Black HIStory: James Hubert Blake (Eubie Blake)

James Hubert Blake (Eubie Blake) (February 7, 1883 – February 12, 1983)

Today’s highlight is on composer, lyricist, and pianist Eubie Blake. Blake is popular for compositions such as, “Bandana Days“, “Charleston Rag“, “Love Will Find A Way“, “Memories of You“, and “I’m Just Wild About Harry“.

Eubie, along with long-time collaborator Noble Sissle, wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. It was one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans.

“Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland to former slaves John Sumner Blake (1838-1917) and Emily “Emma” Johnstone (1861-1927). He was the only surviving child of eight who all died in infancy.”

Blake displayed a natural talent for music since he was child. “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.”

By the age of fifteen, after receiving music lessons from a neighbor, Blake began performing in Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello. Soon he was discovered by world champion boxer Joe Gans who then “hired him to play the piano at Gans’ Goldfield Hotel, the first “black and tan club” in Baltimore in 1907.”

Blake eventually made his way to vaudeville where he began collaborating with Noble Sissle. The two formed a vaudeville music duo, the “Dixie Duo.” After vaudeville, Blake and Sissle started working on Shuffle Along.

The production mainly consisted of songs that the two wrote during their vaudeville days. “The musicals also introduced hit songs such as ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry‘ and ‘Love Will Find a Way‘.”

“When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans.”

“In 1946, as Blake’s career was winding down, he enrolled in New York University, graduating in two and a half years.”

 

Eubie’s career experienced a revival during the 1950’s, thanks to the public’s renewed interest in ragtime music. As one of ragtime’s last surviving artists, Blake found himself “launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator.” He was now signing record deals and making frequent appearances on  The Johnny Carson Show. He was also invited to lecture at colleges and was a “guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals.”

“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.”

Eubie Blake died in Brooklyn, New York on February 12th, 1983, five days after his supposed 100th birthday. Blake said of himself:

“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

 

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