Read PART I: CHAPTER IX of Music and Some Highly Musical People , free online book, by James M. Trotter, on ReadCentral.com.

THOMAS J. BOWERS,

TENOR-VOCALIST;

OFTEN STYLED

THE “AMERICAN MARIO.”

“Sweet is every sound;
Sweeter thy voice.”

TENNYSON.

Thomas J. Bowers, who, owing to his resembling in the magnificent quality of his voice that celebrated Italian singer, has been styled by the press the “American Mario,” was born in Philadelphia in the year 1836.

When quite a lad he evinced a decided fondness for music, and much musical talent. His father, a man of considerable intelligence, and for twenty years the warden of St. Thomas’s P.E. Church in Philadelphia, being desirous that his children should learn music, first procured a piano and an instructor for his eldest son, John C. Bowers; intending, after he became competent so to do, that he should teach the other children. This purpose was accomplished; and our subject was instructed by his brother to perform upon the piano-forte and organ. At eighteen he had become somewhat proficient in the playing of these instruments, and succeeded his brother as organist of St. Thomas’s Church.

I must not fail to mention here, that the younger of his two sisters, Sarah Sedgwick Bowers, became a fine singer. In the rendering of classical and all operatic music she exhibited much talent, was of handsome appearance, and elicited very complimentary notices from the press. I shall have occasion to speak of this lady more at length hereafter.

The parents of the subject of this sketch, although highly pleased with the natural musical qualities and with the accomplishments displayed by their children, were such strict church people as not to wish them to become public performers. Recognizing the pleasing, refining influence of music, they desired its practice by their children in the home-circle, for the most part; but were not averse, however, to hearing its sweet and sacred strains issue from choir and organ in church-services, nor to having their children take part in the same.

The wishes of his much-loved parents Mr. Bowers respected. For this reason he refused to join the famous “Frank Johnson’s band” of Philadelphia, although strongly urged by its director; and all offers made to him to join other public organizations were declined for a long time.

But his very rare powers as a tenor-vocalist were those which previous to the attainment of his majority had most attracted the attention and excited the admiration of many persons. Indeed, his voice was considered as something extraordinary in its power, mellowness, so to speak, and its sweetness.

Thus endowed, it was not possible, in the nature of things, that he should remain only a singer in private; and so, at Sansom-street Hall, Philadelphia, in 1854, he was induced to appear with the “Black Swan” as her pupil.

Although it was not at this concert that he made his first public “hit,” as it is called, yet the press of Philadelphia spoke of his performances on that occasion in the most flattering terms, and called for a repetition of the concert. This was given, our subject meeting with still greater success. At this time, one of the critics, in commenting on the voice and style of singing of Mr. Bowers, called him the “colored Mario.” Considering the almost if not quite peerless position then held in the musical world by the distinguished Italian tenor, Mario, this was a most strikingly favorable comparison. But our artist was so modest as to doubt that he merited such high praise. The press, however, generally persisted in styling him the “colored Mario,” the “American Mario,” &c.; and by these sobriquets he is most known to-day.

Col. Wood, once the manager of the Cincinnati Museum, hearing of the remarkable singing qualities of Mr. Bowers, came to Philadelphia to hear him. He was so much pleased, that he entered into an engagement with him to make a concert tour of New-York State and the Cañadas. This was in company with Miss Sarah Taylor Greenfield, the famous songstress. The great vocal ability as well as the novelty formed by the complexions of this couple produced quite a sensation, and secured for them great success wherever they appeared.

During this tour Col. Wood wished Mr. Bowers to appear under the title of the “Indian Mario,” and again under that of the “African Mario.” He withheld his consent to the use of either of these names, but adopted that of “Mareo.” This he has since retained as his professional cognomen.

Mr. Bowers was induced to engage in public performances more for the purpose of demonstrating by them the capacity of colored persons to take rank in music with the most highly cultured of the fairer race than for that of making a mere personal display of his highly-rated musical abilities, and for the attainment of the enjoyment which they would naturally be supposed to afford him.

Writing to a friend, he thus speaks of the principle that governed him:

“What induced me more than any thing else to appear in public was to give the lie to ‘negro serenaders’ (minstrels), and to show to the world that colored men and women could sing classical music as well as the members of the other race by whom they had been so terribly vilified.”

Nor would he ever yield to that mean and vulgar prejudice, once so prevalent, but now happily disappearing, which either sought to prevent colored persons from entering at all the public-amusement hall, or else to force them to occupy seats near the entrance, or away up in the gallery. All must be treated alike, or he would not sing. As illustrating this characteristic, I give the following incident connected with the concert tour in Canada:

In Hamilton, a Dr. Brown purchased for himself and some friends six reserved-seat tickets, at a cost of one dollar each. After he had done so, Mr. Bowers’s agent was informed by the proprietor of the hall in which the concert was to be held that “colored people were not admitted to first-class seats in Canada.” This created much excitement. Our artist espoused Dr. Brown’s cause; informed Col. Wood that he would not sing, if he refused to admit the doctor’s party on the terms implied by his tickets; that if, after entering, there should be any attempt to oust them, he would assist them; and that he did not leave his home to encourage such mean prejudice. This noble stand against unjust discrimination resulted in granting to Dr. Brown the seats for which he had purchased tickets; and, after this time, no attempt was made to exclude colored persons from the concerts of the troupe.

Mr. Bowers, during his career, has sung in most of the Eastern and Middle States; and at one time he even invaded the slavery-cursed regions of Maryland. He sang in Baltimore, the papers of which city were forced to accord to him high merit as a vocalist.

When we consider the high ideal cherished from the very commencement of his career by our subject, it is not surprising that his musical performances have never been marred by the singing of other than classical or the best music. He does sing, at times, songs in the ballad form; but these are always of the higher class, and such as would be adopted by any first-class singer. His repertoire is composed of most all the songs for the tenor voice in the standard operas and oratorios. He sings with fine effect such gems as “Spirito Gentil,” from “La Favorita;” “Ah! I have sighed,” from “Il Trovatore;” and “How so Fair,” from “Martha.”

Mr. Bowers resides at present in Philadelphia, and is a little past forty years of age. He sings as well now as ever; some think better than ever. He appears occasionally in public, but only in company with the first artists, as he firmly believes in maintaining always for himself and others a high musical standard. His voice ranges within a semitone of two octaves.

He is a man of decidedly handsome form, and of graceful, pleasing stage appearance; is, indeed, an ideal tenor, and a real artist.

I append, from among the many press-notices that have appeared during his career, the few that follow.

“The Daily Pennsylvanian” of Fe, 1854, after describing the Sansom-street Hall concerts, and alluding to some defects in the manner of his gestures, thus speaks of the performances of our subject:

“He has naturally a superior voice, far better than many of
the principal tenors who have been engaged for star opera
troupes. He has, besides, much musical taste.”

“The Boston Journal” said,

“The tenor of this troupe (Mr. Bowers) possesses a voice of
wonderful power and beauty.”

Another paper said,

“As most of our citizens have heard the ‘colored Mario,’ it is unnecessary for us to speak of his singing, as it is generally admitted that his tenor is second to none of our celebrated opera-singers.”

Another said,

“The concert given by the Sedgwick Company was a great
success.... ‘Mario’s’ fine tenor voice was never more
feelingly exercised, nor more rapturously encored.”

Again he is thus highly praised:

“The ‘colored Mario’s’ voice is unequalled by any of the
great operatic performers.”

A Montreal paper said,

“‘Mario’ is a very handsome specimen of his race, and has a
fine tenor voice.... He, too, was repeatedly encored, both
in his solo-pieces and in his duets with Miss Greenfield.”

The true value of the foregoing comments from the press will be better understood when the reader calls to mind the fact, that, when they were made, Mr. Bowers had as contemporaries the wonderful Signor Mario, the eminent “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, the not much less charming songstress, Parodi, as well as several fine tenor-singers connected with the Italian opera companies then performing throughout this country. With such models as these to elevate their tastes and guide their judgments, the critics knew well the worth of all they said in praise of Mr. Bowers. Forming our judgments, then, from what they did say of him (only a very few of their highly favorable comments have here been given), we may safely say that Mr. Bowers is to be ranked with the very first tenor-vocalists of his time.