Eddie Gray was born in Covington, Ky sometime during the early 1890's. Until a few years ago, I'd never heard of him. I doubt very seriously if I'm alone in not being familiar with Mr. Gray. I'd wager that most Covingtonians have probably never heard of him and most of its African American members could probably care less! It seems the Greater Cincinnati region (including Northern Kentucky) is infamous about forgetting their sons and daughters who leave to seek fame and fortune. That's unfortunate because Eddie Gray is just one of many who provide color, texture and a unique history to an otherwise non-descript geographical area. It's also the reason why Eddie Gray is proudly featured on this blog today!
All of the indicators suggest that Eddie Gray wasn't really a big star, but the tenor was at least partly known to early African American record buyers when Blacks first started making significant waves in the recording industry during the 1920's.
In the early 20's, Gray was a featured recording artist with Black Swan Records, the first (and for a very long time the only) black-owned record company in America.
Headquartered in Harlem, Black Swan was an outgrowth of the Pace & Handy Music Publishing Company, which was the issue of the famous composer W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues" and his partner Harry Pace. Mr. Pace looked around and saw that major recording labels weren't about recognizing local black talent. So right before the first sonic boom of the female blues singers exploded, Pace broke off his association with Handy, and organized Black Swan in the basement of his own home at 257 W. 138th St.
Black Swan took its name from the beautiful slave-born opera singer, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called The Black Swan, and that was the initial sound and image that Harry Pace wanted his company to represent. Realizing that he was cutting off his nose to spite his face, Pace soon welcomed the blues and more jazz-oriented artists to the label. Miss Ethel Waters made her first recordings for Black Swan! One of the famed Whitman Sisters, Essie Whitman (pictured above) joined the company. Eddie Gray was also part of the Black Swan family.
Unfortunately, biographical information on Eddie Gray is very scarce. It is said that Gray "ran away" from Covington, Kentucky with the Primrose and West Minstrels at the tender age of nine years old. The company was very well-known and supposedly took a somewhat unique, unorthadox approach to minstrelsy which can be gauged by this company poster. Minstrelsy was never meant to depict Black folks with any accuracy or dignity whether portrayed by whites pretending to be black or by blacks pretending to be white pretending to be black. Black characters still cut the fool, the coon, the buffoon and the idiot!
Throughout the 1920's, Eddie Gray made a living performing in high-toned New York area restaurants, nightclubs and revues. He had a featured role in the landmark Jazz-Age musical, Runnin' Wild, which also showcased other then well-known Black stars like Ralph Cooper, Elida Webb, Adelaide Hall, Monte Hawley, Miller & Lyles, and Black Swan labelmate Revella Hughes. In this production, Elisabeth Welch first introduced the Charleston - the song and the dance! Gray was also hired as the MC for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928, the musical which catapulted Adelaide Hall to stardom.
Eddie Gray did not always perform in blackface, but as seen in this video, he at some point went back to his roots as part of a minstrel-type trio of entertainers called The Three Eddies. The tall one in the middle is certainly not Eddie Gray and I'm not sure the others were named Eddie at all. Like them or not, we are fortunate to have footage of them. Whatever you may think about them, they were undeniably talented.
As the 20's drew to a close, the curtain was also drawn on Eddie Gray's life. He died in New York on October 27, 1930. I don't know much more about Eddie Gray. But with as much as I do know, I present to you what should be a BONAFIDE COVINGTON KENTUCKY LEGEND!