Eubie Blake

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Eubie Blake
EubieBlake.jpg
Background information
Birth name James Hubert Blake
Born (1887-02-07)February 7, 1887
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Died February 12, 1983(1983-02-12) (aged 96)
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Genres Jazz, popular, ragtime
Occupations Composer, pianist
Labels Emerson, Victor
Associated acts Noble Sissle

James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887[1] – February 12, 1983), better known as Eubie Blake, was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. In 1921, Blake and long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. Blake's compositions included such hits as, "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find A Way", "Memories of You" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie!, which opened on Broadway in 1978, featured his works.

Biography[edit]

Early years[edit]

Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland, to former slaves John Sumner Blake (1838–1917) and Emily "Emma" Johnstone (1861–1927). He was the only surviving child of eight, all the rest of whom died in infancy. In 1894, the family moved to 414 North Eden Street, and later to 1510 Jefferson Street. John Blake worked earning US$9.00 weekly as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks.

In later years, Blake claimed to have been born in 1883, but his Social Security application and all other official documents issued in the first half of his life list his year of birth as 1887. Many otherwise reliable sources mistakenly give his year of birth as the earlier year, reprinting the false information that had been printed before these official documents and census records came to light.

Music[edit]

Cover page for "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from the musical Shuffle Along by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, 1921.

Blake's musical training began when he was just four or five years old. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ, and started "foolin’ around". When his mother found him, the store manager said to her: "The child is a genius! It would be criminal to deprive him of the chance to make use of such a sublime, God-given talent." The Blakes purchased a pump organ for US$75.00, making payments of 25 cents a week. When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from their neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist from the Methodist church.[2] At age fifteen, without knowledge of his parents, he played piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello. Blake got his first big break in the music business when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans' Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" in Baltimore in 1907.

According to Blake, he also worked the medicine show circuit and was employed by a Quaker doctor. He played a Melodeon strapped to the back of the medicine wagon. Blake stayed with the show only two weeks, however, because the doctor's religion didn't allow the serving of Sunday dinner.[3] 

Blake said he first composed the melody to the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old. It was not committed to paper, however, until 1915, when he learned to write musical notation.

In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe's "Society Orchestra" which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. The band played ragtime music which was still quite popular at the time. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music duo, the "Dixie Duo." After vaudeville, the pair began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated many songs they had written, and had a book written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. The musicals also introduced hit songs such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way."[4]

In 1923, Blake made three films for Lee DeForest in DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process. They were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake featuring their song "Affectionate Dan", Sissle and Blake Sing Snappy Songs featuring "Sons of Old Black Joe" and "My Swanee Home", and Eubie Blake Plays His Fantasy on Swanee River featuring Blake performing his "Fantasy on Swanee River". These films are preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection in the Library of Congress collection. He also appeared in the short film Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), with the Nicholas Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, and Noble Sissle, and released by Warner Brothers.

Personal and later life[edit]

In July 1910, Blake married Avis Elizabeth Cecelia Lee (1881–1938), proposing to her in a chauffeur-driven car he hired. Blake and Lee met around 1895 while both attended Primary School No. 2 at 200 East Street in Baltimore. In 1910, Blake brought his newlywed to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he had already found employment at the Boathouse nightclub.

Headstone of Blake's grave in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, (inscription has false birth date)

In 1938, Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died later that year at 58. Of his loss, Blake is on record saying, "In my life I never knew what it was to be alone. At first when Avis got sick, I thought she just had a cold, but when time passed and she didn’t get better, I made her go to a doctor and we found out she had TB … I suppose I knew from when we found out she had the TB, I understood that it was just a matter of time."[2]

While serving as bandleader with the United Service Organizations (USO) during World War II, Blake met and married Marion Grant Tyler, widow of violinist Willy Tyler, in 1945. Tyler, also a performer and a businesswoman, became his valued business manager until her death in 1982.

In 1946, as Blake's career was winding down, he enrolled in New York University, graduating in two and a half years. Later his career revived again, culminating in the hit Broadway musical, Eubie!.

In the 1950s, interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator. Blake signed recording deals with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records, lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals.

He was a frequent guest of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Blake was featured by leading conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. By 1975, he had been awarded honorary doctorates from Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Dartmouth. On October 9, 1981, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan.

On March 10, 1979, Blake performed with Gregory Hines on Saturday Night Live.

Blake claimed that he started smoking cigarettes when he was 10 years old, and continued to smoke all his life. The fact that he smoked for 85 years was used by some politicians in tobacco-growing states to build support against anti-tobacco legislation.

Death[edit]

Eubie Blake continued to play and record into late life, until his death February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, just five days after celebrating his (claimed) 100th birthday (actually his 96th—see below). He was interred in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His head stone, engraved with the musical notation for "I'm Just Wild About Harry", was commissioned by the African Atlantic Genealogical Society (AAGS). The bronze sculpture of Blake's bespectacled face was created by David Byer-Tyre, curator/director of the African American Museum and Center for Education and Applied Arts, in Hempstead, New York. The original inscription indicated his correct year of birth, but individuals close to him insisted that Blake be indulged; and paid to have the inscription changed.

If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.
 
— Eubie Blake

While Blake was reported as having said this on his birthday in 1979,[5] it has been attributed to others, and appears in print at least as early as 1966 (where it is attributed to an anonymous 90-year-old golf caddie).[6]

Age discrepancy[edit]

In later years, Blake listed his birth year as 1883; his 100th birthday was celebrated in 1983. Most sources, including the Encyclopædia Britannica,[7] and a U.S. Library of Congress biography,[8] incorrectly list his birth year as 1883 based on his word. Every official document issued by the government, however, records his birthday as February 7, 1887. This includes the 1900 Census, his 1917 World War I draft registration, 1920 passport application, 1936 Social Security application, and death records as reported by the United States Social Security Administration. Peter Hanley writes: "In the final analysis, however, the fact that he was only ninety-six years of age and not one hundred when he died does not in any way detract from his extraordinary achievements. Eubie will always remain among the finest popular composers and songwriters of his era."[9]

Timeline[edit]

Honors and awards[edit]

See also[edit]

Instrumental version of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" recorded 17 May 1922. Duration 3:54.

Problems playing this file? See media help.


References[edit]

  1. ^ Hanley, Peter. James Hubert Blake's WWI Draft Registration Card and essay Retrieved 25 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b Koenig, Karl. "The Life of Eubie Blake". The Maryland Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-02-17. 
  3. ^ Curtis, Constance; Herndon, Cholie (30 April 1949). "Know your Boroughs Orchestra Men Talk About Show Business". The New York Amsterdam News. p. 15. 
  4. ^ Southern, Eileen. "Eubie Blake". in Kernfeld, Barry. ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd Edition, Vol. 1. London: MacMillan, 2002. p. 231.
  5. ^ Haberman, Clyde & Krebs, Albin (February 5, 1979). "Notes on People: Eubie Blake Is Almost Not at the Show on Time" The New York Times, p. C12. [1]
  6. ^ Gold, Bill (November 24, 1966). "The District Line......" The Washington Post, Times Herald p. G20. [2]
  7. ^ Hanley, Peter. "Everybody’s just wild about Eubie". Monrovia Sound Studio. Retrieved 2007-02-10. 
  8. ^ "Eubie Blake, 1883-1983 [biography]". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-06-29. 
  9. ^ Hanley, Peter. "Portraits from Jelly Roll’s later travels: April 1923–1941". doctorjazz.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-02-09. 
  10. ^ Grammy Award original certificate
  11. ^ Diplomas
  12. ^ 1995 American Theatre Hall of Fame Inductees
  13. ^ 2006 National Recording Registry choices

Further reading[edit]

  • Rose, Al (1979). Eubie Blake. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-872170-5. 
  • Salute to Eubie Blake; The Rag Times; May/June 1969
  • New York Times; December 27, 1982, Monday. "Eubie Blake Birthday Party. In honor of Eubie Blake's 100th birthday, St. Peter's Church, at Lexington Avenue and 54th Street, will hold a 24-hour celebration beginning at midnight February 6. The tribute to the composer will feature a host of musicians, vocalists and dancers, including Billy Taylor, Bobby Short, Dick Hyman, Honi Coles and the Copacetics, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris, Max Morath, Marianne McPartland, Maurice Hines and Cab Calloway. Mr. Blake, born in Baltimore February 7, 1882, may attend."
  • New York Times; February 13, 1983, Sunday. "Five days after his 100th birthday was celebrated with gala performances of his music, Eubie Blake, the composer and pianist whose career covered a span from the ragtime era in the 19th century to the contemporary Broadway theater a year ago, died yesterday at his home in Brooklyn"
  • Waldo, Terry (2009). This is Ragtime. New York: Jazz at Lincoln Center Library Editions. ISBN 978-1-934793-01-5. 

External links[edit]