Eubie Blake

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Eubie Blake
Background information
Birth nameJames Hubert Blake
Born(1887-02-07)February 7, 1887
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
DiedFebruary 12, 1983(1983-02-12) (aged 96)
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
GenresJazz, popular, ragtime
Occupation(s)Composer, musician
LabelsEmerson, Victor

James Hubert "Eubie" Blake (February 7, 1887 – February 12, 1983) was an American pianist and composer of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. In 1921, he and his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans.[1] 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 1978 Broadway musical Eubie! showcased his works, and in 1981, President Ronald Reagan awarded Blake the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early years[edit]

Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Of the many children born to former slaves Emily "Emma" Johnstone and John Sumner Blake, he was the only one to survive childhood. John Sumner Blake was a stevedore on the Baltimore Docks.[2]

Blake claimed in later life to have been born in 1883, but records published beginning in 2003—U.S. Census, military, and Social Security records and Blake's passport application and passport—uniformly give his birth year as 1887.[3][4][5][6][7]


Cover of sheet music of "I'm Just Wild About Harry", from the musical Shuffle Along, by Blake and Noble Sissle, 1921

Blake's musical training began when he was four or five. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed onto the bench of an organ, and started "foolin’ around". When his mother found him, the store manager told 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 a neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist for the Methodist church.[8] At age 15, without his parents' knowledge, he began playing piano at Aggie Shelton's Baltimore bordello. Blake gained his first big break in the music business in 1907, when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans's Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" in Baltimore.[9] Blake played at the Goldfield during the winters from 1907 to 1914, and spent his summers playing clubs in Atlantic City. During this period, he also studied composition in Baltimore with Llewellyn Wilson.[10]

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. He stayed with the show only two weeks, however, because the doctor's religion didn't allow the serving of Sunday dinner.[11]

Blake said he composed the melody of "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old. He did not commit it to paper until 1915, when he learned musical notation.[12]

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. Shortly after World War I, Blake formed a vaudeville musical act, the Dixie Duo, with performer Noble Sissle. After vaudeville, they began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated 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. It also introduced hit songs such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way".[13] Rudolf Fisher insisted that Shuffle Along "had ruined his favorite places of African-American sociability in Harlem" due to the influx of white patrons. Its reliance on "stereotypical black stage humor" and "the primitivist conventions of cabaret," in the words of Thomas Brothers, made the show a hit, running for 504 performances with three years of national tours.[14]

Blake made his first recordings in 1917, for the Pathé record label and for Ampico piano rolls. In the 1920s he recorded for the Victor and Emerson labels, among others.[15]

In 1923, Blake made three films for Lee de Forest in de Forest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process: 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. Blake also appeared in Warner Brothers' 1932 short film Pie, Pie Blackbird with the Nicholas Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney and Noble Sissle.[16] That year, he and his orchestra also provided most of the music for the film Harlem Is Heaven.[17]

Later life[edit]

Blake receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan (1981)

In July 1910, Blake married Avis Elizabeth Cecelia Lee, proposing to her in a chauffeur-driven car he hired. They met around 1895, when they attended Primary School No. 2 at 200 East Street in Baltimore. In 1910, Blake brought his bride to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he had already found employment at the Boathouse nightclub.[citation needed]

In 1938, Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died later that year, at the age of 58. Of his loss, Blake said, "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."[8]

While serving as bandleader with the USO during World War II, he met Marion Grant Tyler, the widow of violinist Willy Tyler. They married in 1945. A performer and businesswoman, she became his valued business manager until her death in 1982. In 1946, Blake retired from performing and enrolled in New York University, where he studied the Schillinger System of music composition, graduating in two and a half years. He spent the next two decades using the Schillinger System to transcribe songs that he had memorized but had never written down.[18]

In the 1970s and 1980s, public interest in Blake's music was revived following the release of his 1969 retrospective album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake.[18]

Blake was a frequent guest of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. He was featured by leading conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. In 1977 he played Will Williams in the Jeremy Kagan biographical film Scott Joplin.[19][20] 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 from President Ronald Reagan.[21][22]

Eubie!, a revue featuring Blake's music, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, Andy Razaf, Johnny Brandon, F. E. Miller and Jim Europe, opened on Broadway in 1978. It was a hit at the Ambassador Theatre, where it ran for 439 performances. It received three nominations for Tony Awards, including one for Blake's score. The show was filmed in 1981 with the original cast members, including Lesley Dockery, Gregory Hines and Maurice Hines.

Blake performed with Gregory Hines on the television program Saturday Night Live on March 10, 1979 (season 4, episode 14).[23][24]


Blake continued to play and record until his death, on February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, five days after events celebrating his purported 100th birthday[25] (which was actually his 96th birthday).

He was interred in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His headstone, engraved with the musical notation of "I'm Just Wild About Harry", was commissioned by the African Atlantic Genealogical Society.

Blake was reported to have said, on his birthday in 1979, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself",[26] but this has been attributed to others and has appeared in print at least as early as 1966.[27]

Honors and awards[edit]

Selected discography[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sullivan, John Jeremiah (March 24, 2016). "'Shuffle Along' and the Lost History of Black Performance in America". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved March 27, 2016.
  2. ^ "The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake". American Heritage. Retrieved February 11, 2021. "Did you have brothers and sisters?""Ten. But I never saw any of them. None of them lived to be over three or four months old."..."Tell me about your parents, your memories of them.""I loved my mother and father. I had the best mother and father! My mother would kill you, then sit down and cry. My father never knew where his hat was. He'd come in, and instead of hanging his hat he'd put it anywhere. Then I'd look under a chair somewhere and find his hat. I was crazy about him. John Sumner Blake. Don't leave that Sumner out—he'll turn over in his grave. My father was fifty years old when I was born. My birthday is his birthday: seventh day of February, 1833, for him, '83 for me. He was a big, tall man, never was sick in his lifetime. He was a stevedore, a boss stevedore, unloaded boats—piecework. So many feet of lumber, so many cents. My father made nine dollars a week when he worked. He lived to be eighty-three years old." "Had both of your parents been slaves?" "Well, my mother would say, 'I was never no slave.' That's the only willful lie I ever heard her tell. Then my father would say, 'Did you pick cotton?' 'Yes.' 'Did the white man pay you?' 'No. My father'd wink at me."...
  3. ^ Waldo, Terry (2009). This is ragtime. p. 233.
  4. ^ Brooks, Tim (2004). Lost sounds: Blacks and the birth of the recording industry, 1890–1919. University of Illinois Press. p. 564n1. ISBN 9780252028502.
  5. ^ Green, Jeffrey; Lotz, Rainer E.; Rye, Howard (2013). Black Europe. Vol. 2. p. 268.
  6. ^ Prahlad, Anand (2006). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Folklore: A-F. Greenwood Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-313-33036-0.
  7. ^ Peter Hanley. "Portraits from Jelly Roll's later travels. April 1923–1941".
  8. ^ a b Koenig, Karl. "The Life of Eubie Blake". Maryland Historical Society. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved February 17, 2007.
  9. ^ Aycock, Colleen; Scott, Mark (2008). Joe Gans: A Biography of the First African American World Boxing Champion. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. p. 228. ISBN 978-0786439942. OCLC 228498035.
  10. ^ Blake, Eubie; Southern, Eileen (1973). "A Legend in His Own Lifetime". The Black Perspective in Music. 1 (1): 50–59. doi:10.2307/1214125. JSTOR 1214125.
  11. ^ Curtis, Constance; Herndon, Cholie (April 30, 1949). "Know Your Boroughs – Orchestra Men Talk About Show Business". New York Amsterdam News. p. 15.
  12. ^ Price, Gary (February 1, 2017). "James Hubert "Eubie" Blake". The Syncopated Times. Retrieved November 30, 2019.
  13. ^ Southern, Eileen (2002). "Eubie Blake". In Kernfeld, Barry. ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan. p. 231.
  14. ^ Brothers, Thomas (2014). Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 341–44. ISBN 978-0-393-06582-4.
  15. ^ Brooks, Tim, Lost Sounds, p. 368-382.
  16. ^ "Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932)", film catalog, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Broadcasting System, Time Warner, Inc., New York, N.Y. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  17. ^ "Harlem Is Heaven (1932)", TCM. Retrieved February 8, 2018.
  18. ^ a b Wilson, John S. (February 13, 1983). "Eubie Blake, Ragtime Composer, Dies 5 Days After 100th Birthday". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  19. ^ "Scott Joplin (TV Movie 1977)". Retrieved June 1, 2018.
  20. ^ Goldsmith, Melissa U. D.; Willson, Paige A.; Fonseca, Anthony J. (October 7, 2016). The Encyclopedia of Musicians and Bands on Film. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781442269873. Retrieved February 12, 2017 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ a b "Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1981". Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. October 9, 1981. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  22. ^ a b Romano, Lois (October 10, 1981). "Medals of Freedom For Six Americans". Washington Post. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  23. ^ "Saturday Night Live". Retrieved February 11, 2021. Episode 14 - Gary Busey; Eubie Blake; Gregory Hines - Sat, Mar 10, 1979 - 90 mins Gary Busey hosts; Eubie Blake and Gregory Hines perform "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Bill Murray interviews Mr. Ed's widow, Mrs. Ed; a panel of men discusses women's problems.
  24. ^ "Musical guests Eubie Blake and Gregory Hines perform on March 10, 1979..." Getty Images. Retrieved February 11, 2021. (Photo by: Fred Bronson / NBCU Photo Bank / NBC Universal via Getty Images)
  25. ^ Wilson, John S. (February 13, 1983). "Eubie Blake, Ragtime Composer, Dies 5 Days After 100th Birthday". The New York Times. Retrieved December 5, 2014. Mr. Blake's lawyer, Elliot Hoffman, said the composer died shortly after noon. Mr. Blake, who had suffered a bout of pneumonia, was too ill to attend Monday's birthday celebrations but he heard a concert in his honor at the Shubert Theater by way of a special telephone hookup.
  26. ^ 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. ProQuest 120969930.
  27. ^ Gold, Bill (November 24, 1966). "The District Line...". The Washington Post. p. G20. ProQuest 142887941.
  28. ^ "Eubie Blake".
  29. ^ "Past Rutgers University Honorary Degree Recipients | Office of the Secretary of the University". Retrieved February 24, 2019.
  30. ^ "Honorary degrees". The University Archives. University of Maryland. Retrieved February 11, 2021. Blake, Eubie - D.F.A. - 1978
  31. ^ "Recipients of the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America". George Peabody Medal. Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved February 11, 2021. 1980 - Leonard Bernstein - Eubie Blake - John Brademas
  32. ^ Editorial Staff (1982). "Commencement". New Directions. Vol. 9, no. 4. Howard University. Article 2. Retrieved February 11, 2021. Eubie Blake, one of the greatest exponents of ragtime, has spent more than three quarters of a century performing and composing in show business. Starting as a young pianist, he moved on through vaudeville, night clubs and musical comedies to television, concerts, jazz festivals and recordings. A native of Baltimore, Blake composed is first piece of music, 'Sounds of Africa,' in 1899 at the age of 16. Among his honors are membership in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, The Ellington Medal awarded by Yale University and the U.S. Army's medal for Distinguished Civilian Service.
  33. ^ "Recipients of Honorary Degrees and Other University Honors (by Alphabetical Order)". Howard University. Retrieved February 11, 2021. 1982 - BLAKE, Eubie - Commencement - D.Mus.
  34. ^ Towns, Edolphus (March 24, 1983). "H.J.Res.213 - 98th Congress (1983-1984): A joint resolution designating February 7, 1984, as 'Eubie Blake Day'". US Congress. Retrieved February 11, 2021.
  35. ^ "Eubie Blake - Jazz Composer and Pianist". National Postal Museum. Retrieved February 11, 2021. The Eubie Blake stamp was issued on September 16, 1995.
  36. ^ "American Theatre Hall of Fame Inductees (1995)",; accessed April 6, 2016
  37. ^ Thomson, Candus. "For schools, the game of the name can be nerve-wracking You can get a real education trying to decide what to call a new school". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved February 11, 2021. The community narrowed its choice to two late Maryland artists: jazz legend James Hubert 'Eubie' Blake and Muppets creator Jim Henson. Henson won a straw poll, forcing Principal Goodman to fend off jokes about 'Muppet High.' But just before the name became official, the Henson foundation declined the honor. Goodman says despite the last-minute switch, she was pleased with the outcome. Until, that is, someone pointed out a potential nickname for the school: U-B High. 'So we go by Blake,' says Goodman.
  38. ^ 2006 National Recording Registry Choices,; accessed May 18, 2016.
  39. ^ "Eubie Blake". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved December 14, 2023.
  40. ^ Bloom; Carlin, Ken; Richard (2006). ""The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake"--Eubie Blake (1969)" (PDF). Retrieved December 14, 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Brooks, Tim, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919, 363–395, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  • Carlin, Richard and Ken Bloom. Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm, and Race. Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • Rose, Al (1979). Eubie Blake. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 978-0-02-872170-5.
  • The New York Times; December 27, 1982, Monday. "Eubie Blake Birthday Party. In honor of Eubie Blake's 100th [sic] 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."
  • Waldo, Terry (2009). This is Ragtime. New York: Jazz at Lincoln Center Library Editions. ISBN 978-1-934793-01-5.
  • Williams, Iain Cameron Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall. Bloomsbury Publishers, ISBN 0-8264-5893-9. Chapter 3: Shuffle-Along Nicely - recounts the Shuffle Along musical.

External links[edit]