Eubie Blake: Charleston Rag

12 Feb

 

 

Remembering Eubie Blake on the anniversary of his death in 1983.

Blake’s is a uniquely American story — born to former slaves (the date is disputed; often credited to 1883, official records indicate 1887), he became an American icon. He lived long enough and composed well enough to be honored with a musical on Broadway and his picture on a 32-cent stamp (it was 1995).

Blake started playing ragtime in a bordello in Baltimore as a teen, he ended as a frequent guest of late-night television and Saturday Night Live.  A step down in class, perhaps.

Said Blake: “I made more money in one night (in the bordello) than my father made in a week working as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks. I hid my earnings under the linoleum in the parlor. Finally, when the pile got too high, I showed them the money. It was several hundred dollars. They no longer insisted I only play religious music.”

In 1915 he teamed with Nobel Sissle in vaudeville; soon they broke racial barriers on Broadway. Their 1921 musical Shuffle Along was the first big hit by and about African-Americans, and helped the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, among others.

Among Blake’s compositions: I’m Just Wild About Harry, Charleston Rag, originally titled Sounds of Africa (link above played by Blake at age 98 or 94), You Were Meant for Me and Memories of You.

In 1946, Blake ceased entertaining — like Brett Favre, his retirement didn’t last — and enrolled in NYU. He graduated within three years.

In 1969, his days of fame largely past, he recorded The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake, and was introduced to a new generation. A  Blake revival began; in 1981 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Said Blake, a notorious cigarette smoker: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

He died in 1983, five days after his birthday — his 100th or 96th.

 Blake: “So one day I was playing, ­ my mother’d gone out to work, see ­ and what she was doing home that time in the morning, I don’t know. She came in, ­ and heard me playing: “Take that ragtime out of my house!” That’s the first time I ever heard the word “ragtime.” And she made me; she made me stop.”

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