Though largely forgotten today violinist Eddie South travelled the world achieving modest popularity in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s with a unique fusion of Classical technique, Gypsy influences and Hot Jazz sensibility. In his day he was billed as “The Dark Angel of the Violin.”
Born in Missouri in 1904 but raised in Chicago where he studied Classical violin, Eddie South was a child prodigy. But as a black man any opportunity in legitimate classical music at that time was barred to him. So instead he became active in Vaudeville, in early Jazz, and was much influenced by central European gypsy music after visiting Hungary in the late 1920s.
Between 1923-27 South worked in some of the better musical aggregations in Chicago such as the theater orchestras of Charles Elgar and Erskine Tate. He launched his own group there in 1927 at Club Alabam; that year his “Alabamians” recorded for Victor Records. Thereafter he led bands under his own name for more than three decades.
Though I emphasize his Jazz side, much of South’s performing was more Popular in nature such as his romantic adaptations of light classics and Hungarian gypsy music. Eddie’s jazz records were basically small string bands with piano and drums, though for some of his residencies he did have larger bands with plenty of horns.
From the mid 1930s on he was in great demand in a wide range of venues, appearing and recording in Hollywood, Chicago, New York and Paris, frequently performing and recording in Europe: France, England and Holland. It was during a visit to Hungary in the late Twenties that he became fascinated with the violin music of the gypsies.
The expressive lyricism of gypsy violin music made a deep impression on South, and remained a powerful influence for the rest of his life. However, I suspect that this inclination (and his classical tendencies) conspired to marginalize his popularity among Jazz and Popular audiences. Nonetheless, central European repertoire and gypsy tunes -- what is known as tzigane (or cigany) -- was a mainstay of Eddie South’s personal musical style.
South also hooked into another aspect of Gypsy tradition during his many lengthy stays in Europe, joining up with Django Reinhardt -- who was transforming his Manouche Gypsy tradition into a fresh new Jazz style with Stephane Grappelli in their Quintet of the Hot club of France. The result was some of Eddie South’s most spectacular collaborations and best pure jazz records, such as his exquisite 1937 duet with Django called “Eddie’s Blues” and several outstanding records of the Quintet with both Stephane and Eddie such as “Dinah” “Lady Be Good” and “Fiddle Blues.”
1940S & ‘50s
Through the ‘40s & ‘50s South continued to be heard widely on radio in the U.S.; held numerous residencies; and performed on Armed Forces Radio. He was even on Chicago television in the 1950s, and later in new York with such TV personalities as Dave Garroway, continuing to perform until a few weeks before his death in 1962.
Drawing from a broad palette of Classical music, Gypsy tzigane and Jazz, Eddie South’s distinctive dark tone, powerful bowing and immaculate violin technique continually drew new listeners enchanted by “The Dark Angel of the Violin.”