A Pioneering Singer, Bandleader, Composer: Noble Lee Sissle
Born in Indianapolis in July of 1889, Noble Sissle was destined to travel the world on his musical genius, which he came by honestly; his mother, Martha, was a school teacher who loved playing the piano. Propelled by Martha’s instruction, Sissle’s instrumental talent was recognized, even in his grade school years.
His father, Reverend George A. Sissle, was pastor of the Simpson M. E. Chapel.* George encouraged his son to sing in the church choir and this is undoubtedly where Noble Sissle honed his skill as a tenor.
The Sissle family briefly moved to Ohio but Noble returned to Indiana to attended De Pauw University on scholarship for a while. Later, Sissle would tour the Midwest singing with a quartet in the “Chautauqua Circuit” to earn enough money to enroll at Butler University. While at Butler, he composed the song, “Butler Will Shine Tonight” and became bandleader of an African-American orchestra that played at the Hotel Severin.
Noble eventually left college life to form his own band, only to have this venture cut short by World War I. Like many young men of the era, Noble Sissle enlisted in the Army. He spent 14 months overseas, notably serving in the second battle of the Marne. The war did not separate him from his music, however. He worked with the James Reese Europe Band, known as the “Hell Fighters” introducing jazz to American and French soldiers.
After returning stateside, Sissle came back to to Indianapolis and joined a vaudeville act that specialized in ragtime music. When the act separated in 1915, he joined pianist Eubie Blake with whom he forged a fruitful songwriting partnership. Together, they wrote “It’s All Your Fault,” made famous by singer Sophie Tucker. Sissle and Blake later composed songs for Shuffle Along, a satire starring Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. The show featured classic songs like “In Honeysuckle Time,” “Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Shuffle Along ran on Broadway for more than 500 shows and was considered a major financial success. Though Blake and Sissle had another hit show called Chocolate Dandies, they parted ways — but not before collaborating on a significant “first” — appearing in the first sound recording for a feature film.
Sissle resumed work as a bandleader during the late 1920s and ’30s. He was popular on the radio and on tour, traveling mostly in France and England. Each year, however, he would return to Indianapolis for engagements at the Lyric Theater and the Indiana Roof Ballroom. During one of those fateful appearances, he introduced a 16-year-old Lena Horne into show business.
During World War II, Sissle organized a new, shorter incarnation of Shuffle Along that played to more than a million servicemen in Europe during USO shows of the mid-1940s. In the 1950s and ’60s, he gradually moved away from performing to focus on music publishing. He was honored in the 1969 Indianapolis Music Promoters Association 50th anniversary dinner.
Sissle died in 1975 in Florida, where he had retired.
*The Simpson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation was founded in 1875 to serve the surrounding African-American community. The church was located at 11th and Missouri Streets from 1899-1950s. Later, the congregation removed to a site at 2900 North Capitol Avenue.