February 1, 2013: American composer, songwriter and ragtime artist James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born on February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, Maryland. Blake was the son of former slaves John Sumner Blake and Emily "Emma" Johnstone. He was the only surviving child of eight children, all the rest of whom died in infancy.
Blake's musical training began when he was just five years old. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ and started “foolin’ around.” When his mother found him, the store manager said to 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 $75, making payments of 25 cents a week. By age nine, Blake was an excellent pianist. And at age 15, without his parents’ knowledge, he started playing piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello.
In 1907, at age 24, Blake got his first big break in the music business when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans' Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" (a club that allowed blacks and whites to socialize together freely) in Baltimore.
Blake said he first composed the melody to the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, which would have made him 12 years old, but he did not commit it to paper until 1915, when he learned to write in musical notation.
Blake always had a colorful life. In 1912, at age 29, Blake began playing 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 quite popular at the time.
In 1915, shortly after the start of World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music group called the "Dixie Duo."
After vaudeville, the pair began to work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated many songs they had written. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans.
The musical also introduced the hit songs "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way." Those tunes were followed by other hits, “Revue Negre,” “Plantation Review,” “Rhapsody in Black” and “Bamville Review.”
Although he made some recordings in 1931, Eubie Blake generally had a lower profile for the next two decades. Blake moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant Brooklyn and continued to work with Sissle from time to time and earned a degree from New York University.
In the 1950s, interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian and educator.
In 1969, at the age of 86, Blake recorded a double LP for Columbia (The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake) that amazed listeners who had never heard of him. During the years to follow, he lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals.
He was a frequent guest of The Johnny Carson Show and Merv Griffin. Blake was featured by leading conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. By 1975 Blake 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, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan. On March 10, 1979 Blake performed with Gregory Hines on Saturday Night Live.
Blake continued to play and record into late life, until his death. Eubie Blake died February 12, 1983 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, just five days after celebrating his 100th birthday.
African-American pianist and composer of over 300 songs and musical pieces, Eubie Blake carries the distinction as one of America’s most influential architects of ragtime and vaudville. His influence and imprint on America’s musical history cannot be overstated.
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake, we acknowledge your enormous musical and artistic contributions, and we honor your memory.
- 1969: Eubie Blake's nomination for a Grammy Award for The 86 Years of Eubie Blake in the category of "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Small Group or Soloist with Small Group"
- 1972: Omega Psi Phi Scroll of Honor
- 1974: Diploma, Rutgers University Doctor of Fine Arts
- 1974: Diploma, Dartmouth College, Doctor of Humane Letters
- 1978: Diploma, University of Maryland Doctor of Fine Arts
- 1979: Diploma, Morgan State University Doctor of Music
- 1980: Received the Johns Hopkins University's, George Peabody Medal
- 1981: Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on October 9, 1981, awarded by President Ronald Reagan
- 1982: Diploma, Howard University Doctor of Music
- 1983: Inducted in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
- 1995: The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.
- 1995: Inducted into the New York's American Theatre Hall of Fame.
- 1998: James Hubert Blake High School was built in Cloverly, Maryland in his honor. Eubie Blake HS has a strong focus on the performing arts.
- 2006: The album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake (1969) was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
- The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."