With the Great James Reese Europe
Changing Times in Stage Theater
African-American ragtime pianist and composer of over 300 songs and musical pieces, Eubie Blake enjoyed a career which took him from the early years of African American stage theater to television and concert appearances in the 1970s. In his classic work Early Jazz: It’s Roots and Modern Development, Gunther Schuller commented that Blake “was probably the leading exponent of the ragtime piano style that developed somewhat independently of the Midwestern branch all along the Eastern seaboard as far south as Charleston, with headquarters in Baltimore.” Blake’s piano pieces revealed a strong folk ragtime strain that prevented him from being associated historically with some of the lesser commercial work associated with the publishing industry of New York City’s Tin Pan Alley. Apart from a talented keyboardist, Blake conducted, composed, and arranged music that helped cultivate and broaden the role of African American stage theater.
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1883. Former slaves, his parents John Sumner Blake and Emily Johnston, in
For the Record…
Born James Hubert Blake, February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, MD; died February 12, 1983, New York, NY; son of James Sumner Blake and Emily Johnston; married Avis Lee, July 1910-1939; Marion Gant Tyler 1945-1983;
Began career as ragtime pianist in 1898; composed first piano rag, 1899; performed in Dr. Frazier’s Medicine Show in 1901 and toured with the stage show Old Kentucky in 1902; performed as a pianist at the Gold-field Hotel, Baltimore, 1907-1915; met Noble Sissle in 1915 and began musical association; toured with Sissle as the Dixie Duo, 1915-1920; appeared as a member of Jim Reese Europe’s orchestra, 1916-1919; composed music for stage musicals Shuffle Along (1921), Chocolate Dandies (1924-1925); recorded and toured with own orchestra in the 1930s; toured with U.S.O. during World War II; appeared at 1969 Newport Jazz Festival; recorded and performed on television programs in the 1970s.
Awards: Honorary degrees from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (1973); Dartmouth College (1974); Rutgers University (1974); The New England Conservatory of Music (1974); University of Maryland (1979); received Presidential Medal of Freedom 1981.
stilled the values of hard work. A literate man who had been taught to read by his former master’s daughter, Blake’s father “never stopped preaching to his son about the evils of race hatred,” wrote Al Rose in Eubie Blake. “Even though he’d been a slave, he insisted there were good and bad white people just as their were good and bad Negroes.”
Blake learned his first rudiments on a Estey organ purchased by his mother. Not long after he received instruction from his next door neighbor, Margaret Marshall, a young organist at a Methodist church. Around age six Blake studied piano with Llewelyn Wilson, sang in church, and later played cornet in a local bi-racial band.
Without the knowledge of his parents, Blake worked Aggie Shelton’s bordello at age fifteen, entertaining customers with light classics and popular rags such as “Hello, Ma Ragtime Gal” and “After the Ball.” With little interest in school, Blake sought to become a full time musician, and at age sixteen performed professionally in a Baltimore nightclub. In 1899 he composed his first piano rag later titled the “Charleston Rag.” The piano roll of “Charleston Rag” (1917), observed Mark Tucker in Ellington the Early Years, “features a walking bass in broken octaves, flashy appregiated breaks, chromatic seventh chords, and certain rhythmic tricks.”
In 1901 Blake danced and played melodian with Dr. Frazier’s Medicine Show. In the following year, he joined the touring company In Old Kentucky, which took him briefly to New York City. From New York, Blake returned to Baltimore and landed a job as a relief pianist for Big Head Wilbur at Alfred Greenfield’s saloon, an establishment built by light weight boxing champion Joe Gans. After two years at Greenfield’s, Blake found steady work at Annie Gilly’s sporting house. In This is Ragtime, Blake related how he “ragged” popular songs and classics from Wagner to Viennese waltzes. Able to transpose numbers in any key, and possessing a finger span of twelve notes, Blake earned a reputation as one of the finest ragtime pianists of the eastern school.
In 1911, Blake wrote his piano rags, “The Chevy Chase” and “Fizz Water.” During the next few years, Blake was kept busy through seasonal work in Baltimore and Atlantic City where he performed at such places as Ben Allen’s Boathouse and the Bucket of Blood. The great stride pianist, James P. Johnson heard Blake in Atlantic City during the summer of 1914. “[Blake] was playing at The Belmont,” recalled Johnson in Jazz Panorama, “Eubie was a marvelous song player. He also had a couple of rags. One, Troublesome Ivories, ’ was very good.” In 1915 Blake met Noble Sissle while performing with Joe Porter’s Serenaders at Baltimore’s Riverview Park. Within a few days, Blake and Sissle wrote the number “It’s All Your Fault” which became an immediate hit for singer Sophie Tucker. Their number “Have a Good Time Everybody” subsequently found its way into Tucker’s repertoire.
With the Great James Reese Europe
In 1916 after Sissle joined James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, he urged the famed bandleader to hire Blake. Accepting the offer, Blake came north to join the Harlem-based orchestra. “As performers, both Sissle and Blake fit the Europe model of the black professional entertainer perfectly,” wrote Reid Badger in A Life in Ragtime. “Blake had both experience performing and writing for whites, and they both understood how to please them without demeaning their own personal or professional dignity.” Blake soon received promotion from solo pianist to assistant orchestra leader. “Jim Europe was the biggest influence in my musical career,” stated Blake in Eubie Blake: Keys of Memory. “He was at a point in time at which all roots and forces of Negro music merged and gained its wildest expression.”
When Sissle arrived back in New York after serving in France with the 369th Infantry Division, he and Blake toured on the Keith circuit as the Dixie Duo. In 1920 they met the comedy team of Flournoy E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles in Philadelphia. Along with Miller and Lyles, Blake and Sissle created the 1921 musical stage production, Shuffle Along. Based upon Miller’s and Lyles’ proposed Broadway-style show, “The Mayor of Jimtown,” Shuffle Along emerged as the first all-black post- World War I stage production. Responsible for the music and lyrics, Blake and Sissle provided several classic numbers including “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Bandana Days,” and “Love Will Find a Way.” Originally planned for a black audience, the show ran two weeks at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. and at the Dunbar Theatre in Philadelphia, before opening at New York City’s 63rd Street Music Hall on May 23, 1921. After 504 performances, Shuffle Along closed with a reported gross of eight million dollars. In the work The Cotton Club, Jim Haskins noted that Shuffle Along succeeded because “in earlier shows, ragtime had been hidden under the heavy overlay of operetta. By the time the show opened in New York, Blake had already won fame as a composer, and ragtime was present in pure form in Shuffle Along.”
The success of Shuffle Along ushered in a new era for Blake— one that, as he stated in DownBeat, had taken him “from barrelhouse pianist to writing a Broadway musical.” In 1924 he wrote the score for The Chocolate Dandies. Traveling to Europe in 1926, Blake and Sissle dropped the name theDixie Duo for the stage title “American Ambassadors of Syncopation.” They played in England and Paris. Back in America the duo broke up in 1927. In October of the same year, Blake organized a new act with Broadway Jones for the Keith circuit.
Changing Times in Stage Theater
After launching the show Shuffle Along Jr. in 1928, Blake earned $250 a week with the 1930 production of Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds, billed as “Glorifying the American Negro.” The experience with the show brought Blake together with famed lyricist Andy Razaf. In describing Razaf’s skills, Blake told Al Rose in Eubie Blake, that his song writing partner “never had to change anything. His meter was perfect, and he could write the words nearly as fast as I could whistle the tune. God, he was smart!” Their collaborative efforts included the number “You’re Lucky to Me.” In Eubie Blake Al Rose explained that the number “introduced new and modern concepts about intervals that challenged other musicians and won enough adherents to become permanently incorporated into common musical idiom.” Years later, the number was performed as an instrumental by Benny Goodman and the Casa Loma Orchestra.
Due to the affects of the Depression, the Blackbirds production closed after two-month run. Blake then wrote music for Jack Scholl’s “Loving You the Way I Do” which became the Broadway hit of the year. In 1933 Blake, Miller, and Sissle attempted to take a rendition of Shuffle Along on the road. Though a fine production, the show was forced to close. During the 1930s Blake recorded with his own orchestra and wrote shows under the funding of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Elder Statesman of Ragtime
During World War II, Blake served as musical director with several U.S.O (United Service Organization) tours. In the late 1940s Blake went into retirement and studied the Schillinger System of Music at the University of New York. The ragtime “Scott Joplin” revival of the 1950s brought renewed interest in Blake’s music. Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’s book They All Played Ragtime (1950) and Gilbert Chase’s America’s Music (1955) helped find a new audience for one the last of the original ragtime pianists and composers.
In 1968 music impresario John Hammond organized a session for Blake which brought forth the 1969 two-album recording The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake. That same year, he played a successful concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1971 Blake launched his own record company, Eubie Blake Music Inc. During the heightened “Scott Joplin boom” of the 1970s, he appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and was a guest on television shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin. At the pianist’s ninetieth birthday party at New York’s Hampshire House, jazz writer Dan Morganstern observed, in a 1973 issue of DownBeat, that Blake was “in better shape, mentally and physically, than many a man 20 years younger.” When Leonard Feather referred to Blake, during a Down Beat interview, as “ninety years young” his spright subject immediately answered “No, I’m 90 years old and proud of it.”
During the 1970s Blake was awarded honorary degrees from such distinguished institutions as Dartmouth College, Rutgers University, and the New England Conservatory. In 1976 he provided the introduction for Terry Waldo’s book, This is Ragtime. In 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. Suffering from pneumonia, Blake was unable to attend several celebrations held in his honor of his 100th birthday. He died in New York on February 12, 1983. About five years before his death, Blake told his biographer Al Rose, in Eubie Blake, “When you leave the theater, it feels like you’re leavin’ the real world and the fake world is out here in the street where nobody knows anybody else.” Though Blake belonged to a close knit creative fraternity, his music touched the lives of several generations of listeners who resided outside the world of the musical theater.
The Wizard of Ragtime Vol. I, 20th Century Fox, 1958.
The Marches I Played on the Ragtime Piano, RCA, 1959.
The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, CBS, 1969.
Rags to Classics, Eubie Blake Music, 1971.
Eubie Blake and His Friends, Eubie Blake Music, 1971.
Jazz Piano Masters, Chairoscuro.
Live Concert, Eubie Blake Music, 1973.
Tricky Fingers, Quicksilver.
Memories of You, Biograph, 1990.
“Charleston Rag,” written 1889 and originally titled “Sounds of Africa,” Ampico piano roll 1917.
“Fizz Water,” 1911.
“Brittwood Rag,” 1911.
“The Chevy Chase,” 1911, piano roll 1917.
“Troublesome Ivories,” 1911.
“Novelty Rag,” 1910.
“Blue Thoughts,” 1933.
“Blue Classic,” 1939.
“Blue Rag in Twelve Keys,” 1969.
“Memories of You,” piano roll, QRS, 1973.
“I’m Just Wild About Harry, piano roll, QRS, 1973.
Shuffle Along, 1921.
The Chocolate Dandies, 1924.
Chariot’s Revue Of 1924, (contributed compositions).
Blackbirds of 1930, 1930.
Hot Rhythm, 1930, (contributed compositions).
Shuffle Along Jr., 1933.
Swing It, 1937.
Tan Manhattan, (contributed compositions), 1941.
Blake was also the subject of a documentary: Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, 1974.
Carter, Lawrence T, Eubie Blake, Keys Of Memory, Balamp, 1979.
Haskins, Jim. The Cotton Club, Hippocene Books, 1977.
Jazz Panorama: From the Birth of Dixieland to the Latest Third Stream’ Innovations: The sounds of Jazz & the Men Who Made Them, edited by Martin Williams, Collier Books, 1958.
Ragtime, Its History, Composers, and Music, edited by John Edward Hasse, Schirmer Books, 1985.
Rose, Al, Eubie Blake, Schirmer Books, 1979.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: It’s Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Tucker, Mark, Ellington: The Early Years, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Waldo, Terry with a foreword by Eubie Blake, This is Ragtime, Da Capo, 1976.
DownBeat, March 29, 1973; May 24, 1973.
Blake, Eubie 1883–1983
Eubie Blake 1883–1983
Changed Course After Hearing Ragtime
Joined James Reese Europe Band
Orchestra Feigned Musical Illiteracy
One of the creative giants of African-American music, Eubie Blake was active until the very end of his hundred years of life. His musical career encompassed several different phases, any one of which would have earned him a place in the history books, and audiences in the late 20th century looked to him as a unique repository of information about ragtime, early musical theater, and other musical genres in which he had been involved. Equally renowned as a pianist and as a composer, Blake also influenced the careers of many musicians who came after him.
He was born James Hubert Blake in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1883; his nickname “Hubie” was eventually shortened to Eubie. Both his parents grew up as slaves. Blake’s home was a strict one—his father, who had learned to read from the daughter of his former master, insisted on the virtues of education, and his mother was strongly religious. It was Blake’s mother who introduced him to music, buying him a small pump organ in the hope that he would develop into a church musician. As a young man Blake studied classical music with a local church organist.
Changed Course After Hearing Ragtime
But his mother’s hopes were dashed when Blake began to encounter the syncopated rhythms of what would coalesce into ragtime music at the end of the 1890s. In spite of the classicizing ambitions of ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin, many ragtime pianists began their careers providing live entertainment for houses of prostitution. The 15-year-old Blake fit the pattern, even though he had to sneak out of the house to perform at the establishment of one Aggie Shelton.
He showed a distinctive style early on, and by 1899 had composed a ragtime tune of his own. Later published and entitled the “Charleston Rag,” it gave an idea of Blake’s skill at the keyboard with its vigorous left-hand part and complex harmonies. His hands could stretch across the unusually large interval of 12 white keys. Blake moved onward and upward from Aggie Shelton’s bordello, performing in various Baltimore nightclubs and going on the road with a touring minstrel show in 1901. He gained the ability to improvise on popular songs and light classics of the day, and became more and more at ease with audiences of
At a Glance…
Born James Hubert Blake on February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, MD; died February 12, 1983; son of James Sumner Blake and Emily Johnston Blake; married Avis Lee, 1910 (died 1939); married Marion Cant Tyler, 1945.
Career: Began playing ragtime around 1898 in a bordello; composed first piano piece, 1899; performed in touring stage shows, 1901-02; ragtime pianist in Baltimore, MD; performed at Goldfield Hotel, Baltimore, 1907-15; met Noble Sissle, 1915; co-wrote hit song “It’s All Your Fault;” became member of James Reese Europe Orchestra, 1916; toured Europe with 369th Infantry Regimental Band, 1918-19; toured with Sissle as Dixie Duo, 1919-20; with Sissle, composed hit musical Shuffle Along, 1921; with Sissle, composed musical Chocolate Dandies, 1924; toured Europe with own orchestra, late 1920s; led own orchestra in U.S., 1930s; toured with USO shows during World War II; active as DJ in New York, early 1950s; appeared at 1969 Newport Jazz Festival
Awards: Honorary degrees from Brooklyn College, Dartmouth College, Rutgers University, New England Conservatory of Music, and University of Maryland; Presidential Meda! of Freedom, 1981.
various backgrounds. From 1907 to 1911 Blake performed at Baltimore’s Goldfield Hotel, owned by boxer Joe Gans. He was considered one of the top ragtime pianists on the East Coast and traveled often to New York and to the resort of Atlantic City.
The next phase of Blake’s career began in a Baltimore park in 1915 when he met the singer, songwriter, and bandleader Noble Sissle, an Indiana musician who had moved east with dreams of making a career in musical theater. The two men hit it off creatively, and within days Blake had set to music a song lyric by Sissle entitled “It’s All Your Fault.” The song became a hit when it was picked up by the leading white vocalist of the day, Sophie Tucker.
Joined James Reese Europe Band
That catapulted Sissle into New York’s leading African American dance band of the day, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra. Sissle prevailed upon Europe to hire Blake as a keyboard player, and Blake made the move to New York. Europe, an underappreciated pioneer who laid the groundwork for many of the accomplishments of the big-band era, immersed Blake in an atmosphere ripe with black creative talent and inspired him to look to new musical horizons. Sissle and Blake continued to work together as lyricist and composer, but their partnership was interrupted by America’s entry into World War I; Sissle enlisted in the Army and went to France (performing with Europe’s band while there), but Blake, by then 34, was too old for military service.
Reunited after Sissle’s return from Europe, Blake and Sissle toured the vaudeville circuit as the Dixie Duo. Though some of their material absorbed the stereotypes of blacks that were staples of even African-American productions of the day, there was one important difference—they did not wear the burnt-cork blackface makeup that was conventional for both white and black minstrel performers. Sissle and Blake are thus credited with a major step in the creation of a more dignified image for African-American entertainers.
In 1921 Blake and Sissle, with the financial support and stage participation of several of their compatriots in the world of the African-American stage, mounted a musical of their own called Shuffle Along. More ambitious than any other all-black production up to that time, it was one of the first such productions to open on Broadway. Shuffle Along became a runaway success, earning over eight million dollars and spawning the evergreen “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The show’s plot involved a satirical treatment of the political leaders of a fictional all-black town.
Orchestra Feigned Musical Illiteracy
Blake’s score to Shuffle Along was written out in notation like that of other musicals of the day, but members of the orchestra had to memorize all the music; according to the website jass.com, Blake explained, “People didn’t believe that black people could read music—they wanted to think that our ability was just natural talent.” The show’s company included future stars Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. Blake and Sissle, now celebrities, collaborated again on The Chocolate Dandies (1924) and toured Europe as “the American Ambassadors of Syncopation.”
Blake worked with other lyricists, including Thomas “Fats” Waller’s songwriting partner Andy Razaf, and notched several more hits including “Memories of You,” written for the revue Blackbirds of 1930. During World War II he led performances given for U.S. troops. Then, at an age when most musicians settle into retirement, Blake enrolled in the music program at New York University, graduating in 1949. Reflecting on his long career, he set down many of his compositions in musical notation.
Then, as a result of the revival of interest in ragtime that began in the early 1950s, Blake found the rest of the musical world very interested in what he had to say and could remember. Music historians, and then the large public that awakened to the joys of ragtime in the 1960s, saw him as the last living link to the era of Scott Joplin, and yet another period of celebrity for Blake began. An album entitled The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake was released in 1969, and Blake became a frequent guest on television and an often-sought honorary degree recipient at the commencement ceremonies of prestigious colleges and universities. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981 and performed for the last time at the age of 99 on June 19, 1982. A heavy smoker for much of his life, Blake died in Brooklyn on February 12, 1983, five days after his 100th birthday.
The Wizard of Ragtime Piano, 20th Century, 1958.
The 86 Years of Eubie Blake, Columbia, 1968.
Wild About Eubie, Columbia, 1976.
An American Classic: Eubie Blake, Music Masters, 1981.
Sissle & Blake: Early Rare Recordings, Vols. 1 and 2, Stash.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 19, Gale, 1997.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan, 1985.
Kimball, Robert, and William Bolcom, Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, Viking, 1973.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, and Laura Kuhn, eds., Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
—James M. Manheim
Eubie Blake (1883-1983) has been considered one of America's musical treasures. During his lifetime, he remained active through several distinguished careers as a noted stride and ragtime pianist and composer of rags, as a successful vaudevillian performer, and as a composer and songwriter. Though probably best known as a ragtime artist, Blake was one of very few successful African American composers of Broadway musicals in the first half of the twentieth century. Most significant among such compositions was the history–making hit musical, Shuffle Along.
James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was born on February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, Maryland. John Sumner Blake, Eubie's father, a former slave, was a Civil War veteran and a stevedore. Eubie's mother, Emily Johnston Blake, also a former slave, was a laundress. The youngest of 11 children, Blake was the only one of his brothers and sisters to survive infancy. The Blake home, recalled Blake in Al Rose's Eubie Blake, was a very strict one. Blake's mother was a devoutly religious woman who gave much of her time to her church, and who tolerated absolutely no inappropriate behavior. Infractions of her rules, Blake remembered, resulted in corporeal punishments swift and severe.
One of the few demands of Blake's father was that his son receive an education. John Blake was taught to read as a slave a rare opportunity and, therefore, was adamant about the importance of literacy. Eubie Blake, however, did not remember his school days fondly, partially owing to general disinterest and frequent fights.
Blake's musical training began around the age of four. He first learned to play on a pump organ his mother had purchased in the hope that he would use his talents to the service of the church. Blake took his first piano lessons from Margaret Marshall, a next–door neighbor. Blake recalled being given the usual standards to play, as well as hymns, which kept his mother happy. However, he was more drawn to the music he heard drifting into his window from the many nightclubs and brothels in his neighborhood. Unable to resist the infectious rhythms and melodies of this raucous music, Blake's practice turned to perfecting this new style of playing.
Blake landed his first real playing job when he was 15 years old at a neighborhood brothel, Aggie Shelton's Bawdy House. Three dollars a week plus tips was the salary, Blake recalled. He also remembered having to play in "rented long pants" on the account of having to sneak away from home each night in order to play the job. While at Aggie Shelton's, Blake composed his Charleston Rag in 1899. Other early jobs included brief tours with Dr. Frazier's Medicine Show as a buck and wing dancer and melodeon player in 1901 and in 1902 with the traveling show In Old Kentucky. Later that same year, Blake made his return to nightclub playing in Alfred Greenfeld's Saloon, where he composed his next rag, Corner of Chestnut and Low, the address of Greenfeld's club.
Beginning in 1905, Blake spent several summers away from Baltimore in Atlantic City where he was a pianist at the Middle Section Club. He recalled meeting and establishing lasting friendships with some of the greatest black musicians of the time, including long–time friend and competitor, pianist Hughie Wolford, and celebrated composer and performer Will Marion Cook. The older Cook took an interest in Blake's compositions, and according to Blake, became a mentor.
Blake's first big break came in 1907 when he was hired by Joe Gans, an African American prizefighter and childhood friend, who had just opened a new hotel in Baltimore called the Goldfield Hotel. The Goldfield immediately became a prominent haunt of wealthy, sophisticated business-people and entertainers of all races from all over the world. As a performer in this prestigious hotel, Blake became acquainted with rich and powerful people, many of whom had a profound impact on his career. While at the Goldfield, Blake continued to develop his compositional ability. He wrote rags: The Baltimore Todolo, Kitchen Tom, Tricky Fingers, Novelty Rag, and Poor Katie Redd. Blake attributed this compositional spurt to tutelage from Llewellyn Wilson, famous Baltimore conductor introduced to Blake by Will Marion Cook.
In July of 1910 Eubie Blake married Avis Lee, the daughter of a wealthy socialite from Baltimore. According to Blake, he and Avis had met in grade school. He admitted, however, that there was nothing between them until they met again as adults. Avis was not only older than he, but she was also more focused on her education and much more sophisticated, recounted Blake. In Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake, Blake called Avis "one of the ten most beautiful girls in Baltimore."
Avis Blake was herself a classically trained pianist, who, according to Eubie Blake, had the ability but had been too sheltered to consider having a career of her own. After they were married, she remained at home as homemaker and wife, occasionally traveling with Blake until her death from tuberculosis in 1939. They had no children.
Blake left the Goldfield in early 1911, shortly after the death of owner Joe Gans. His stay there, however, had made him famous throughout the Northeast and highly sought after. The years between 1911 and 1915 Blake described as good ones in which he played in some of the best clubs in Baltimore, New York, and Atlantic City. In 1911 Blake wrote his rags, Chevy Chase and Fizz Water, which he published later that year. Unfortunately the experience was marred by the unscrupulous dealings of his publisher. In his inexperience, Blake inadvertently gave up certain rights to his songs, causing him to lose a great deal of money in future royalties. That same year Blake also wrote Troublesome Ivories and Brittwood Rag, named after the popular Brittwood Club of Harlem.
During this period of his life, Blake was enjoying fame and privilege few musicians of his time would ever know. By most standards he was a success. Yet the events of the next years took him in an entirely different direction–into a new musical profession which eclipsed his young career as ragtime pianist for the next 40 years. Blake became a songwriter and composer of musicals.
Blake and Noble Sissle met on May 16, 1915, at Riverview Park in Baltimore. Almost immediately after their meeting they formed one of the most successful collaborative performing and songwriting teams in American musical theater history.
Noble Sissle (1889–1975) was a well–educated son of well–to–do parents from Indianapolis, Indiana. Sissle studied at DePauw and Butler Universities in Indiana. He was a naturally gifted singer and actor who had participated in plays and sung in glee clubs both in high school and college. Seeking fame as a professional performer, Sissle moved to Baltimore. Blake recalled that it was through Sissle that he met James Reese Europe, whom Rose described in Eubie Blake as a "monumental figure in the Negro Music World." Europe was the organizer and president of the Clef Club for black musicians. This organization was a booking agency for musicians and especially Europe's orchestras, which dominated booking in New York City. Europe hired Blake as pianist in his Long Island orchestra in 1916. The three men remained close friends until Europe's death by stabbing in 1919.
Only a few weeks after their meeting, Blake had written music to Sissle's lyrics, "Its All Your Fault," which they persuaded the legendary Sophie Tucker to sing. Two years later, in 1917, the team of Sissle and Blake was separated by World War I. Sissle enlisted, but Blake, already 34, was too old. Upon Sissle's return in 1919, they developed a vaudeville act which traveled under the name The Dixie Duo.
Significant about The Dixie Duo was the fact that this team never performed in black face as was the tradition; yet, they were still successful. "The practice of corking faces by black performers was expected for artistic survival," says Rose. And, of course white artists like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor continued using black face. Credit must therefore be given to Sissle and Blake as pioneers among others in the rejection of the stereotypical make up. During their tour the team wrote, then favorites, Pickaninny Shoes, and Oriental Blues which was later included in their smash hit musical, Shuffle Along.
The hit musical Shuffle Along, established Blake and Noble Sissle prominently among the greats of musical theater in the twenties. Shuffle Along opened in 1921 and was an immediate success. Blake and Sissle financed the show themselves, along with help from Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, the Fisk educated comedy team with whom they had joined forces. Miller, Lyles, and Sissle also starred in the show. Originally titled The Mayor of Jimtown, Shuffle Along satirized small–town politics in a fictional black town with hilarious comedic sketches and lively musical numbers. The overwhelming success of this show made wealthy men of its creators, and stars of Miller and Lyles, as well as newcomers Florence Mills, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker.
Shuffle Along ran for over 500 performances on Broadway. The show also ran for an extended stay in Boston. The touring companies played to sell–out houses all over the United States. Songs from the musical included "Bandana Days," "In Honeysuckle Time," "If you've Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You've Never Been Vamped At All," "Love Will Find A Way," and "I'm Just Wild about Harry."
Several revivals of Shuffle Along were mounted years after the show had closed. Most notable were the productions of 1933 and 1952. Despite the fact that Sissle and Blake tried to rejuvenate their once hit show with new songs, neither revival was nearly as successful as the first.
Three years after Shuffle Along, Sissle and Blake's second successful musical came to Broadway in 1924, The Chocolate Dandies. Songs from The Chocolate Dandies included "That Charleston Dance," "There's a Million Little Cupids in the Sky," "You Ought to Know," "Dumb Luck," and "Manda."
After the break–up of Blake and Sissle in 1927, Blake teamed with several other prominent lyricists and performers of the time, including Henry Creamer, Broadway Jones, Milton Reddie, and Andy Razaf. Blake and Razaf's collaboration produced hit songs for a show called Blackbirds of 1930, which included tunes "Memories of You" and "You're Lucky to Me." Blake and Razaf's musical, Tan Manhattan, written and produced in 1940, was a great success, Eubie Blake's last big success in musical theater until the opening of the Broadway smash hit Eubie!, a musical review of his works, in 1978.
Returned to Ragtime
While serving as a bandleader with the United Servicemen Organizations (USO) during World War II, Blake met and married Marion Grant Tyler, his second wife, in 1945. Tyler was also a performer and a businesswoman, who, after the couple settled in New York, became his valued manager of business and personal affairs.
From 1945 to 1950 Blake attended New York University, graduating at age 67 with a degree in music. It was certainly not uncommon for artists who had enjoyed the success that Blake had to have been considering retirement or, at least, slowing down at this age. However, Blake showed no signs of easing up. Almost prophetically, he was preparing himself for what was to become yet another upswing in his already distinguished career.
In the 1950s a revival of interest in America's ragtime music began to surface and spread throughout the country. Blake, one of the few surviving authentic artists of ragtime, found himself enticed into yet another career as ragtime artist, historian, and educator. In the years that followed, Blake signed recording deals with major companies like 20th Century Records and Columbia Records; he also lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world.
In the 1970s Blake's fame was once again soaring. In his late eighties and nineties, he appeared as special guest performer and clinician in all of the world's top jazz and rag festivals. He was a frequent guest of talk shows such as The Johnny Carson Show and Merv Griffin. Sold–out performances in the world's most prestigious concert halls punctuated his active schedule. Blake had also been featured under the baton of many of the world's great conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. Virtually every music organization in the country has honored Blake, and articles about him have appeared in Time and Newsweek as well as in all of the magazines related to his trade.
By 1975 Blake had been awarded doctorate degrees from Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Dartmouth. In 1978 he was an invited guest and performer at the Carter White House, and in 1981 James Hubert Blake received the Presidential Medal of Honor.
Blake died five days after his 100th birthday, on February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, New York. News of his death was carried by major newspapers and television stations internationally. That year a proliferation of concerts celebrating Blake's life and music by the music world honored his memory.
A uniquely gifted artist, Blake has left the world a rich and varied body of music and history. Blake, by his own admission, was very fortunate. Not only did this musical genius rise far above what was expected of or allowed for African American musicians of his time in mainstream musical theater, but he was also granted a life long enough to witness the world's eventual acceptance and appreciation for the music of his youth, ragtime.
Carter, Lawrence T. Eubie Blake: Keys of Memory. Detroit: Balamp Publishing Co., 1979.
Chilton, John. Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swingstreet. New York: DaCapo Press, 1985.
Kimball, Robert, and William Bolcom. Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake. New York: Viking, 1973.
Rose, Al. Eubie Blake. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.
Wynn, Ron, ed. All–Music Guide to Jazz. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
February 7, 1883
February 12, 1983
The jazz pianist and composer James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The son of former slaves, he began organ lessons at the age of six and was soon syncopating the tunes he heard in his mother's Baptist church. While still in his teens, he began to play in the ragtime style then popular in Baltimore sporting houses and saloons. One of his first professional jobs was as a dancer in a minstrel show, In Old Kentucky. During this time Blake also began to compose music, with his first published piece, "Charleston Rag," appearing in 1899. In his twenties Blake began performing each summer in Atlantic City, where he composed songs (e.g., "Tricky Fingers," 1904) and came in contact with such giants of stride piano as Willie "The Lion" Smith (1897–1973), Luckey Roberts (1887–1968), and James P. Johnson (1894–1955). His melodic style and penchant for waltzes were influenced by the comic operettas of Victor Herbert, Franz Lehar, and Leslie Stuart. Blake soon began to perform songs in his mature style, which was marked by brokenoctave parts, arpeggiated figures, sophisticated chord progressions, and altered blues chords. In 1910 Blake married Avis Lee, a classical pianist.
In 1916, with the encouragement of the bandleader James Reese Europe (1881–1919), Blake began performing with Noble Sissle (1889–1975) as "The Dixie Duo," a piano-vocal duet. Sissle and Blake performed together on the B. F. Keith vaudeville circuit, and they also began writing songs together. In 1921, Sissle and Blake joined with the well-known comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles to write Shuffle Along, which became so popular in both its Broadway and touring versions that at one point three separate companies were crisscrossing the country performing it. In 1924 Sissle and Blake teamed up with Lew Payton to present In Bamville, later known as The Chocolate Dandies. After the closing of the show in 1925, Sissle and Blake returned to vaudeville, touring the United States, Great Britain, and France. In 1927 Sissle remained in Europe, while Blake teamed up with Henry Creamer to write cabaret shows. In 1928 Blake joined with Henry "Broadway" Jones and a cast of eleven performers to tour the United States on the Keith-Albee Orpheum circuit with Shuffle Along Jr. In that year he also wrote "Tickle the Ivories." Two years later Blake set lyrics by Andy Razaf to music for Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930, which included "Memories of You," one of the best-known of Blake's many songs. In 1932, after the death of Lyles, Sissle and Blake reunited with Miller to present Shuffle Along of 1933, but the show closed after only fifteen performances. During the Great Depression, Blake wrote several shows with Milton Reddie. Swing It, which included the songs "Ain't We Got Love" and "Blues Why Don't You Leave Me Alone," was produced by the Works Project Administration. During the war years, Blake performed in U.S.O. shows and wrote Tan Manhattan (1943). When "I'm Just Wild About Harry," from Shuffle Along, became popular during the 1948 presidential campaign of Harry Truman, Sissle and Blake reunited to update the show. The new version failed to gain popularity, however, and Blake retired from public life.
In the 1960s there was a renewed public interest in ragtime, and Blake recorded The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake (1969), an album that led to a resurgence in his career. Thereafter, Blake performed regularly in concert and on television, and continued to compose songs, such as "Eubie's Classic Rag" (1972). He also performed at jazz festivals in New Orleans (1969) and Newport R.I. (1971). Even in his last years, he retained his remarkable virtuosity on piano, vigorously improvising melodic embellishments to a syncopated ragtime beat. In 1978 the musical revue Eubie! (featuring many songs written by Blake) enjoyed a successful run on Broadway and received three Tony Award nominations. A scaled-down version of the show was revived in 1997, and it has played at small theaters since then. Blake also established a music publishing and recording company and received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981. Blake, whose more than three hundred compositions brought a sophisticated sense of harmony to the conventions of ragtime-derived popular song, was active until his ninety-ninth year, and his centennial in 1983 was an occasion for many tributes. However, the 1982 death of his wife, Marion, to whom he had been married since 1945 (his first marriage had ended with the death of his wife, Avis) led to a decline in his own health. He died on February 12, 1983 in Brooklyn, N.Y., only five days after his hundredth birthday. In 1995, Blake was featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
See also Europe, James Reese; Ragtime
Berlin, E. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Bolcom, William, and R. Kimball. Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake. New York, 1973.
Graziano, John. "Black Musical Theater and the Harlem Renaissance Movement." In Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays, edited by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Rose, A. Eubie Blake. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.
john graziano (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005