All-but-forgotten today, Eubie Blake was a black music pioneer who participated in 100 years of African American history. Yes, he lived to be 100, and I met him in 1978 to do an article that would appear on his 95th birthday. The son of former slaves, he was playing piano in a Baltimore brothel at age 15, and at 95 he was giving Johnny Carson fits on the Tonight Show. And in between, he changed the course of American music as a ragtime pioneer, composer for the musical stage, and by his strong influence on stride piano, the style that bridged the gap between ragtime and a wealth of later jazz piano – a contribution for which he seldom gets credit.
Eubie (no one ever called him anything else) was a spry 94-year-old who liked my car, an aging high-rider because of its easy access, and I became his designated ride whenever he was in L.A. I drove, he talked. A lot! And he had plenty to brag about, whether it was beating Jelly Roll Morton at pool, opening the first all-black musical on Broadway, or testifying before Congress on behalf of copyright holders. He told me his father always said “Never mess in white folks business,” yet in 1922, with pressure from his music publisher, he was admitted to ASCAP – one of its first black members. “See, I was somebody then,” he smiled. He was already known for many original rags when he teamed up with lyricist Noble Sissle to write five Broadway shows from which came many all-time standards including “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Memories of You.”
He told me more than once about his proudest moment. When Sissle and Blake’s “Shuffle Along” opened on Broadway in 1921, not only was it the first black-written Broadway show, it was also the first produced, directed and performed entirely by blacks. But there was a problem, and it involved a song called “Love Will Find a Way.” In 1921, unburlesqued, romantic love between black people had yet to be tried on a white audience. There were dire predictions of everything from boos to bloodshed. The way Eubie told it, on opening night, his partner Sissle was standing at the backstage exit with one foot inside the theatre, and the other pointing north toward Harlem, “And me,” Eubie said, “I was stuck out there in front, leading the orchestra where my bald head would catch all the tomatoes and rotten eggs.” Fortunately, the song was well received, and another racial barrier came down. “Shuffle Along” ran 504 performances and helped to launch the Harlem Renaissance of the 20’s.
And he never let me forget that all his accomplishments should be measured from his starting point -- a Baltimore ghetto and a fifth grade education. He said that long after he quit playing “bawdy houses,” he still thought the first word in that description was “body.” He related that with a chuckle, but there was a lot of sensitivity (and this was his phrase) “to not be ignorant around white folks.” Spelling and grammar had been a life-long learning project for him. At age 66, he graduated from NYU with a degree in musical composition. At dinner (if you didn’t head him off) he’d explain – at length and with great enthusiasm – the Schillinger System of composition, even writing bits of music on the tablecloth. And, trust me, it’s too deep for mere mortals. He went on to receive honorary doctorates from five universities, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan, a Grammy nomination for his 1969 album, The 86 Years of Eubie Blake, a U.S. postage stamp with his picture on it, and lots more. All that from a Baltimore ghetto and a fifth grade education!
Even at 94 Eubie had it all together. What a charmer he was! A little man with a big personality and a joyous legacy to share. Of course, his natural habitat was the piano keyboard, and much of what Eubie played delighted him, so he cheered himself on. Loudly, sometimes! Audiences loved him, whether it was millions watching on TV, or fifty in a small club. On nights that he didn’t have a gig, he wanted to go where the piano action was, and he was welcomed everywhere as piano royalty and shown right to the keyboard. One night an over-served matron, who hadn’t caught Eubie’s introduction came by afterward to shake his hand and say he was “really good.” She asked if he’d ever played professionally. Our hero smiled charmingly and said, “A little, Darlin’.” Nobody that cool should ever be forgotten! Fortunately, YouTube has some Eubie Blake videos, so you can see for yourself.