The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake


James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born February 7, 1883, in Baltimore. His parents, John Sumner and Emily Johnstone Blake, had grown up “in the slavery” in the state of Virginia. John Sumner Blake was fifty years old to the day when “Little Hubie” or “Mouse” Blake was born, and it is startling to realize that Eubie Blake’s recollections when linked to the sharply remembered stories told by this revered and plainspoken father reach back to 1833, when the Republic was fifty-seven years old.

Certain elements in Eubie Blake’s childhood are common to those of other musical prodigies: the impressive gi/t revealed early in a chance encounter of a toddler’s fingers and a discovered keyboard; the devoted teacher insisting upon rigorous grounding in the classics; early public recognition and a taste of the adulation that comes to those endowed with unique talent.

All these things occurred in the life of young Eubie Blake, but in a different key, so to speak. He did find that keyboard—on an installment-plan pump organ in a Baltimore music shop—and his talent flew to it. But while he got a taste of legitimate teaching, most of his instruction came from his own intuition and from a drifting band of brilliant but doomed black musicians whose very names are lost to us. And recognition? For years it was limited to that of audiences he encountered in the wine shops and sporting houses.

But his talent flowered, however bleak its training ground, and today at age ninety-three Eubie Blake is not only an American Institution but a busy enterprise. Since the late 1960’$ he has blithely assumed a new career, perhaps his fourth or fifth professional life, taking on concert tours, seminars, recording dates, and talk shows—the whole panoply of modern American media hustle.

Listing his accomplishments conservatively, we can term Eubie Blake a pianist, entertainer, composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher. And we must add another: observer-annotator of American society, both black and white, for almost a century.

In 1899, the year Scott Joplin’s “ Maple Leaf Rag ” was published in Sedalia, Missouri, Eubie Blake composed the “Charleston Rag” in Baltimore, Maryland. (“Charleston,” by the way, is a superb piece; incredibly, it was not published until 1975.) He has been composing for the piano ever since, in forms and styles that may be dubbed, variously, ragtime, jazz, and swing.

Since the turn of the century this robust man has crisscrossed the nation geographically and has spanned twentieth-century show business in all of its revolutions and convolutions. He has trouped with medicine shows, minstrels, and musical comedies; his piano can be heard deep in the dim and fading grooves of acoustic cylinders and discs, and on modern LP’.V and tapes; his hit songs (“I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Memories of You,” “Love Will I’ind a Way”) continue in jazz and theatrical repertory and are a part of our century’s musical language.

Eubie Blake, in an enduring partnership with the late Noble Sissle, toured the nation in vaudeville’s brightest days. In 1921, to Sissle’s lyrics and a book by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyle, he scored the great Broadway hit Shuffle Along, a show whose impact on a half century of American musical theatre is just now beginning to be measured and appreciated.

Too old for active service in World War I , Eubie Blake served during World War II as a musical director for the USO . Recent honors and activities would overwhelm a man half his age. In 1965 ASCAP recognized fifty years of his creative life on the golden anniversary of his first collaboration with partner Noble Sissle—a song called “It’s All Your Fault,” introduced by Sophie Tucker in 1915. Columbia Records, under producer John Hammond, released The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake in 1969, and many recordings have been released since by his own Eubie Blake Music Company. The book Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake , by Robert Kimball and William Bolcom, was published in 1973, and the Edward B. Marks Music Corporation has recently published many of his piano works. He is known now to millions of Americans through television.

Eubie Blake is deceptively mild and gentle. He is such a civil man, of such natural charm and warmth, that it is easy to overlook the abiding toughness that sustains him. At ninety-three he eats very little, almost nothing but candies and sweets. He literally never drinks water and lias lang since given up the good whiskeys he enjoyed for many years in favor of milk and tea.

His first wife, Avis Lee Blake, died in 1939. In 1945 he married Marion Gant Tyler, who doubles these days as his traveling companion and business manager.

Eubie Blake is in total command of his mind and memory and of his still-facile and majestic hands. He will entertain you completely if you’re ever lucky enough to attend him in concert. After the first five minutes you’ll forget you’re watching a man with a good start on his tenth decade as you fall under the spell of a master musician and entertainer.

The material that follows was gleaned largely from taperecorded conversations with Mr. Blake during early 1976 at his home in Brooklyn, New York. Additional conversations taped in 1969 by Rudi Blesh and in 1972 by Mike Montgomery in Detroit augment the basic content and are gratefully acknowledged.

Mr. Blake, just for fun let me ask you first—what is your earliest memory?