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Blake, Eubie (actually, James Hubert)

Blake, Eubie (actually, James Hubert)

Blake, Eubie (actually, James Hubert), noteworthy ragtime pianist, composer; b. Baltimore, McL, Feb. 7, 1883; d. N.Y., Feb. 12, 1983. Both his parents were former slaves. Relatives and friends called him Hubie (from Hubert), which was abbreviated to Eubie. He grew up in an atmosphere of syncopated music and sentimental ballads played on music boxes, and had some lessons from a friendly church organist in Baltimore. At the age of 15, he got a regular job as a pianist in a “hookshop” (a sporting house) run by Aggie Sheldon, a successful madam, which provided him with tips from both the inmates and their customers. Blake improvised rag music (his long fingers could stretch to 12 white keys on the keyboard) and soon began to compose in earnest. In 1899, he wrote his “Charleston Rag,” which became a hit. In 1901, he toured for a while with a medicine show, then worked as accompanist for Madison Reed. He worked mainly at the Goldfield Hotel, Baltimore (1907–15), then while playing at River View Park, began a long association with Noble Sissle. They moved together to N.Y. and worked as partners for many years: composing, performing as The Dixie Duo, and as joint orchestra leaders. They wrote and produced an all-black musical, Shuffle Along, which opened in N.Y. on May 23, 1921, billed as “a musical melange” The score included the song “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” which became a hit and was later used as a campaign song for Harry Truman in 1948. They appeared in Europe and were successful in the U.K.; “You Were Meant for Me” was introduced by Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in a 1923 London revue. Blake teamed with Spencer Williams on Chocolate Dandies in 1924, then returned to N.Y. (1926); he remained in the U.S. when Sissle returned to Europe. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Blake wrote for many shows and revues, ranging from the Blackbirds (teamed with Andy Razaf) to Olsen and Johnson’s Atrocities of 1932. Another hit song was “Memories of You,” which he wrote for Blackbirds of 1930. Blake resumed his partnership with Noble Sissle; in World War II they toured with their own show for the U.S.O. Though professionally inactive from 1946, he appeared occasionally on TV shows with Sissle and made several concert appearances. In 1949, he took courses in the Schillinger System of Composition at N.Y.U. In 1969, he recorded the album The 86 Years of Eubie Blake, and in 1972 he formed his own record company. He was a great success at the New Orleans Jazz Fest (1969), and at festivals in Southern Calif. (1971) and Newport (1971). He was featured at many jazz festivals during the 1970s, both in the U.S. and Europe. Blake played at President Jimmy Carter’s White House Jazz Party (1978). In old age, he had a whole new career, playing piano and reminiscing; he said that if he’d known he was going to live that long he’d have taken better care of himself. As his centennial approached, there was a growing appreciation of his natural talent, and a Broadway musical billed simply Eubie! was produced with resounding success. In 1981, he received the Medal of Freedom from President Reagan. He made his last public appearance at the age of 99, at Lincoln Center on June 19, 1982. His compositions include: “Memories of You,” “I’m Just Wild about Harry,” “You’re Lucky to Me,” and “Love Will Find a Way.”

Discography

“Charleston Rag” (1921); The 86 Years of Eubie Blake (1969).

Bibliography

A. Rose, E. B. (N.Y., 1979).

—John Chilton Who’s Who of Jazz/Music Master Jazzand Blues Catalogue /Nicolas Slonimsky

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