing from this song what even the greatest opera singers could not. Every person in the theater was transfixed by the Black cantor's powerful poetic harmony."
After the concert, Karnblit sat with LaRue and spoke about his mother's fierce devotion to Yiddishkayt (and how it became his fierce devotion, too), and, how he toured the provincial Jewish vaudeville circuit "...billed as one of the Black Jews of India, while no one suspected he was simply an American Negro."
LaRue's show-stopping turn in Yente Telebende caused such a stir that Karnblit's review was soon carried in Dos Naye Leben (The New Life), a Yiddish newspaper in Bialystock, Poland and setting in motion LaRue's international reputation.
In addition to the stage, LaRue was a pioneering New York radio artist. Starting in 1923 LaRue appeared on the recently launched Newark radio station WOR billed as the "Colored Cantor" singing Yiddish, Russian and cantorial hymns. In 1929 he appeared on New Jersey station WPAP in a program sponsored by the Association of Reform Rabbis, an unusual endorsement given that LaRue's traditional cantillation was the polar opposite of the staid Protestant musical settings of the Reform service.
In June of 1923, LaRue made his only known commercial recording for the OKeh record label (NOTE: a detailed discussion, metric rhyming translations, and historical contextualization of the songs LaRue recorded — along with new digitally remastered transfers — will be featured in an upcoming series post.)
Over the next few years, playwrights and theater managers vied for LaRue's participation in specially constructed settings in Yiddish stage productions. This was an exceptional situation as New York's Yiddish theatre was under the iron fist of the highly selective/exclusionary Hebrew Actor's Union, which apparently must have given LaRue a rare dispensation so he could appear on a New York Yiddish stage without having been approved for membership.
Outside of the Yiddish theater, LaRue was also appearing in top rung American vaudeville on the New York City Loew's and Keith circuit in neighborhoods that had a Jewish population. In addition, LaRue also worked the lower rung "50-50" vaudeville houses where his concerts were tucked in between screenings of Yiddish films.
An unexpected insight into Thomas LaRue came courtesy of a short announcement in the June 1928 Variety about LaRue's booking at the Loew's Mount Morris vaudeville house having been extended two weeks. As an aside, the notice mentioned that, in addition to being a singer, LaRue was also an inventor having recently applied for a patent for an elevator safety device.
On January 18, 1927, Thomas LaRue was awarded patent number 1,614, 675 for an elevator safety device (below), which he first submitted in 1923 (and had no doubt been working on during his long run with Yente Telebende.) And, while the patent remained active until 1944, when it lapsed into Public Domain, it is not known if any elevator manufacturer ever licensed his invention or even if LaRue ever invented anything else. An extra treat comes with the appearance of LaRue's signature on the final patent demonstrating his command of a bold Spencerian script. (Below)
Variety would again be the source for another remarkable Thomas LaRue newsflash, this in a tiny June 1928 thumbnail notice:
Thomas LaRue, said to be the only colored cantor in the world, has been booked for a concert tour of Europe by Eddie Relkin East Side Yiddish showman. Simply: LaRue's audacious itinerary would take him through the historic Jewish homelands where the culture and languages which he had internalized were born and thrived: Palestine, Germany, Poland and ending in Warsaw, the international center of great cantorial singing in the shadow of the Holy of Holies: the Great Tlomackie synagogue, the revered home to the world's greatest cantors.
LaRue was poised to meet the toughest test — and the toughest audience — of his performing career.
(NEXT: Der Shvartzer Khazn in Poland)