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Eubie Blake
Background information
Birth name James Hubert Blake
Born (1887-02-07)February 7, 1887
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died February 12, 1983(1983-02-12) (aged 96)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Genres Jazz, popular, ragtime
Occupation(s) Composer, musician
Instruments Piano
Labels Emerson, Victor
Associated acts Noble Sissle

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. 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; in 1981, President Ronald Reagan awarded Blake the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early years

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.

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.


I'm Just Wild About Harry 1b
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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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". 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.

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.

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. That year, he and his orchestra also provided most of the music for the film Harlem Is Heaven.

Later life

Eubie Blake Presidential Medal of Freedom
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.

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."

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.

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.

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. 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.

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).


Blake continued to play and record until his death, on February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, five days after events celebrating his purported 100th birthday (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. A bronze sculpture of Blake's bespectacled face was created by David Byer-Tyre, curator and 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.

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", but this has been attributed to others and has appeared in print at least as early as 1966.

Honors and awards

  • 1969: Nomination for a Grammy Award for The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake in the category of "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Small Group or Soloist with Small Group"

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Eubie Blake para niños

  • African American musical theater
  • Age fabrication
  • Black and Blue (musical)
  • List of ragtime composers
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