Eubie Blake - piano
Renowned pianist-composer, ragtime pioneer, and raconteur Eubie Blake was 91 years old at the time of this Great American Music Hall concert. And yet, in spite of his advanced age, he was still very much in command of his prodigious two-handed facility on the keyboard and still possessed a penchant for colorful storytelling that charmed audiences. Performing unaccompanied renditions of some of his most famous rags and other compositions originally written for musical theater productions on Broadway in the '30s, Blake won over this GAMH crowd with his old school pizzazz.
Opening his set with "The Charleston Rag," which he composed as a 16-year-old in 1899, Blake follows with another of his "Classical Rag" and a medley of two George Gershwin compositions, "The Man I Love" and "Rhapsody in Blue."
He precedes a James P. Johnson medley with a story about the godfather of stride piano and his disciples like Willie "The Lion" Smith, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell and Fats Waller, all vaunted piano wizards of Harlem. An advocate of the strong left-hand on the keyboard, Blake demonstrates his driving, left-handed bass lines on a medley of Johnson tunes, including "Charleston," theme song for the Roaring '20s, "Old Fashioned Love," and the gorgeous ballad "If I Could Be With You Just One Hour Tonight."
Blake's "Waltz Marion" is a lovely number written for his wife of 29 years. And he pays tribute to ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin ("the master of us all") with two numbers, "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Elite Syncopation." Next up, Blake tackles a medley of tunes from Shuffle Along, the Broadway musical he wrote in 1921 with his partner Noble Sisle. As Blake jokes about his one-time collaborator, who was notorious for his frugal ways: "He never spent a quarter in his life. He's got a pocket full of money. If I had his money I wouldn't be up here right now." On this engaging medley, Blake segues from "Bandana Days" to "Love Will Find a Way," "Gypsy Blues" (which was performed in the original production by a 15-year-old Josephine Baker) and the smash hit song from that show, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
He saves his most famous tune, "Memories of You" (originally written for Lew Leslie's Blackirds of 1930 and popularized by the Benny Goodman Orchestra) for last. And he concludes his entertaining set with a rousing, syncopated ragtime rendition of the John Phillps Sousa march, "Stars and Stripes Forever."
James Hubert Blake was born in Baltimore on February 7, 1883. His parents were both former slaves who migrated north and found work in Baltimore. Blake showed an early interest in music and began music studies at age seven. By age 15, without knowledge of his parents, he was playing piano in a Baltimore bordello. His first legit job came in 1907, playing piano at the Gans Goldfield Hotel. It wasn't until 1915 that Blake learned to write in musical notation, at which point he began documenting some of his earlier compositions like "The Charleston Rag." Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music duo called the Dixie Duo. They later incorporated many of the songs they had written together into a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which premiered in June 1921 and became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. That production introduced the hit song "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
Blake went on to appear with Sissle in films during the '20s. His career, which began winding down by the end of World War II, was revived in the 1950s with a ragtime resurgence that swept the nation. Blake signed record deals with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records, lectured at major colleges and universities all over the world while also appearing as guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals (including a show-stopping appearance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival). He was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show during the '70s. The musical revue about his life, Eubie!, debuted in 1978 and ran for 439 performances on Broadway. The following year Blake appeared, at age 96, as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live.
In 1981, at age 98, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan. He continued to play and record up until his death on February 12, 1983, just five days after celebrating his 100th birthday. In 1995, the United States Postal Service posthumously issued a stamp in his honor. (Milkowski)