The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
I stopped in the fifth grade; I talked all the time, and I had such a bad reputation, see. Terrible. Show you how much they thought about Negroes in my hometown: I’m in the fifth grade, and all in one semester they moved me to the eighth. Moved me from the fifth to the sixth, raised up hell with me there, put me in the seventh, then the eighth grade. Now, I never earned those grades—sixth, seventh, and eighth. I earned the fifth.
Even though you hadn’t earned your way into the eighth grade, did you graduate?
No, I didn’t. There was a guy sitting behind me by the name of Willie Pemberton. He was a lightning calculator. Now the teacher has algebra on the board— a plus b minus c equals—and Willie Pemberton’d say, “Hey, Mouse, can you do that?”
“I’ll do it for you.”
Now she’s handing me the whole board—that blackboard was full —and the bell rang for a recess. And the teacher says, “Blake, you stay in.” Everybody goes out and she goes into another room, and I’m in there by myself. Big room, you know, and there’s a great big egg stove—they don’t make them any more—pipe runs right out into the street. Hot in there. And Willie Pemberton, this guy comes in with an armload of snowballs, throws them at the blackboard, and they melt. Honest to God, I didn’t do it. Do I have to lie now ? Willie Pemberton did it.
Teacher comes back in and I say, “What are you looking at me for?” Now if I’d kept my mouth shut, maybe I’d have got to high school. Maybe. Anyway, her name was Mary McDermott—Irish as hell, hated all Negroes and she couldn’t stand me. So she sends me to Mr. Fye, that’s the principal.
You ever see Uncle Sam? That’s him . I’ll always believe the cartoonist saw him—Fye. He says to me, “Blake!”
“Blake, I’ve never seen anybody as bad as you.”
“Mr. Fye, I didn’t do that.” And I showed him my hands and everything.
But they expelled me from school.
Y ou were five when you came across that organ in the music store. But what about your real musical education1? How did that begin?
The woman that lived next door to us—Margaret Marshall—she could read music, and she taught me how to read and play, twenty-five cents a lesson.
My mother, she carried Jesus around in her vest pocket. Anything good, she’d say, “See what the Lord can do?” About me she used to say, “You ain’t gonna be nothin! You’re plunking on that organ all day long.” [The Blakes had bought Eubie a small organ.]
I’d play my music lessons, see. I’d play them right, but when I’d get through running over my music lessons, now my mother’s gone, and I’d play the same thing in ragtime. I wanted to play it my way.
You ever have your back turned and you feel somebody? I never heard her come in. I’m there playing this thing in ragtime, and something says turn around , and there she was.
When she was mad she always called me Mister Blake. “Mister Blake! Take that ragtime out of my house! You want to play ragtime, you play it in the street.”
You were still just a youngster when you started playing piano professionally, weren’t you? How did your first job come about”?
There was a guy named Basil Chase—piano player. He was playing at Aggie Shelton’s when his father died and left him, I’ll say, five or ten thousand dollars. That was a lot of money. So he said, “Hey, Mouse. I’m not going to work tonight. I’ll call Mrs. Shelton up and tell her I’m gonna lay off. You go up there and play.”
Well, I don’t know who Aggie Shelton is, and I’d never been on that street before. So I went up there in the daytime to get the job. I’ve got on short pants.
Now Mrs. Aggie Shelton was a great big woman—German woman. She must have weighed three hundred pounds—not fat, just a big woman. And she looked at me and says, “You play all right. Get yourself a pair of long pants and come tonight at nine o’clock.” So I played there.
Now, I’d be playing the piano, and the sisters from the church would hear me playing. They said to my mother, “We heard somebody playing the piano at Aggie Shelton’s. Sounded just like Little Hubie.” That didn’t mean anything to my mother. She didn’t know what Aggie Shelton was.
“What time was it?”
“About one o’clock in the morning.”
“Oh, no, that boy goes to bed about nine. How you all know it was him?”
Sister Reed said, “Nobody wobbles the bass like him. Ain’t anybody plays like him.”
When I got up, my mother says, “Mister Blake! You playing in Aggie Shelton’s? Don’t lie to me!” Somebody told her it was a bawdy house. She called it a body house.
“How long you been there?”
“Three or four days.” I’d really been there three or four weeks.
“I’m gonna kill you.” Meant she was going to whip me.
But the woman next door said, “That boy’s going to play somewhere. What he sees in that house, with your background and his father’s background, will never rub off on him .” And it didn’t.
Besides, I never saw anything. This was a palace , I never even saw her pimp come in. And no girls lived in that house. They had to call the girls up.
Did you make good money?