- Historic Sites
The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Yeah. Eighteen dollars a night, that’s if you had a good night. That’s all side money, now. I got three dollars a night from Aggie Shelton—but she ain’t paid me the first quarter yet. But Shelton’s is where I made the most money.
Later on I played at Annie Gilly’s. It was a dollar and a half a night, and she paid me, too, every night, Monday to Sunday, no union. You worked till you dropped dead, and when you dropped dead then you were off.
Annie Gilly’s was only a dollar house. Bing, hing, hing, hing! “Come on in, boys!” They’d sit in the windows with wrappers on, those girls.
Did the houses you worked offer white women or black women?
White. I never worked any black shops. We called them shops.
Why did the sporting houses become such a regular source of jobs for black pianists?
Well, the white boys couldn’t play that kind of music. Very few.
B ut why did it have to be “that kind of music”? Why did the madams and the customers want ragtime music?
Because it entertained . All the girls’d come into the piano room, see, and the men would sit there and drink. And they’d dance just like in a cabaret. Then they’d go upstairs.
Sometimes freak guys would come in. Fellow named “Wine jack”—fine gentleman. You’d never know he was the way he was. If he was going to come in tomorrow night, he’d send over a box of shoes . The women, they’d put on the shoes, and he’d sit and look at them putting on the shoes. The girl that the shoes fit, he’d pick.
Despite the bizarre aspects, the long hours at the keyboard and the audience of paying customers must have contributed greatly to your steady growth as a pianist in those years. So it’s interesting that your first New York job—in the old theatre district on Fourteenth Street—called upon another talent. Tell us about that.
I came to New York in 1902 with a show called Old Kentucky . I was a buck dancer. I never saw Fourteenth Street. After the show a furniture wagon used to back up right there on the pavement, all of us kids would get in, and we’d go down to a dump on Bleecker Street. That’s where we lived. You talk about a ghetto. That was a ghetto .
Was it an all-Negr’o show?
No, it was black and white. We had about eight buck dancers and a guy to take care of the horses—we had a racehorse right on stage. There was about ten or twelve of us.
How many performances did you do a week?
Every night, Wednesday matinee, Saturday matinee. Got fifteen dollars a week, and you got room and board.
Did you tour?
I only went to two places—Norfolk, Virginia, then New York. Then my mother made me quit the show.
And you returned to the piano-playing scene in Baltimore and then Atlantic City. To me there is a great excitement in the emergence of a startlingly talented group of young pianists in that time, and place.
Those guys could play piano —Slue-Foot and Yaller Nelson, Cat-Eye Harry, Big Jimmy Green, my competitor Huey Wolfert, and James P. [Johnson]. And Luckey Roberts. You call him Luckey. I always called him Charlie.
Of all those players which do you recall as the most talented, the best all-round pianist”?
“One-Legged Willie” Josephs, from Boston. People don’t believe me about what I’m going to say. I don’t see no difference in One-Legged Willie playing the piano, and Leopold Godowsky.
Do you mean in total mastery of the piano?
That’s right. The closest was a white boy named Cat-Eye Harry. He could play with Willie or any of them.
They also played the classics?
That’s what I’m going to tell you. Now the Willie story is not my story. He told me. Willie’s mother—I never heard him say anything about his father—Willie’s mother worked for some rich white people in Boston, and in the wintertime they would go to Paris. They had homes over there and everything, and Willie would go.
They had a piano. I don’t know what kind it was, but if they were millionaires you can bet it was a good one. And he’d play on that piano, and his mother used to get after him.
“You gonna keep playing on the piano, you don’t know when them white folks is comin’ home——” I’m saying it like they’re saying it, I’m talking in their vernacular. Colored people are so funny about dialect. But I’m gonna say it like it is.
“They catch you playin’ on that piano and I’d lose my job. Now you get up from that piano!”
It did happen, just what his mother said. But the white people said, “Keep on playing, keep on playing!” They said this boy should be in a conservatory. So they sent him to the Boston Conservatory, and he turned out to be a classical pianist.