Eubie Blake defied the odds. His parents had been slaves. He was their only child to survive past infancy. He smoked unfiltered Pall Malls into old age. “I’m a cigarette fiend,” he told a reporter in 1979, when he was well into his 90s. “Some people just smoke, but I’m a fiend.”
According to his doctor, the secret was that he wanted to live — and he lived to play the piano.
Born in East Baltimore on Feb. 7, 1883, Blake started taking piano lessons at age 6, and practiced on a pipe organ at home. Over his churchgoing mother’s objections, Blake got hooked on ragtime, whose syncopated rhythms were sweeping the nation’s bars and bordellos. “It was considered low music, see,” he later told an interviewer.
By age 16, Blake was sneaking out of the house late at night to play ragtime music at Aggie Shelton’s sporting house, a house of ill repute. “Why, that couldn’t be Eubie,” his mom told people who said they’d heard him play. “Eubie’s asleep at that hour.”
Baltimore couldn’t contain his dreams for long. He moved to New York City, partnering with a former vaudeville singer named Noble Sissle. In 1921, they wrote “Shuffle Along,” the first Broadway musical comedy to feature an all-black cast. Everyone knows the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” President Truman used it as a campaign song. (Did you happen to see that Vanity Fair cover featuring Meghan Markle: “Meghan Markle, Wild About Harry!” And Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham used it in a speech in “The Post.”)
Ragtime made a major comeback in the ’70s (thank you, “The Sting.”) Blake returned to Baltimore to a hero’s welcome. Mayor William Donald Schaefer declared May 1978 to be “Eubie Blake Month.” In 1979, a musical based on his songs drew huge crowds to the Mechanic Theatre.
In January 1983, just before his 100th birthday, The Sun called Blake “America’s surviving ragtime genius.” Sadly, he wouldn’t remain so for much longer. Blake died the following month, on Feb. 12, 1983. “Just wild about Eubie,” read the headlines.