Taylor Gordon was born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana in 1893. He was a singer and vaudeville performer associated with the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1920's. He moved to New York City at the age of 17. His career faded after the 1920s, and in 1959 he retired to White Sulphur Springs, where he died in 1971.
The son of a mining camp cook and a former slave, and one of six children, he grew up around the miners, cowboys and prostitutes that made White Sulphur such a colorful place at the turn of the century. He is best known for his career as a singer in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. After leaving Montana in 1910 for a job in Minnesota, Gordon eventually made his way to New York. Once he left Montana, he was employed as chauffeur, porter, waiter, vaudeville entertainer concert tenor, and singer with the group “The Inimitable Five” and toured coast to coast.
As the Harlem Renaissance gathered steam in the mid-1920s, he found more opportunities to advance his singing career. The most important of these was a partnership with J. Rosamond Johnson, who with his brother James Weldon Johnson composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and compiled the classic Book of American Negro Spirituals. His term as a concert singer led him to France and England where he sang spirituals for the higher class. He played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
Gordon joined Rosamond Johnson as a singing partner and the pair quickly achieved fame, touring the United States, France and England. In 1927 they gave an acclaimed concert at Carnegie Hall sponsored by the Urban League. W.E.B. Du Bois claimed that “No one who has heard Johnson and Gordon sing ‘Stand Still Jordan’ can ever forget its spell.”
Gordon’s singing career peaked about the time Born to Be, his autobiography, was published. In the book, Gordon tells of growing up in White Sulphur Springs (where he was known as “Mannie”), of his relationship with Ringling Brothers’, when he worked as the personal porter on Ringling’s private railway car, and his rise to fame singing spirituals as a member of a duo with Rosamond Johnson. Taylor Gordon was also an active participant in the outburst of African American literary and artistic creativity during the 1920s in New York, known as the Harlem Renaissance. He was friends with such well-known artists and writers as Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson.
In later years he appeared onstage, in Heywood Broun’s “Shoot the Works,” “Gay Divorce” with Fred Astaire, and other productions. In 1959 he returned to White Sulphur Springs, Montana, where he lived his last years quietly with his sister Rose and died in 1971.
Taylor Gordon was Montana’s most important contributor to the development of African American music, and an international figure in popularizing one of America’s most distinctive and original forms of folk music, the spiritual, which “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” is perhaps the best known song. Two spirituals in particular, “Stand Still, Jordan” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”, Taylor Gordon made his way that few other performers could match.