Feb. 7, 1883 - Feb. 12, 1983
James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was born in Baltimore on Feb. 7, 1883. He was the son of former slaves John Summer Blake and Emily. "I'm proud of my heritage," Blake said. "I want everybody to know that I came from slavery and went to the top of my profession." He began playing tunes on a parlor organ at the age of six and soon after was taking piano lessons from a neighbor named Margaret Marshall.
Blake developed his ragtime style playing in bars and sporting houses of Baltimore. His first hit was "Charleston Rag" in 1899. He made his professional debut in 1901 with Dr. Frazier's Medicine Band. After playing at a club owned by Eddie Myers, he began studying harmony, composition and orchestration with W. Llewellyn Wilson, a band master who went on to organize and conduct an all-black symphony orchestra sponsored by the city of Baltimore.
In 1914, Blake published two piano rags called "Fizz Water" and "Chevy Chase." In 1915, he teamed up with Noble Sissle, a lyricist, to write "It's All Your Fault." Sophie Tucker, appearing in Baltimore, bought it for her vaudville act. Sissle and Blake joined James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, a Harlem based orchestra. Blake spent two years afterwards on Keith's vaudeville circuit. Sissle and Blake also worked with the vaudeville team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and wrote "Shuffle Along" in 1921, the first Broadway show written, directed, performed and produced by blacks. It ran 504 performances and popularized the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry." The show was credited with introducing jazz dancing to Broadway. Blake produced several more Broadway shows, but during World War II he traveled with the U.S.O. and announced his retirement in 1946.
Blake was blessed with remarkably long fingers, which could span 12 piano keys, and never gave up playing on them. In 1969, a two-album set was produced called "The Eighty Six Years of Eubie Blake." In 1978, the Broadway Show "Eubie" was created to celebrate him. Blake was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Blake was also the subject of a massive tribute at the Kennedy Center in 1983 and the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore was named in his honor. The acclaimed jazz composer and pianist died just a few days after his 100th birthday.
The Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center is located at 847 N. Howard St. in Mount Vernon, 410-225-3130. www.eubieblake.org.
--Paul McCardellCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun