Lois Deppe

First African American Swing Band in Pittsburgh

Lois Deppe was born in Kentucky and raised in Springfield Ohio. As a child he won a singing contest.  Madame J.C. Walker,a successful African American classical and popular music vocalist, invited the 16 year old Deppe to sing at a concert in Indianopolis.  Impressed with his performance she took Lois to New York City for voice training with Enrico Caruso's coach, Buzzi Pecci. In New York in 1916 he was introduced to vaudeville performers and song writers and began his show business career.  Deppe went on to have a successful career as baritone concert artist and appeared in musicials such as Show Boat.  After serving in the in the U.S. Army he toured with singer Anita Patti Brown.  But as vocal concert performances were occasional work, Deppe moved to swing music for a more steady and profitable income.

Deppe formed his own swing band and found regular work in the hotels and clubs of Pittsburgh.  Appearing at the Liederhouse in Pittsburgh Deppe decided to hire a new pianist who could read music.  He hired Earl Hines paying him $15 a week and board.  Deppe and Hines played the Liederhouse for almost a year and started an orchestra.  It was the first African American swing band in Pittsburgh.  In the early 1920s Lois B. Deppe and His Serenaders toured Pennsylvania and Ohio. Deppe's swing orchestra appeared at Pittsburgh's Paramount Inn from 1919-1921 and 1925-1926.  According to historian Laurence Glasco, in his book (The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh) the Paramount shows were recored and gave Pittsburgh swing fans their first opportunity to hear good swing.

Deppe and Hines appeared as a duet on KDKA radio in 1921. They were the first African Americans performers ever to appear on radio. The broadcast was played over a loud speaker on Wylie Avenue and crowds mobbed the street to listen and then stayed to cheer Deppe and Hines when they made it back to the Hill.  In the winter of 1923 Deppe and Hines recorded for the Gennett label.  One of the songs recorded was Earl Hines composition Congaine.  Hines left Deppe's band in 1923 moving to Chicago where he started his own band.  Deppe and Hines remained friends over the years. 

Pianist Mary Lou Williams remembers seeing Lois Deppe as a child in an interview with Melody Maker in 1954.

"One of our local characters, one of the most famed was Lois Deppe, the popular baritone singer who had been around since 1918 or earlier. His band was the talk of Pennsylvania, and at that time included the great Earl Hines -- a local boy from nearby Carnegie -- and Vance Dixon on saxophone and clarinet. Wherever Deppe's band appeared, the kids from all around were sure to go -- and when Vance started to slap-tongue on that saxophone they really went wild. Numbers I remember the band doing were Milenberg Joys, Isabelle and Congaine. The last two were recorded by Deppe in the early Twenties.

I must have been ten or eleven when I was taken to the Saturday afternoon dances at the Arcadia Ballroom where Deppe was playing. These dances ran from noon until 4 p.m., and shortly before break-up time the biggest fight would invariably commence. Half the kids in Pittsburgh could be seen running from the hall, grabbing the backs of street-cars to get away."

Earl Hines and Lois Deppe


Lois Deppe on Vocals with the McKinney's Cotton Pickers 1931