Eubie Blake made ragtime respectable Music: The son of former slaves started out playing piano in Baltimore bawdy houses and later wrote five Broadway shows and hundreds of songs.

Remember When

March 29, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

He was known to the world as Eubie Blake, the ragtime pianist and composer who was the son of former slaves and went from playing in East Baltimore bawdy houses and saloons to the footlights of Broadway.

He was the co-author of "Shuffle Along," the first black musical comedy to be performed on the Great White Way in 1921.

Born James Hubert Blake in 1883, the son of a stevedore and a laundress, he was reared in a house at 319 Forrest St.

He was 6 years old when he wandered away from his mother on South Broadway and stepped into a music shop, where he became fascinated with a pump organ. When his mother found him, asalesman convinced her that her son possessed musical talent. For a dollar down and 25 cents a week, he sold the reluctant Mrs. Blake a Weaver pump organ.

"To a poor black family, the debt was staggering, but the sales talk ironically turned out to be accurate. Mrs. Blake's son did prove to be a musical prodigy, and grew up to compose five Broadway shows and about 300 songs, among them 'I'm Just Wild About Harry' and 'Memories of You,' " said The Sunday Sun Magazine.

Blake liked to remind people that his parents had been former slaves in Virginia.

"I'm proud of my heritage," he told The Evening Sun. "I wanted everybody to know that I came from slavery and went to the top of my profession."

He took music lessons from a neighbor but later refined his piano playing during the 1890s under the tutelage of Jesse Pickett, a pimp, gambler and wandering pianist.

Blake once explained to Alec Wilder, composer and musicologist, that he had heard ragtime all of his life.

"When my mother would go out and wash white folks' clothes, I'd play music lessons the way I liked and when she came home and heard me, she'd say, 'You take that ragtime out of my house, don't you be playing no ragtime,' " said The Evening Sun.

'Charleston Rag'

He was 16 in 1899 when he wrote his first ragtime composition, "Charleston Rag," the same year that Scott Joplin composed "Maple Leaf Rag."

His deeply religious parents were outraged when they learned that their son was playing piano -- he always pronounced it "pie-anna" -- at Agnes Sheldon's Gay Street cat house, which Blake described as "a beautiful place. A $5 house."

On July 4, 1901, he made his professional debut with the Dr. Frazier Medicine Show in Pennsylvania. Leaving the medicine show, he traveled with a touring musical, "In Old Kentucky," until he quit the show and returned to Baltimore, where he resumed playing in houses of prostitution.

By 1906, he was the house piano player at the Goldfield Hotel, opened by fighter Joe Gans, and during the summers played in Atlantic City saloons. In 1914, he published two piano rags, "Fizz Water" and "Chevy Chase."

In 1915, while playing piano with Joe Porter's Serenaders at Riverview Park in Baltimore, Blake met a singer named Noble Sissle who had come from New York. The two began a collaboration and later that year left Baltimore to tour with James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra.

After World War I, the two traveled as the Dixie Duo, one of the first black minstrel acts to perform without the overdrawn burnt cork makeup.

Deciding that it was time "to put Negroes back on Broadway," said Blake, he and Sissle combined efforts with another black vaudeville team to write and produce "Shuffle Along," which included "I'm Just Wild About Harry," and "Love Will Find a Way." The show featured such notables as Paul Robeson, Florence Mills and Josephine Baker.

Gerald Bordman, American musical theater historian, wrote that the music was a "foot-stomping score. The score was first-class all the way. Blake's melodic gifts and taste were unfailing."

He and Sissle wrote the score for "Chocolate Dandies" in 1923 and later toured Europe before splitting up in 1925.

In a later collaboration with Andy Razaf, Blake wrote the score for "Blackbirds of 1930," which featured "Memories of You" and the lyrics:

Here and there, everywhere

Scenes that we once knew;

And they all just recall

Memories of you.

When a reporter asked who was the inspiration for the song, Blake replied, "Better leave that out. I'm married to a jealous wife."

He continued playing all through the Depression and during World War II toured with USO shows.

In a 1925 interview in The Sun, Blake, who was also something of a comedian, said, "The Negro is a born entertainer. He is both tragedian and comedian. The world sees the Negro only as a fun-maker. Yet he has a vein of tragedy, bred of contact with the deeper things of life, in his character. It will be the most difficult thing in the world to convince a white man of this, but I'm going to try it."

New fans

During the 1960s and 1970s, Blake was discovered by a new generation that appreciated his unique style of music.

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