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Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake

“Never trust anyone who wants what you’ve got. Friend or no, envy is an overwhelming emotion.”

There was a time when young boys wore short pants until a certain age. When Eubie Blake was that young, he would slip out around midnight to play ragtime in a nearby brothel. He needed long trousers for his gig, so he rented them from a neighbor.

“Sneak out of the house and go get my long pants and put ’em on, see,” he said during a 1970 oral history interview for Michigan State University. “Then I’d come back and put ’em back, see. Twenty-five cents I had to pay him.”

Blake, who made good money and good music for nearly a century, was born James Hubert Blake on Feb. 7, 1883, in Baltimore to Emily Johnston and John Sumner Blake.

As he seemed bound and determined to play the new, “low” music, his deeply religious mother warned Little Eubie, as he was called, to “take that ragtime out of my house!”

For as long as he could remember, Blake said, he could hear harmony. While his mother was shopping in a downtown Baltimore department store, he wandered into a nearby music store and began banging out tunes on an organ. He was 6.

The store manager persuaded his mother to buy a $75 pump organ. He was soon taking lessons from a music teacher, Margaret Marshall, who lived next door.

So Blake played the new music that filtered out of nearby pool halls and bordellos everywhere but at home. He began playing “Sounds of Africa,” later retitled “Charleston Rag” at Aggie Shelton’s Bawdy House. The song was initially rejected because publishers feared it was too complex for other musicians to play. Intricate syncopation would become Blake’s hallmark.

For seven winters, beginning in 1906, Blake played at the Baltimore’s Goldfield Hotel. During the summers, he played Atlantic City.

By 1915, he was playing piano with Joe Porter’s Serenaders in Baltimore. A young singer, Noble Sissle, joined the band and they began writing songs together. They sold one to popular vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker and it became a hit. Blake and Sissle created the 1921 musical “Shuffle Along,” featuring the mega-hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Blake composed more than 350 songs and received many honors for his work.

Blake died of pneumonia on Feb. 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, New York. He claimed that he was 100.



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