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Can’t Stand Still - Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance

Can’t Stand Still

Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance

By Michael K. Johnson
Series: Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies
Paperback : 9781496821966, 284 pages, 4 b&w illustrations, February 2019
Hardcover : 9781496821959, 284 pages, 4 b&w illustrations, February 2019

The first biography of a singer who was once one of the most significant African American male vocalists in America


Born in 1893 into the only African American family in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, Emmanuel Taylor Gordon (1893–1971) became an internationally famous singer in the 1920s at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. With his musical partner, J. Rosamond Johnson, Gordon was a crucially important figure in popularizing African American spirituals as an art form, giving many listeners their first experience of black spirituals.

Despite his fame, Taylor Gordon has been all but forgotten, until now. Michael K. Johnson illuminates Gordon’s personal history and his cultural importance to the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, arguing that during the height of his celebrity, Gordon was one of the most significant African American male vocalists of his era. Gordon’s story—working in the White Sulphur Springs brothels as an errand boy, traveling the country in John Ringling’s private railway car, performing on vaudeville stages from New York to Vancouver to Los Angeles, performing for royalty in England, becoming a celebrated author with a best-selling 1929 autobiography, and his long bout of mental illness—adds depth to the history of the Harlem Renaissance and makes him one of the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century.

Through detailed documentation of Gordon’s career—newspaper articles, reviews, letters, and other archival material—the author demonstrates the scope of Gordon’s cultural impact. The result is a detailed account of Taylor’s musical education, his career as a vaudeville performer, the remarkable performance history of Johnson and Gordon, his status as an in-demand celebrity singer and author, his time as a radio star, and, finally, his descent into madness. Can’t Stand Still brings Taylor Gordon back to the center of the stage.


"The detailed account of Gordon’s life and career in Can’t Stand Still demonstrates that previous studies of the period have overlooked Gordon’s importance to spiritual literature, his relationship with Rosamond Johnson, and his interaction with his peers. The book also expands the geography of the Harlem Renaissance by documenting Gordon’s experiences with racial and social conditions as he traveled throughout the nation. "

- Amy E. Carreiro, The Journal of American History

"By providing the first biography of Harlem Renaissance singer and memoirist Taylor Gordon, Michael K. Johnson’s Can’t Stand Still enhances our understanding of the rich cultural output of the New Negro movement, the expansiveness of its geographies, the intra- and interracial networks that sustained it, and the at-times fleeting effect it had on the lives of its remarkable participants who remained marginalized in its aftermath. When he recovers the life of Taylor Gordon, Johnson demands we consider both the New Negro movement’s most soaring aspirations and devastating losses. "

- Emily Lutenski, author of West of Harlem: African American Writers and the Borderlands

"Long consigned to obscurity in the footnotes of Harlem Renaissance history, Taylor Gordon was one of the most gifted singers and interesting personalities of that era. In Can’t Stand Still, Michael K. Johnson returns him to center stage with significant new research and vivid storytelling about Gordon’s Odyssey-like childhood, singular vocal talent, struggles with mental illness, and rich partnership with J. Rosamond Johnson, another giant of American and African American music. "

- A’Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker