On This Day in History, February 7: Mamma Didn’t Like That Ragtime
Eubie Blake was born James Hubert on Feb. 7, 1883, in Baltimore, MD, a son of former slaves. For years Blake lived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, until his death at the venerable age of 100.
He began his musical career playing piano in Baltimore bordellos and at rent parties at the age of 15. In those days the only public places a black pianist could play for profit were brothels.
In a recollection about music at the turn of the 20th century, Blake once said, “People ask me where did ragtime come from and I say I don’t know. I heard it all my life … when my mother would go out and wash white folks’ clothes, I’d play music lessons the way I liked and when she came home and heard me, she’d say, ‘You take that ragtime out of my house, don’t you be playing no ragtime.’”
Blake teamed up with Noble Sissle and they were active in vaudeville and legitimate stage and did club performances, with Blake at the piano and Sissle doing the vocals. After World War I they toured the U.S. with the Jim Europe Band.
The Broadway show Shuffle Along opened uptown at the 63rd St. Theatre on May 23, 1921. Blake wrote the music, Sissle the lyrics. Blake’s music was a foot-stomping score. His rhythms provoked an orgy of giddy dancing onstage. The big hit was “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
In spite of its uptown location, the show became a smash hit. It ran for 504 performances and launched a flock of great names, including Josephine Baker.
Shuffle Along made black shows voguish, or at least acceptable. Other shows followed. In Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds (’40) most of the music was by Blake and it advertised itself as “the world’s funniest and fastest revue” dedicated to “Glorifying the American Negro.” “Memories of You” was the big hit song of the show.
Blake led the orchestra for the show Singin’ the Blues (’41), which played the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street. With a new lyricist Milton Reddie, Blake wrote the music for the black musical comedy Swing It (’47).
Blake was active during World War II entertaining the troops in USO shows. After the mid ’40s, he was semiactive at concerts and special events and was occasionally on TV shows.
Blake’s music was used in Doctor Jazz (’75) at the Winter Garden. Bubbling Brown Sugar (’76) was a musical revue that featured Blake’s hits, as well music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Shelton Brooks and Maceo Pinkard.
In 1979 the runaway Broadway hit musical Eubie was based on his distinguished career and showcased his greatest hits.
Blake, who is credited with writing 1,000 songs, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981.
Blake died in Brooklyn on Feb. 12, 1983, five days after his 100th birthday.
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