Revella Hughes was a soprano singer, composer, musician, recording artist, and the first female choral director for a Broadway production. She was known as The Colored Nightingale, The Prima Donna of the Musical Stage, and The Sophisticated Lady of the Organ.
Revella Hughes was born on July 27, 1895, to George Hughes (the first Black postal worker in Huntington, West Virginia) and Anna B. Page Hughes (piano teacher, seamstress, painter, and potter). Revella played piano and started singing at age five. By age ten, she played violin. Her musical training included Hartshorn Memorial College and undergraduate and graduate degrees in Music and Music Education from Howard and Northwestern Universities, respectively. Her senior recital, the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto, was with the Washington Concert Orchestra. Revella taught music at the Washington Conservatory of Music, the School of Expression, and voice, violin, and piano at the South Carolina State A&M College.
Hughes met her husband Layton Wheaton when he played football at Howard University, a dentist in New York, and the son of J. Francis Wheaton (attorney, orator, politician). Wheaton and Hughes married in 1920 and were divorced by 1923. Her career as a professional musician started in 1918 in Washington, D.C., as a lyric soprano and pianist. Revella was encouraged to move to New York to study voice, where she initially stayed with Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., and his family. The first artist to record for the first Black-owned record label, Black Swan, Revella recorded six songs, among them At Dawning, With the Coming of Tomorrow, Ah! Wondrous Morn, Thank God for a Garden.
Hughes starred in Edward Frye and Arthur Moss’ 1922 Dumb Luck. The following year, she was the choral director for the Broadway revue of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along, followed by a leading role in James P. Johnson’s production of Runnin’ Wild, in which Hughes introduced the Charleston dance. Revella worked with Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Roland Hayes. She allegedly taught voice to Josephine Baker. Revella was allegedly the first Black woman to perform at a New York City Central Park Concert in 1921.
She was one of the few Black artists on the B.F. Keith circuit, and performed on the CBS Radio Network, Regal Theatre in Chicago as a soloist. Hughes also arranged music and was part of the Bon Bons (women’s quartet) and the Hughes (women’s trio). In 1932, she was appointed Supervisor of Music for Huntington’s Black schools and organized the Douglass High School band.
Upon her mother’s death, Hughes returned to New York and worked in lounges and nightclubs. She played the Hammond for the show An Informal Hour of Music, she also transcribed and arranged Negro spirituals and other music for organ and piano. Performing and arranging for Gypsy Markoff’s WWII USO tour, she traveled to Europe and the Middle East. After her retirement in 1955, Hughes performed for the Universal Jazz Coalition.
Hughes was recognized by the New York Times 1980, Third Annual Salute to Women in Jazz, and the Howard University New York and New Jersey Alumni groups and Department of Music. She received her honorary Doctor of Music from Marshall University in 1985 and the Alumni Achievement Award from Howard University in 1987.
Revella Hughes died in New York on October 24, 1987, at 91.