October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
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?
My father slammed the door on my finger. I don’t remember which finger it was. My mother said, “You can’t remember that!” But I do remember it. It was down on Wolf Street [in Baltimore]. You know I used to talk German? All the people where we lived were German. We were the only colored people on Wolf Street, and she says I can’t remember Wolf Street, and I can .
When you moved shortly after that, what type of neighborhood did you enter?
All colored. That’s why my mother moved. I’d say, “Gute Nacht.” The little bit I did talk, I’d talk German, and my mother didn’t want me to. So they moved to Eden Street.
Did you have brothers and sisters?
Ten. But I never saw any of them. None of them lived to be over three or four months old.
W ere there other relatives? Grandparents?
I never heard my mother or my father speak of his mother or father, or her mother or father, never in my life. They must have been sold when they were babies. I didn’t have grandmothers and grandfathers. You’re due four, ain’t you? Well, I ain’t had the first.
Tell me about your parents, your memories of them.
I loved my mother and father. I had the best mother and father! My mother would kill you, then sit down and cry.
My father never knew where his hat was. He’d come in, and instead of hanging his hat he’d put it anywhere. Then I’d look under a chair somewhere and find his hat. I was crazy about him. John Sumner Blake. Don’t leave that Sumner out—he’ll turn over in his grave.
My father was fifty years old when I was born. My birthday is his birthday: seventh day of February, 1833, for him, ’83 for me. He was a big, tall man, never was sick in his lifetime. He was a stevedore, a boss stevedore, unloaded boats—piecework. So many feet of lumber, so many cents. My father made nine dollars a week when he worked. He lived to be eighty-three years old.
Had both of your parents been slaves?
Well, my mother would say, “I was never no slave.” That’s the only willful lie I ever heard her tell. Then my father would say, “Did you pick cotton?”
“Did the white man pay you?”
“No.” My father’d wink at me.
My father was a big man, masculine. He and all his brothers were big, strapping men, and during slavery, see, they put them into stud. He told me that they only got fresh meat and they only got sugar and preserves when they were going into stud. They could tell when they were going into stud, they gave them the best of meat, the best of everything, just the same as the white people had.
But my father told me he never had on a pair of leather shoes until he went into the army, Civil War.
So he fought in the Civil War?
Yes. My father was shot eleven times—legs, back, eleven times—not all in one battle. When the slavery was over and they were free, he worked for his master and saved enough money to come to Baltimore. It only cost a dollar and a half, but he’s got to eat on the boat and spend one night. That’s how he got to Baltimore.
My father started to school after the war. His army shoes were worn out, so he’s got to put on the carpet shoes, like when he was a slave. Some ex-slaves, they had leather brogan shoes on, big brass thing on the sides. One of them said, “Get yourself a pair of shoes, John. Look at the shoes we got. Slavery’s over!”
Now he’s not in school half an hour and he hauls off and hits one of those guys and got thrown out of school. He never got back in school. He went to school for half an hour.
But my father could read, ’cause the master’s daughter taught him. She could have been killed for doing that.
How about your own education? Were you living in the Eden Street house when you started to school?
Yes, that’s where I started to school, and that’s when I started smoking. The first day I went to school my mother gave me two cents for codfish cakes. She registered me and showed me how to get to school. Now instead of me buying codfish cakes when the man came in the school yard selling little codfish cakes, penny apiece, I go round to Miss Essman’s and say to Miss Essman, “My father says send him two cents’ worth of cigarettes.” They used to break the packs in those days.
Now here’s where she stuck me. I can’t read, I can’t write, I don’t know the names of cigarettes, and she said, “What kind of cigarettes does your father smoke?” I said, “ You know what kind my father smokes!” And she gave me either Cycles or Drums. The reason I know that is it was four for a cent and I got eight cigarettes, and I have never stopped smoking cigarettes in my life.
You must have been about seven years old.
No! Six years old when I went to school.
Tell me, about your schooling.
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?
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.
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?
Yes, I wanted to be like Cohan. And Victor Herbert. I began to think about composing. I wanted to write shows—like Leslie Stuart, the Floradora man. He was my inspiration. I would never have been a composer if it hadn’t been for him. I never saw him in my life. He wrote beautiful music, you know, and I said, “I can do that.”
By the, way, who is your favorite all-time composer”?
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.
Were there any pianiste that you especially admired, orjrom whom you learned, after you came to New York”?
I didn’t learn from anybody. I was tops then. I was tops.
You came in to New York for good around 1915, didn’t you?
Yeah. Sissle got me to come up to New York to play for Jim Europe. I never went back. We were with Europe until he died. He was murdered in 1919.
When you say you played for Jim Europe, you mean as a member of the Clef Club, the booking agency for black musicians. What type of engagements did the Clef Club handle?
Parties for every millionaire in the country. We’d go as far as Chicago to play. Twelve, fifteen, sometimes twenty men.
Is it true you never used music on stage”?
Jim told us that. All the musicians were told never to let a white man think you can read music. That lessens the money he’s going to give you. Take the Astoria Hotel on Broadway—the music never stopped. White band at that end—the man had that white band died a millionaire—and we’d play at this end. They’d play [he hums a waltzlike tune]. Then we’d play [hums it now in a jazz version]. And the people’d come around [imitating them]: “Isn’t it mar velous? Those boys ”
Considering the size of the orchestras, you certainly couldn’t have been improvising, or faking. What did you do, memorize the orchestrations?
Sure. Jim told me how to do this. You rehearse the leads first, then take the music away from them. Then you go to the saxes, take the music away from them, and so on, till you got it down. Then you hear the darnedest “arrangement” you ever heard in your life. Head arrangements. But we never let the white people know we could read music.
James Reese Europe was best known, I think, as the composer-conductor for the famous dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle, until Vernon Castle died in a World War i training accident.
I begged him! I begged him not to fly. Listen, one Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Castle are going down to Texas. He says, “Well, I’m going to Texas and teach some of the guys to fly.”
So I said to Mr. Castle, “Do me a favor, don’t fly any more. You’re too valuable a man to fly.” And he laughed at me and said, “I’d rather fly a plane than go down in that subway.”
And I don’t know what day it was, but a couple of days after that a guy was flying and he did something wrong and Castle ducked under him to catch him with his plane and Pow [claps his hands together]! Both of them.
A nd then Jim Europe was murdered.
Yeah, 1919. A drummer in his band. Crazy.
Ironically, it was Jim Europe’s death that led to the formation of Sissle and Blake as a performing team, wasn’t if?
Well, Sissle said, “You know what we could do? We could go into vaudeville.” Sissle was always more aggressive than I was. So Pat Casey—he’d booked Jim Europe’s band—Pat Casey’d heard Sissle, Sissle told him about me, and Casey said put an act together. And we did something no act has ever done, then or since. We opened, played four days in New Haven. Then three days in the Harlem Opera House—not the Apollo, the Apollo was a burlesque house then—then right to the Palace. We screamed them!
And you were then hooked into the Keith Circuit?
Let me tell you about that. Now, Pat Casey was the roughesttalking man I’ve ever seen in my life. How he kept a phone I’ll never know. He’s sitting there listening to them—the big shots in Keith. Pat, now, he ain’t opened his mouth. Anyway, the bookers say, “Tell you what we’d do with Sissle and Blake. Get grotesque clothes for them, an upright piano in a pine box.” Then they’d have Sissle say to me, “Hey, Sam! What is dat , ober dere ?”
I’d say, “I don’t know.” Listen how ridiculous this is! I’d go over and touch the piano and say, “Why, that’s a pie -an-nol” and then sit down and play the piano, and Sissle’d sing.
Pat Casey says, “Are you gentlemen finished?”
“When you saw Sissle and Blake at the Harlem Opera House, what did they have on?”
“Well, that’s what they’re going to wear when you buy them— if you buy them.”
So the bookers are grumbling, and Pat says, “You don’t want them, I’ll sell them to the Schuberts.”
“Oh, no. No !” And we went on in tuxedos.
And you went straight to the Palace Theatre, New York. Then where?
Maryland Theatre, Baltimore. We followed a fellow named Harry Delf—great monologist. I’m standing in the wings on the first day, see, and the stage manager keeps looking at me.
“You from Sissle and Blake?”
“Don’t you know you follow that act?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s up on the board.”
“When you going to make up?” He’s talking about cork. Blackface. Now, I don’t know what he’s talking about; I’d just put on a little powder. I said, “I’m already made up.”
“No,” he said, “when are you going to put the cork on?”
The old man owned the theatre came over. “You ain’t going on my stage that way——.” All of a sudden, DA-DA-DADUM , it’s our cue, see, and I walked right out on stage; Sissle came on from the other side. Now, we go out and do the act and stop the show cold . Nobody wanted to follow us.
We come off. Now, Sissle knew the old man, had worked for him. He had a big change of heart, see, we’d stopped his show. He says to the stage manager, “Why are you meddling with their act?”
“They’re colored, ain’t they?”
“I raised these boys. Don’t be so smart. They don’t put on no cork!”
But it was common practice?
All Negroes put on cork. Wilbur Sweatman was the first one that didn’t put it on. But Wilbur Sweatman was an Indian.
Did you continue playing the entire Keith Circuit?
We didn’t play the deluxe houses, like the Paramount. They said we drew Negroes. We didn’t draw Negroes. We didn’t have a Negro act. I did a little light Negro comedy, a bit of dialect. Sissle didn’t like that. Sissle never sang in dialect. He was right out of college—Butler, Indianapolis. We’d just sit and entertain, wrote all our own material. When I’d play piano, I’d play a pop song, but I wouldn’t announce it. We had an act you couldn’t follow. But usually we had to work number two.
In an eight-act bill? Why was that?
All colored acts used to go on second. And they dressed on the last floor next to the toilet. Now, this story I’m going to tell you is about Joe Kennedy—before he was ambassador to London. Old Man Kennedy.
We were playing that theatre way up Broadway—Keith vaudeville, you hear what I’m saying? That’s the first time I saw Mae West. We were on the bill with her. Anyway, Kennedy comes backstage and says to this man in charge, “Who told you how to line up a vaudeville show?” The man don’t know who he is. I’m standing there; I don’t know either.
I says, “Why?”
“Because you got Sissle and Blake on number two and the show’s top-heavy. Why do you put them on number two?”
And the man said, “All colored acts go on number two.”
What was the reason for that”?
The newspapers—writers—don’t come in till the third act or so. When they come in, you’re already off. You don’t get in the write-ups. You’re like the also-ran at the races. Every time they moved you down, you’re supposed to get more money. But not us. I don’t know about other colored acts, I’m talking about Sissle and Blake. They’d move us down, next to closing—that’s the star’s place—and we still got three hundred dollars a week. That’s all we got. Well, we got four hundred to play the Palace.
Did you ever work next to closing—the star’s spot—on the opening night of a run?
Plenty of places we played the sticks—three a day. We starred in those places.
W asn’t it during that first year of touring with Sissle and Blake that you first met your “protégé,” Earl “Fatha” Hines?
Hines, now seventy, is recognized as one of the pivotal jazz pianists and orchestra leaders, a patriarch himself. But I suppose he still seems like a kid to you, from the vantage point of ninety-three years. How did you meet him?
I was playing the Keith Theatre, Pittsburgh, Sissle and Blake. Gus Greenlee said, “You want to hear a guy play the piano?”
“After the show I’ll take you to Homestead.” Little town outside Pittsburgh.
And I heard this guy play, and I said, “What the hell are you playing here for, upstairs over a junk shop?”
He said, “Oh, man, I get eighteen dollars a week playing here.”
“You’ll get three times that if you ever come to New York.”
But he never came to New York; he went to Chicago with Jimmy Noone. And he never looked back.
And now, you know, when he walks out on stage he sometimes tells people he is my protégé. And that’s nice of him. But I never showed him anything on the piano. That guy could play . He was a kid, a youngster, 1919, he could play ! Now, if I tell you a hog weighs six hundred pounds, don’t strain yourself lifting it up to see if I was right. If I tell you a guy could play the piano just say, “Eubie said he could play!”
In 1922 you became a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP ). Signing on that early with ASCAP , you must have memories of its founders and charter members. Did you know James Weldon Johnson?
Oh, yeah. Weldon Johnson had.second sight. There are people born that way—my father was that way. Weldon used it to help ASCAP —secretly—when Gene Buck was president. Gene would get stuck when ASCAP was just starting—problems, lawyers, people trying to tear ASCAP down. Gene Buck would call Jim Johnson—now this is two o’clock at night [imitating Johnson’s deliberate speech]:
“Hello, Gene, how are you? Well, what now, Gene?”
“This is the case and the lawyers say so-and-so, and they’re about to pull us under.”
“Yes. Well, I’ll tell you. You’d better let me sleep on it. Gall me about 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning.”
And in the morning he never missed, never missed the right answer.
I heard Gene tell that at Weldon’s funeral, 127th Street and Seventh Avenue, Countee Gullen’s father’s church and everybody spoke! Doctor W. J. Johnson, Professor Weldon Johnson, and so on. He was everything that’s high to Negroes. And whites, too. Then Gene Buck got up—I can see him now—“To you, ladies and gentlemen, it was Doctor this and Professor that. To me, lying there in his casket, he is plain Jim Johnson.” [Mimics the murmurs of discontent at this seeming slight.] But Gene put a “but” in there to hold them.
“ But! None of you knew him like I knew him. Your own people didn’t know him like I knew him. Did you know that Weldon Johnson secretly ran the biggest musical organization in the world? Yes, he did,” and he told that story.
Gene Buck was a very successful songwriter and for years a producer for Flo Ziegfeld. How did he get his start?
Gene Buck was from Detroit. He started as an artist—painted title pages for music. Now, this guy is just out of school, and he comes to New York. He ain’t got his first quarter , and he went down there to that colored music-publishing company, Gotham-Attucks, and those Negroes put him to work. He made these title pages for them and got on his feet through that.
So when Gene got to be president of ASCAP , he said wipe out all that prejudice. You know, they had some crackers in there, and Gene said, “Now, we don’t have that in here,” and just wiped them right away. This was for people who write , I don’t care if they’re green, blue, or whatever. If they get to be a success, they get their money.
Mr. Blake, you can look back on all of the twentieth century’s ups and downs in the music business, and on the many changes of style and fashion in popular and theatrical music. What future trends would you predict?
People go more with rhythm than they do melody. The best proof of that is rock and roll—stays in one key and on one chord, mostly, and they’re crazy about it. It’s the rhythm—most contagious thing in the world today.
But I think melody is going to come back.
Melody with conventional harmony?
Well, that’s what’s worrying me—“modern” harmony. It sounds like, to me, cursing . You see, anybody’s liable to say damn or hell, but when a man says so-and-so and so-and-so, cursing all the time and never saying a legal word, I don’t like that kind of music. I don’t say it ain’t good. It must be good because people buy it. But I wouldn’t buy it.
Some of the writers, young writers, are going to listen to melodies and start to write melodies. The melodies today are not good, most of them. I don’t mean to knock anybody. Everybody’s got a right to make a living. But they don’t sit down and think up a beautiful melody.
I think they will come back to melodious music.