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Underneath a Harlem Moon

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Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall
CountryUnited Kingdom/ United States
  • Adelaide Hall
  • Jazz
  • Harlem
PublisherContinuum International Publishing Group
Publication date
September 15, 2002
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)
ISBN978-0-826-45893-3 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png. (hardcover)
WebsiteUnderneath A Harlem Moon

Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall is a 2002 non-fiction book by Iain Cameron Williams. Published by Continuum, the biography recounts the life of Brooklyn-born jazz singer and entertainer Adelaide Hall.[1] It focuses on her ground-breaking American career during the culturally rich Harlem Renaissance throughout the 1920s and early-30s and Hall's subsequent European stay in Paris, France, from 1935 up to her emigration to the UK in 1939. The moon reference in the book's title refers to Hall's father, Arthur, whose quote, 'Sing to the moon and the stars will shine,' encouraged Adelaide to pursue her singing career.


Part I: Sing to the Moon and the Stars Will Shine (1901-1927), focuses on Adelaide’s childhood, her upbringing in Brooklyn, and the difficulties the Hall family faced after Arthur Hall, the head of the family and sole breadwinner, died in 1915. Arthur had been a music tutor. To pay the rental, Adelaide’s mother Elisabeth took in washing, and Adelaide and her young sister Evelyn formed a singing duo, the Hall Sisters, who sang in the local church, on street corners, and at social gatherings. Adelaide also showed exceptional skill at roller skating and could outskate many of her neighbourhood male contemporaries. During a function at which the teenage Hall Sisters performed, the Broadway producer Lew Leslie caught their act. Leslie made a mental note of the sisters for any future productions he might be staging. Not long after, Evelyn died, a casualty of the Spanish Flu pandemic. In early 1921, Adelaide auditioned for the all-black Broadway musical revue Shuffle Along, and secured a role in the chorus line. Shuffle Along was an artistic and financial success and heralded the way forward for black entertainers and black musical revues. Hall was singled out by the media for praise and seemed destined for stardom from the offset. That said, over the next five years, Hall’s stage career did not always go to plan. She appeared in several Broadway musical revues that had varying degrees of success, honing her craft, learning as she went along. A short spell spent convalescing after sustaining an injury on stage briefly halted her progress. In 1923, Hall met Trinidad sailor Bertram Hicks whom she married the following year. Bert became Adelaide’s business manager and went on to steer her career throughout their marriage.

Part 2: Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie (1928-1929), tracks Hall’s American breakthrough. Commercial recognition arrived in 1927 when Hall collaboration with newcomer Duke Ellington and his orchestra after they recorded three numbers together, including her wordless vocal on Creole Love Call, a surprise hit. Major success for Hall followed in 1928 when she headed the cast of Lew Leslie’s Broadway musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which spawned three hit songs for Hall, ‘I Must Have That Man,’ the outrageous, ‘Diga Diga Doo,’ and her lifelong signature tune, 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'. Hall's risqué performance of ‘Diga Diga Doo,’ was a sensation and created a riot on Broadway causing her mother to try and ban her daughter from appearing in the production.[2] Her mother's attempt failed, and Adelaide returned to the show. In 1929, Hall traveled with the Blackbirds troupe to star at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where she took Paris by storm, temporarily causing Josephine Baker to flee the city of light.

Part 3: And the Money Came Rolling In (1930-1935). Upon Hall’s return to America, she encounters the wrath of Lew Leslie after she quits Blackbirds to go solo. A world tour follows that played to over 1 million customers and pocketed Hall a fortune. Along her path, Hall encounters racism, sings in Chicago for Al Capone, discovers Art Tatum, and makes a public stand against her racist neighbours in Westchester County who attempt to drive her away from the community by setting fire to her home.

Part 4: Someone's Sitting on My Cloud (1936-1938), centres around Hall’s departure from America and relocation to Paris, France, where she opens her own nightclub, La Grosse Pomme. By 1938, not content with being dubbed the Queen of Montmartre, Adelaide sets her sights on conquering Britain. With fears of war on the horizon, Hall makes the difficult decision to remain in Europe and move to the UK. The book culminates with Hall’s mysterious disappearance in November, 1938, the reason for which has never before been explained.

Williams puts forward the argument that Hall was "the most celebrated black female star in America" during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s - Josephine Baker was known largely only in Europe, and Ethel Waters did not reach major commercial success until 1933.[3] The writer also details how many of Hall's achievements in America during the culturally rich Harlem Renaissance had been overlooked, due mainly to her relocation to Britain in 1939. Jonah Burns in Jazz Times, in announcing the books U.S. publication, agreed with Williams belief, “While Hall’s achievements in the U.S. seem to have been largely forgotten, in England she was one of the nation’s highest-earning stars.”[4]


Upon its release in 2002, Underneath a Harlem Moon garnered praise from many quarters, both for the depth of research undertaken by the author and for its engaging reading experience, and put Hall's eight-decade career back on the radar. The Guardian newspaper published a full-page review by writer Stephen Bourne in which Bourne applauds Williams for bringing Hall back to the attention of the public.[5] In 2003, Miss Hall entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's most enduring recording artist,[6] having released material over eight consecutive decades.[7], and in Britain, Hall appeared on the list of the 100 Great Black Britons.[8] Lee Prosser in Jazz Review wrote: "This is a fine reading experience, and the author Iain Cameron Williams is to be congratulated on an accurate, detailed biography."[9] Paige Van Vorst on Jazz Beat Radio praised the "incredible and accurate narrative, which provides a vivid description of the heyday of black musical revues" and the quantity of "hitherto-unavailable data."[10] On January 15, 2003, Williams appeared on the BBC Radio Woman’s Hour program to promote the book, and was interviewed by Jenni Murray, who had herself interviewed Miss Hall on Woman’s Hour in the past.[11]


In 2013, during an interview published in Blues and Soul magazine,[12] the British singer Laura Mvula revealed that the inspiration for her song 'Sing to the Moon', included on her hit album Sing to the Moon, came from Williams' biography. A line in the song, "Sing to the moon and the stars will shine," is also taken from the book.[13] Mvula states:

"Well, the actual song Sing to the Moon came from a time when I was reading a book called Underneath a Harlem Moon, which is a biography of a jazz singer called Adelaide Hall, which is basically all about how she kind of was overlooked, or probably didn’t get the recognition she perhaps deserved. [...] she talks about the conversations she had with [her father] and how he used to say to her randomly 'Sing to the moon and the stars will shine'. Which kind of became her thing really that she just took with her everywhere. ... And I don't know why, but for some reason it just struck some kind of chord with me - you know, it was just something I seemed to connect with at that time. And so because of that, it then became a saying that I liked to use myself. So yeah, because it's become something I personally like to express, I just thought Sing to the Moon would also make a good title for the album as a whole."[14]

See Also[edit]

  • The British Library – Harlem Renaissance - A selective guide to materials at the British Library, a 2017 pdf download by Jean Petrovic (Bibliographical Editor at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library), includes a reference to Adelaide Hall and Underneath a Harlem Moon on page 47.
  • BBC Radio, Woman's Hour, Iain Cameron Williams talks to the presenter Jenni Murray about his book, Underneath A Harlem Moon: Woman’s Hour (archive)


  1. Underneath A Harlem Moon by Iain Cameron Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing House (catalogue): Underneath A Harlem Moon
  2. Underneath A Harlem Moon by Iain Cameron Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing House (catalogue) book synopsis: Underneath A Harlem Moon
  3. The Real First Lady Of Jazz, (book review) of Underneath A Harlem Moon by Stephen Bourne, The Guardian, 25 January 2003, (retrieved 10 October 2020):Underneath A Harlem Moon
  4. Jonah Burns announces the American publication of Underneath a Harlem Moon in Jazz Times, July 11, 2002 (retrieved October 12, 2020) : Jazz Times
  5. The Real First Lady Of Jazz, (book review) of Underneath A Harlem Moon by Stephen Bourne, The Guardian, 25 January 2003, (retrieved 10 October 2020):Underneath A Harlem Moon
  6. Adelaide Hall Guinness Book of World Records certificate (retrieved October 12, 2020):Adelaide Hall certificate
  7. Harlem World Magazine (article), ‘‘Drop Me Off In Harlem,’ by Guinness Book Of World Record Holder, Adelaide Louise Hall,’ (retrieved October 12, 2020):Drop Me Off In Harlem
  8. 100 Great Black Britons (retrieved October 12, 2020):100 Great Black Britons
  9. Underneath a Harlem Moon review by Lee Prosser in Jazz Review (retrieved October 12, 2020). Review quote taken from Continuum webpage for Underneath A Harlem Moon.
  10. Underneath a Harlem Moon review by Paige Van Vorst, Jazz Beat, Fall 2002, (retrieved October 12, 2020). Review quote taken from Continuum webpage for Underneath A Harlem Moon
  11. BBC Radio Woman’s Hour, January 15, 2003, (retrieved October 12, 2020):Iain Cameron Williams interview
  12. Lewis, Pete (2013). "Laura Mvula: Reflections of..." Blues and Soul (1074). Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  13. Williams, Iain Cameron (2002). Underneath a Harlem Moon. Continuum. ISBN 9780826458933. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  14. Lewis, Pete (2013). "Laura Mvula: Reflections of..." Blues and Soul (1074). Retrieved 30 January 2016.

Category:2002 non-fiction books Category:American biographies Category:American non-fiction books Category:Jazz Category:Harlem Category:1920s Category:1930s Category:English-language books

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