The 93 Years Of Eubie Blake

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Now they had a commencement, and they had a contest. There were five pianists, and he’s the only Negro in the five. And they’re playing in a cubicle and the cubicles are numbered, and nobody knows, not even the dean, who’s in number three or number four, see? And they have seven judges there; four were pianists and the others were composers. And Willie played, they all played. And Willie won it, and he came out.

Now when I say black as my father, I mean black as my father. That was my father’s color and that was Willie’s color—black. Not dark, black . And the dean says, “Mr. Josephs, you won. But I can’t give it to you and you understand why. If I do, I’ll lose my job.” So he got second prize. He didn’t get first prize.

Willie is now Mister Willie Josephs, the great pianist. Let’s say he goes to Sam Jones’s house. When I say “Jones,” I mean colored. Now these are high-class Negroes.

“Mr. Josephs, now play us something!” [Hums a classical strain.] “Ah, man, we don’t want to hear that. Play something!” [Hums it now in ragtime.] And everywhere he went they did that. So he changed into ragtime and he never looked back.

How old was he when he died?

I don’t think he was thirty. We were both on the same level as young men. He might have been a year younger or a year older.

But he poured his life back into the bottle and the snuffer—cocaine. He died in 1908.

Did the musicians and entertainers and sports use drugs heavily in those days?

Pimps, big-time pimps, smoked hop. That’s opium. Once in a while you’d hear, in the later years after Joe Ganz fought Battling Nelson, cocaine. Fellow named Dan Ward—he’s dead now, so I can tell it on him—he sold cocaine.

Heroin? If anybody used heroin, they were the lowest dope fiends. Now it’s the big thing.

Was there much marijuana use?

No, I never heard of that.

G etting back to Atlantic City, I picture it as a summer crossroads for practically everybody in show business. Anyone you recall especially?

Irving Berlin was my friend. When I say my friend, I mean he’d bring people to hear me, stand there and boost me, and he’d whisper, “Wait’ll you hear this guy play the piano.” Now, he ain’t got a quarter, see, that’s when he was young, he ain’t got twenty cents . Then he’d come right in singing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

When I knew Berlin, he had one blue-serge suit. Now, you’ve heard of tan shoes? His shoes weren’t tan—yellow shoes. There’s a difference between tan and yellow. And a pancake hat—straw hat. That’s this summer. Next summer he’s got the same thing on.

Sophie Tucker used to bring him down there. She’d come down just to hear me play the piano—at the Boathouse and the Belmont.

And wasn’t it in Atlantic City that you first met Jack Johnson, the prizefighter?

That’s right. You know, they named Jim Corbett “Gentleman,” but this is the guy they should have named “Gentleman.” Now that remark he’s supposed to have made—“I’m the champion of the world, I can get any white woman I want.” Even though his second wife was a white woman, I don’t believe he said that. Some newspaper—newspapers can turn you into a fairy tomorrow night if they want to—say they saw you on Forty-second Street and everybody believes it.

But here’s my opinion. Regardless of the laws of anyplace, it is none of your damned business who I marry. You can make all the laws you want, I’ll break them. You put me in jail, I still feel it’s my right to marry anybody I want to, if it’s a human being, opposite sex.

Was it also in Atlantic City that you met George M. Cohan?

No, Baltimore. He used to come to the place—I ain’t going to name the place where I played in Baltimore. When he was in the Four Cohans, that’s when I first knew him.

He said to me one time, “Hey, kid!” That’s the way he talked—out of the side of his mouth. “If you ever get a partner, you’ll hate him, but if you’re a success, stick with it until you die, both of you. Take anything he puts on you, but never walk away from success.”

People say Barnum was the greatest showman. I say George Cohan and J. Lubrie Hill were the two greatest showmen. I’ll tell you why. George Cohan wrote the lyrics, wrote the music, staged the show, starred in the show, was a dancer—there ain’t anything else for him to do!

Same with J. Lubrie Hill. Negro. He wrote “At the Ball” [sings a bit of it]. Every show in New York took it. Tell you about him. He wrote the lyrics, wrote the music, staged the show. He starred in the show and drew the costumes and scenery.

Barnum didn’t do any of those things.

Y ou’re a triple-threat man yourself-—pianist, composer, conductor. Would you say that Cohan influenced you significantly?