Apparently composing ragtime causes you to live to be a hundred. Like Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake also managed to hit the century mark, lucid until the end – which was merciful, for his last decade saw a great groundswell of interest in his long-neglected work.
He was born James Hubert Blake, in Baltimore in 1883. The son of former slaves, he was one of eleven children born to his mother, and the only one to make it out of infancy. His parents bought an organ for him on time when he was six; the church organist gave him lessons. His folks were strict, god-fearing people. He was allowed to play only serious music: classical pieces and hymns. Syncopation was considered sensuous and evil, so when he began to pick up ragtime, he had to do it on the sly. At age 15, he was thrown out of school for fighting over a girl. He started playing in saloons and bawdy houses, a scene where he met and traded musical tips with fellow professors. In 1901, he joined Dr. Frazier’s Medicine Show, where he played melodeon and buck danced on the back of a wagon. In 1906, he began working at the Goldfield Hotel, newly built by boxer Joe Gans, and a vast step up in atmosphere and salary from the sporting houses where he’d been working. By now, he was composing his own rags and waltzes, equally influenced by the new sounds coming out of the African American community and the work of white composers like Leslie Stuart, who was responsible for the hit show Floradora.
In 1915, he met Noble Sissle, a lyricist and singer. Sissle had known rare advantages in his native Indianapolis. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother a schoolteacher. He went on to attend Butler University, where he sang in glee clubs. He was singing at the Severin Hotel in Indianapolis when he was spotted and hired for a gig in Baltimore.
Sissle and Blake hit it off immediately. They turned out a few songs at this meeting, one of which “It’s All Your Fault” was performed by Sophie Tucker. Then Sissle got an engagement performing with the Bob Young Sextette at the Palm Beach Hotel. This brought him into contact with high society, where he got to know Vernon and Irene Castle and others. While performing at a Nora Bayes benefit with James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, the group was spotted by Edward Albee, who booked them for a date at the Palace. They were the first African American act to play that venue in evening dress and without burnt cork.
Sissle enlisted in World War I, serving as a drum major with the Europe outfit in France, where he wrote several patriotic tunes. Upon their return in 1919 bandleader Europe was stabbed to death by a jealous rival, so Sissle finally teamed up with Blake. They cooked up an act for vaudeville, with Blake at the keyboard, and the two of them singing their compositions together. From Sissle’s society gigs, they retained the idea of wearing tuxedos. A trademark that made them stand out, for in this era, it was customary for African American acts – even if they weren’t comedians – to be dressed in overalls, with straw hats and bare feet.
They opened in Bridgeport and were a smash. Within the week, they went to the Harlem Opera House and then to the Palace. They stopped every show they played along the Keith circuit.
In 1921 they wrote and produced their first full length Broadway show. Shuffle Along proved to be one of the defining events of the jazz age, a huge hit, running over 500 performances. The cast included Josephine Baker, Florence Mills and Paul Robeson. Hit songs included “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, “Love Will Find a Way” and “Memories of You”. They toured the country with the show for two years and then opened In Bamville (renamed The Chocolate Dandies. This one didn’t do so well, so they went back to vaudeville and presentation houses. In 1925 they spent 8 months touring England and France. When it was over Sissle wanted to remain and Blake did not. And that was that. Sissle continued to tour Europe with his own bands. Blake came back to the U.S. and worked with various partners and writing songs for revues such as Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1930.
Sissle and Blake teamed up again for Shuffle Along of 1933 with a whole new batch of songs, but it did not fare well. The men continued to write, perform and record, but with ever diminishing success over the years. The success of Sissle and Blake was definitely of a time and of a place – the Harlem Renaissance. In 1948, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” revived in popularity when Harry Truman used it for his campaign song.
Sissle passed away in 1973, just as the soundtrack to the successful movie The Sting (composed by Scott Joplin) was reviving interest in ragtime. Interest in the team’s work grew out of this revival. Blake played a role in a TV movie about Scott Joplin in 1977. A Broadway show called Eubie! opened in 1978, running 439 performances, earning the nonegenerian a profile segment on the CBS magazine program Sixty Minutes. Blake passed away in 1983. He had been retired for one year.
To find out more about history of vaudeville and artists like Sissle and Blake, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.