Noble Sissle was one of African-American music's unsung tradition-builders. As half of the duo that composed “Shuffle Along,” he helped to bring creativity to a new level on the Broadway stage. As a bandleader, Sissle nurtured the careers of vocalist Lena Horne and other important musicians, and he participated fundamentally in the popularization of jazz and pop in Europe.
Sissle was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 10, 1889. His father was a minister and church organist, and his first musical appearances came as a boy soprano in a Methodist church choir. Sissle studied music in the public schools of Indianapolis and Cleveland, Ohio, where his family moved for a time. While still in his teens, Sissle was touring the Midwest as part of vaudeville and gospel quartets. He enrolled at Indiana's Butler University in 1913 and later transferred to DePauw, but music held a stronger grip on his attentions. With interest in dancing being spurred by the rise of black-influenced popular music such as ragtime, Sissle was tapped to organize a dance orchestra at the Severin Hotel in Indianapolis.
Moving to Baltimore in 1915, Sissle landed a job singing with a vocal group called Joe Porter's Serenaders. Performing in a Baltimore park one evening, he met James Hubert Eubie Blake, a ragtime pianist who was a star of the city's music scene and was known up and down the East Coast. The two men hit it off creatively; Sissle had written lyrics for a song called It's All Your Fault, and soon Blake had set it to music. The pair found immediate success when Sophie Tucker, one of the leading white female vocal stars of the day, introduced the song at a Baltimore performance. Sissle briefly led a band in Coconut Grove, Florida; with this experience under his belt he was hired into the dance orchestra of New York bandleader James Reese Europe, whom he had known since his Indianapolis days. The so- called society bands of which Europe's was the best known were not jazz bands but were important predecessors of jazz, furnishing syncopated dance music for the fox trots and other new dances of African-American origin that had seized the fancy of American young people. Sissle became a vocalist and guitarist with Europe's group The entrance of the U.S. into World War I in 1917 saw both Europe and Sissle joining the Army and successfully combining military service with their musical activities. Europe formed the 369th Infantry Regimental Band, a group of musical, black servicemen who entertained European audiences with the latest American dance styles; Sissle performed on drums with the group. The 369th Infantry Regimental Band was a smash success, and Sissle thus became one of the first African-American musicians to find and enjoy the appreciation of audiences across the Atlantic. He joined the group on tour in France after the war ended, but the tour ended with Europe's murder by one of his band members in 1919.