Eubie BlakeJul 14th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1883?-1983 Eubie Blake was a prolifically talented composer and performer in ragtime, jazz, vaudeville, and popular styles. Over a career spanning much of the 20th century, he contributed over 1,000 songs to the popular canon, including several all-time classics. His musical “Shuffle Along” opened the Broadway stage to African Americans.
Saloons to Stage
Blake was born James Hubert Blake in either 1883 or 1888, in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, a stevedore, and his mother, a laundress, were emancipated slaves; of their 11 children, Blake was the only one to survive to adulthood. The boy was precocious, performing on an organ in a music store at the age of six. His parents arranged for lessons and to purchase the organ; he was also taught classical composition by the conductor of Baltimore’s Negro Symphony Orchestra. But by age 15, he was playing in a brothel, and much to his religious mother’s dismay, had introduced the syncopated ragtime rhythm into his style. After several years playing saloons and sporting houses, Blake joined a medicine show in Pennsylvania in 1901 for his on-stage debut. This and other variety revues, with gigs back in Baltimore, honed his talent and developing skills as a composer.
Blake moved to New York City in 1905 where he attempted to sell his first song, “Sounds of Africa.” After nearly agreeing to a $100 fee, an argument over Blake’s use of unmodulated key changes broke the deal. The song languished for nearly 15 years, but was ultimately published in 1919 as “Charleston Rag.” Returning to Baltimore, he continued playing local venues and developed musically under the influence of such great black pianists as James P. Johnson. Blake met and wed a classical pianist, Avis Lee, in 1910. His first published song, entitled “Chevy Chase,” appeared four years later. This song was so technically advanced as to be difficult to play, but found its way into the standard repertoire of such piano greats as Fats Waller.
By 1915, Blake had joined a Baltimore performing troupe called Joe Porter’s Serenaders. That year, he struck up a professional relationship with another member of the troupe, a singer named Noble Sissle. The two decided to try their hand at songwriting together, and brought their first joint composition, “It’s All Your Fault,” to the star Sophie Tucker. She liked the song enough to purchase it for $200, publish it, and pay to have it arranged.
In 1916, Sissle accepted an invitation to join the Clef Club musical organization of James Reese Europe where he led his own group; Blake joined him there later that year. With the outbreak of World War I in 1917, Sissle and Europe formed a military band; Blake, too old for active service at 35, remained at the home front setting lyrics written by Sissle and Europe to music. At war’s end, the three rejoined forces, inspired by Europe’s dream of mounting African American shows on Broadway. The dream was cut short by Europe’s murder soon thereafter.
Blake and Sissle then joined the predominantly white Keith vaudeville circuit. Billed as “The Dixie Duo,” they became very successful and distinguished themselves as the first African American vaudevillians to perform in tuxedos, and among the first without “blackface.” Among their many hit songs of this period was their opening number, “Gee, I’m Glad I’m from Dixie.” Then, at a 1920 NAACP benefit in Philadelphia, Sissle and Blake met two black show business veterans, Aubrey Lyles and Flournoy E. Miller, who had seen their act. Lyles and Miller had extensive theater backgrounds, and like Europe, dreamed of an African American presence on the Broadway stage. Their strategy was to mount a black musical comedy and they asked Blake and Sissle to collaborate.
The result, Shuffle Along, opened in New York in 1921 to an extended run, great popularity, a number of road shows, and several distinctive accomplishments. Apart from being the first Broadway show written, directed, produced, and performed by African Americans, it launched the careers of Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. It marked the first time Blacks had access to previously Whites-only seating sections. One of the greatest taboos of African American theater for Whites was a prohibition on serious portrayals of love; Shuffle Along featured a full-blown romance, underscored by the ballad “Love Will Find a Way,” which was enthusiastically accepted. Choreographer Florence Ziegfield was so moved by the new jazz-style dancing that she hired cast members to teach her own troupe. And finally, the show spawned the classic tune “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which became Harry Truman’s campaign song in the presidential election. African Americans were never again systematically excluded from the New York mainstream theater.
After this triumph, Blake and Sissle wrote songs for a white musical and participated in one of the earliest short sound-on-film recordings. A 1924 effort to mount another original show failed, and the duo broke up in 1925 after touring Europe, with Sissle moving to the continent and Blake deciding to remain in the United States. Blake continued to compose, record, and perform on his own in the coming decades, and returned to the vaudeville stage. In 1939, his wife Avis died and he remarried in 1945. World War II brought him to USO duty as a conductor and pianist, touring Army camps, after which he faded from view. Then at the age of 66, Blake emerged from relative obscurity to take a graduate degree in composition at NYU. In 1968, he celebrated a lifetime of achievement with a two-record set called “86 Years of Eubie Blake.” A late-career series of television appearances and worldwide concerts and lectures on ragtime led to a Presidential performance at the White House. And he achieved the pinnacle of modern era fame when he appeared in the eponymous Broadway musical review Eubie! in 1978. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1981, and his final concert was in 1982. Blake died in 1983, the last survivor of the golden age of ragtime, revered and renowned for his artistic and social achievements in the African American arts.