Eubie Blake, musician for the ages

Songwriter, pianist: In early 1900s, he helped establish ragtime as a major jazz precursor.

Marylanders Of The Century

July 31, 1999

"IF I'D KNOWN I was gonna live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself," Eubie Blake remarked while celebrating his 100th birthday.

Sadly, if he hadn't lived until he was 100, James Herbert "Eubie" Blake wouldn't be the household name he is. What a shame if younger people had missed the pleasure that his music brings.

"Love Will Find a Way." "Memories of You." "I'm Just Wild About Harry" (Harry Truman's presidential campaign song in 1948). Those were among the 300 songs he wrote.

The revival of ragtime in the late 1960s and 1970s, with its syncopat- ed rhythms and feel-good quality, brought Blake out of retirement.

"You see, people forgot about me for a while," he told a reporter for The Sun, "and they forgot about ragtime music until they did that Scott Joplin tune `The Entertainer' in [the movie] `The Sting.' All of a sudden ragtime was back in style and I was the only original ragtime pianist still alive."

Born in Baltimore in 1883 and reared at 319 Forrest St., Blake was the youngest of 11 children and the only one to survive infancy. He was the son of former slaves.

"I'm proud of my heritage," he once said. "I want everyone to know I came from slavery and went to the top of my profession." His father, John Sumner Blake, was a longshoreman who had fought in the Union Army. His mother, Emily Johnston Blake, was a laundress.

Blake attended the segregated Primary School No. 2 in the 200 block of East St. "I got kicked out in the eighth grade for something -- I don't have to lie now -- I didn't do," Blake told a Sun reporter in the early 1970s.

At a young age, Blake taught himself by ear to play the family's pump organ. He later took formal music lessons, learning to play the cornet as well as the piano.

To the dismay of his mother, he became interested in ragtime, in which the right hand plays syncopated, or ragged, rhythms while the left hand keeps a steady beat. Without her knowledge, he began playing ragtime piano in bars and other venues of which she would not have approved, launching at the age of 15 a professional career that -- with interruptions -- lasted until his death 85 years later, in 1983.

High points included his collaboration with singer and lyricist Noble Sissle. Together, they performed in vaudeville in the United States and Europe. The first song they wrote together, "It's All Your Fault" was performed by headliner Sophie Tucker.

In 1921, the two men teamed up to bring to Broadway the first black musical comedy, "Shuffle Along." Among the cast members were Florence Mills, Paul Robeson and -- in the chorus -- Josephine Baker.

Four other Blake musicals followed before his attempted retirement in the 1940s. He began to tour with the USO during World War II and make other appearances, but he later slipped into relative obscurity with the continuing decline of ragtime.

That period of obscurity ended in the 1960s.

Blake made a comeback that included recordings, concerts and television appearances, exposing another generation to ragtime and his infectious spirit.

He began earning honorary degrees and other accolades. In 1978, his life and music were celebrated in the Broadway show, "Eubie," which was later televised in the United States and staged in London.

Again, the irrepressible Eubie Blake -- as well as his music -- proved an international sensation.

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