One of the most important composers of his generation.
Robert Allen Cole, son of formerly enslaved people, was born in Athens on July 1st, 1868. He created a model for other African American musicians and composers.
Cole joined a minstrel company based in Chicago by 1891 where he began to hammer out his own vision of black theater. He formed his own company of performers in 1894 called the All-Star Stock Company that included big names like the Farrell Brothers, Billy Johnson, Stella Wiley, Will Marion Cook, and Gussie Davis. Cole produced the landmark musical A Trip to Coontown with Billy Johnson in 1898, which was the first musical written, produced, and performed by black entertainers. Cole also worked with Johnson’s brother to form a vaudeville act that was highly renowned.
Johnson and Cole’s partnership would go on to create classic songs like “Under the Bamboo Tree,” from the musical Sally in our Alley. Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers wrote and produced two musicals: The Shoe Fly Regiment and The Red Moon. The former was the first African American operetta, a musical in three parts. The plot references Booker T’s Tuskegee Institute and takes place during the Spanish-American War. The latter was based on the real-life African American and Native American students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Both shows were successful but lost money, so Cole and Johnson returned to performing in vaudeville. Cole’s health began to fail in 1910 and in April 1911, he collapsed.