John C. Payne (1872-1952)
by Randye Jones
Baritone, composer, choral director and actor John C. Payne was born on 26 June 1872 in Montgomery, Alabama. While sources, including a 1919 passport application submitted by Payne, indicate a birth year of 1877, an 1880 United States Census record lists his age as about eight at the time the census was taken. His full name is variously listed as either John Clarence Payne or John Charles Payne.
His father, John, was a farmer, and his mother, Winnie, was a housekeeper. The 1880 Census record listed him as the fourth of six children. Little information is available about the younger John Payne’s years growing up. He taught himself to sing and to play the piano, and he supported himself as a railroad porter and with other menial jobs as he made his way to the North American West coast. He was able to get regular work as a singer performing a repertoire that primarily consisted of spirituals and popular music of the era. Payne became a member of the California Jubilee Quartet and later joined the Exposition Four, which was affiliated with Will Marion Cook’s New York Syncopated Orchestra. In 1919, the male quartet–renamed the Royal Southern Singers–began a three-year tour of Great Britain either performing on their own or with Cook’s orchestra.
By 1921, Payne and the Royal Southern Singers had come to the attention of Lady Mary Cook of England. The British noble corresponded with the music editor at The New York Age about a July 1921 Wigmore Hall concert in which Payne performed both as a member of the quartet and as a soloist. From the letter, which was reprinted in the newspaper, she wrote:
The concert consisted principally in the singing of many of the “Spirituals,” by the Quartet; and they sang also a few other songs, mostly Negro classics and folk-songs. Their singing was artistic and delightful to listen to, and was enthusiastically received by a large audience of musical and critical people, and it also received good press criticisms…. Mr. Payne’s solos were: (1) Can’t you hear me calling, Caroline?” by Caro Roma; (2) “Adoration” by H. T. Burleigh, who was present at this concert.1
Payne formed his own quartet, the Exposition Four, and began performing in various British music halls in late 1922. With the support of Lady Cook, he had also purchased a home on Regent’s Park Road in London. His home quickly became “the place to be” for African American émigrés who had come to Europe to establish professional music careers. Classical and popular singers, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter were all able to gain Payne’s assistance in getting entree into England’s musical elite. Waters’ biographer, Stephen Bourne, described how pianist and composer Lawrence Brown became acquainted with Robeson:
When Paul Robeson stayed with Payne on his visit to London in 1922, he befriended another guest, Lawrence Brown, a gentle, charming man who had come to Europe to accompany Roland Hayes, the concert singer who gave a command performance for King George V. According to Robeson’s biographer, Martin Bauml Duberman, “One night at the Payne’s, Robeson sang a few songs ‘just for fun,’ and thirty years later Larry Brown recalled that he ‘knew at once that it was possible for him to become a great singer.’ Remembering Robeson’s marvelous voice, he later sent him the published volume of spirituals; ultimately he would become Robeson’s musical collaborator and friend.2
Brown would also accompany Payne on the piano–and sometimes as a vocalist–in concert and in the recording studio. Between 1923 and 1925, the pair recorded several Negro spirituals composed by Payne or Burleigh for the record companies, His Master’s Voice Records and Columbia. Notes for the compact disc set, Black Europe, compared the way Payne sang Burleigh’s treatment of “Go Down Moses” to the recording of the same song made by Hayes in 1922:
Payne’s baritone voice seems to fit the song but his approach is quite different to the art-song approach of Hayes. The piano starts and the fine tenor sings–this is an emotional performance, encouraged by the accompanist. The diction is crystal clear, and yet the field holler style of the composition is not lost in this artistic version. Brown plays a busy accompaniment, with rolling chords hinting perhaps at the floods of the Moses legends.3
Payne would also publish five spiritual art songs with G. Schirmer. His setting of “Crucifixion” was recorded by both Anderson and Inez Matthews.
During the second half of the 1920’s, Payne formed The Southern Trio, a vocal group that performed onstage and broadcast with the BBC, again singing spirituals and popular music as well as singing in the theatrical production, Blackbirds of 1926. He directed the chorus for the London production of Show Boat, with Robeson in the role of Joe and Hunter as Queenie.
Payne retired from concertizing as a soloist in 1929, instead turning to choral directing and acting for theater and films. He directed the choruses for Plantation Pleasures (1933), Dark Doings (1933), Robeson’s feature film, Sanders of the River (released 1935), and Hunter’s Radio Parade of 1935. He also appeared in minor acting roles in British film and stage productions starring Robeson.
In 1938. with the approach of World War II, Payne moved to Lady Cook’s Talland estate in Cornwall, England. He continued to be active teaching music and organizing music activities to raise money supporting the Allied war effort with the assistance of a local businessman, Bert Middleton.
John C. Payne died in Cornwall’s Dawn Nursing Home on 7 October 1952. A site about the area stated that Payne was “buried at West Looe cemetery. His stone bears the inscription, ‘The song is ended but the melody lingers on’.”4
1Lucien H. White, “The ‘Royal Southern Singers Make Good in London Concert,” The New York Age, August 20, 1921.
2Bourne, Stephen. Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.
3Black Europe: Sounds & Images of Black People. Bear Family Productions BCD 16095, 2013, program notes, 220.
4Looe Museum BLOGS: John Payne: Black History Month. https://www.looemuseum.co.uk/blogs/john-payne-black-history-month. Accessed February 18, 2024.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 18, 2024. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/john-c-payne-biography.