I'm Just Wild About Eubie--Memories of Eubie Blake
The 1969 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featured one of the best collections of musical talent ever assembled. It starred Count Basie and His Orchestra (whose members included Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate, and Earl Warren). The six-day festival also included performances by Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Milt Hinton, Jacki Byard, Alan Dawson, and Bob Green. New Orleans bands led by Jim Robinson, Sharkey Bonano, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Louis Cottrell, and Johnny Wiggs also appeared. Barry Martyn brought his group of young jazzmen from England, and Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band came from Denmark. Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Eddie Miller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Zutty Singleton, Harry Shields, Tony Parenti, and Sarah Vaughan rounded out the roster of jazz giants.
Amid this mind-boggling array of talent, the festival's most impressive segment may have been a twelve-minute interval by a frail, eighty-six-year-old pianist. He needed assistance entering the stage when producer Willis Conover announced his name. As the applause mounted, his halting gait became a vigorous stride, until at last the little man was scampering toward the piano bench with his hands clasped over his head like a prize fighter. The next few moments were sheer magic. The pianist played with power and joy, juxtaposing an intricate right-hand melody against an electrifying left-handed "oom-pah" bass to create an intense ragtime syncopation.
That was my introduction to James Hubert "Eubie" Blake. In my festival review for Jazz Journal, I wrote:
An 86-year-old charmer, Eubie Blake, recalled an era when ragtime was the vogue. After shocking his southern audience with a few irreverent bars of "Marching Through Georgia," the composer-pianist exchanged some ad-lib remarks with Willis Conover before striding into his "Charleston Rag." He paid tribute to his contemporary C. Luckey Roberts with the latter's "Spanish Venus," followed by a most stirring ragtime version of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The Blake-Razaf classic "Memories of You" received an ovation from the appreciative audience responding warmly to Eubie Blake's youthful ebullience.
After the concert, I noticed the pianist standing alone in a quiet corridor backstage. I complimented him on his excellent performance and requested permission to take his picture. He graciously agreed and posed with bassist Milt Hinton, who approached at that moment. When I offered to send him a copy of the picture, he scoffed and quipped: "You guys have been takin' my pictures for seventy years--and I've never seen one of them!" I promised to send the photo and asked for his address. He opened a small silver case and handed me a business card engraved with the words:
Composer of Shuffle Along
I'm Just Wild About Harry
Lou Leslie's Blackbirds
That was three decades ago. The card, with my scrawled notation "SEND PIC," is still in my Eubie Blake file. Within a week, I sent him the photo. In a few days, I received the first of many handwritten letters he sent to me over the years. His attractive letterhead, emblazoned with the ASCAP insignia, listed, on the left margin, names of his Broadway shows and titles of his song hits. He wrote:
Hello there, friend,
Then, switching to red ink, he added,
And I do mean friend.
Like Geo. M. Cohan used to say--
Then, alternating ink colors on each line, he continued:
My Mother thanks you [green ink]
My Father thanks you [blue ink]
My Sister thanks you [red ink]
My Marion (my wife) thanks you [black ink]
And I thank you! [blue ink] Sincerely, Your friend
P.S. I love the picture with Milt Hinton. I'll have it blown up and hang it in my gallery of great artists.
In 1995, when his image appeared on a thirty-two-cent stamp, my photo of Eubie and Milt Hinton was printed on the first-day-of-issue cachet, mailed during the annual jazz festival at Monterey, California. Blake was born in 1883 in Baltimore, Maryland; his parents were both freed slaves. He began playing the piano at age four, getting his first lessons on a battered old parlor upright. His mother disapproved of all secular music, but Eubie loved ragtime. He was sixteen years old when he wrote "Sounds of Africa" (later titled "Charleston Rag") in 1899--the same year Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" was published. "I didn't write åCharleston Rag' then," he said. "I composed it. I learned to write about fifteen years later."
Eubie regretted that ragtime's early association with saloons and houses of prostitution earned it a reputation as "trashy" music. "We're the only race that threw away its heritage because we were brainwashed by white people who couldn't play it," he once told me. "They said ragtime was ålow down'--and it wasn't art. You will notice I never use the vulgar word åjazz'--I always say åragtime.' By the time I was nineteen, with my long fingers, I could span an octave and a half. My mother always told me to keep my hands in my pockets--she was afraid people would imagine I was a pickpocket because of my long fingers. But I could play tenths easily."
Around the turn of the century, "Little Hubie" began sneaking out of the house every night to play piano at a bordello in Baltimore's tenderloin district. "I didn't dare tell my parents about the job," he said. "I was still a teenager--but I made more money in one night than my father made in a week working as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks. My mother took in washing to earn a few dollars. I hid my earnings under the linoleum in the parlor. Finally, when the pile got too high, I showed them the money. It was several hundred dollars. They no longer insisted I only play religious music."
In 1919 Blake was touring the country with Jim Europe's 369th Infantry Jazz Band when the bandleader was tragically murdered. Noble Sissle assumed leadership of the band for the remaining bookings, and he and Blake hit the vaudeville circuit when the tour ended. They billed themselves as the Dixie Duo, with Sissle singing and Blake at the piano. It was the beginning of a long, very successful partnership.
"Right from the start," Eubie emphasized, "we refused to appear in åblackface'--and no funny shoes and overalls. We came out in beautiful tuxedos, spoke proper grammar--none of that ådees' and ådem' stuff. Ours was the first Negro class act." Assiduously avoiding the stereotypes that hampered black performers, they remained a class act throughout their careers.
In 1921, Sissle and Blake joined another black team, Miller and Lyles, in "Shuffle Along," the first all-black Broadway show in more than a decade. It introduced "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and twenty additional Sissle-Blake tunes. The "showgirls," including Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Freddie Washington, and Florence Mills, received $30 a week. The show ran for 504 performances and spawned three "Shuffle Along" road companies, which broke color barriers in theaters all across the country.
Al Jolson's 1927 film The Jazz Singer is usually identified as the first American motion picture to include sound; the first talking movie actually appeared four years earlier. It was advertised as a "De Forest Phonofilm--it actually talks and reproduces music without use of a phonograph." Sissle and Blake were the only black performers in the stellar vaudeville cast, which also included Weber and Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Phil Baker. The film premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York City in April 1923, making Sissle and Blake the first black performers to appear in a "talkie." Blake made several more film appearances over the years. His last was in Scott Joplin, starring Billy Dee Williams, in 1976--fifty-three years after his screen debut.
"Memories of You," Eubie Blake's most successful ballad, written in collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf, was in the Broadway show "Lew Leslie's Black Birds of 1930." Eubie was always generous in his praise for the Casa Loma Orchestra's trumpet star, Sonny Dunham, who championed "Memories of You" as a jazz tune in the late '30s. Benny Goodman's recording a few years later firmly established the tune as a standard.
During the 1930s, Blake collaborated with Noble Sissle for several New York and London shows. He toured as musical director for USO productions during World War II. After the war he joined the faculty of New York University and toured as a lecturer and ragtime artist. In the 1960s he resumed recording, and in 1972 he established a publishing company. In 1970 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Eubie lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in a three-story brownstone house, the family home of his second wife, Marion. (If Marion was not in the room, he slyly remarked, "When I got the chicken, I also got the coop!") Memories of a long career filled every corner of the house. From the entry door, a long narrow stairway led up to their central living area. Hanging on both sides were framed tributes (including the presidential Medal of Freedom Award) and honorary doctorates from Brooklyn College, Dartmouth, Rutgers, the University of Maryland, and the New England Conservatory. There were also medals, citations, and photos--including hundreds of autographed pictures of musicians, four U.S. presidents, and members of European royalty. This was his gallery. The small upstairs living room, dominated by a baby grand piano, was cluttered with pictures, records, and sheet music. He told me he practiced there three hours each day.
Although he lived to see his one hundredth birthday, Blake's daily diet violated every nutritional guideline. His favorite meal consisted of half a dozen doughnuts and a bottle of 7-Up. "If I knew I'd live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself," he once told me. "People think I'm always drunk, because I stagger a lot. I don't drink anything; it's my arthritis." Blake did smoke, prolifically--two packs of cigarettes a day. "When I was a child," he explained, "my mother always gave me a penny to buy candy on the way to school. I noticed the bigger kids bought cigarettes instead. I began smoking when I was six years old--and never stopped."
Blake always seemed happiest on the stage. In the '70s and '80s, when his popularity was at its peak, it seemed he would continue forever. Although he resisted air travel until he was ninety, Eubie was a busy bicoastal entertainer. He said, "I've never been on a plane and never expect to unless I'm handcuffed to a sheriff." He would arrive in Los Angeles by train to make guest appearances on talk shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, and Mike Douglas. During those occasions, he usually visited our home, relaxing on a recliner, smoking a cigarette, and talking about musicians who had long been forgotten, including many who lived and died around the turn of the century. When I asked him about "One-Leg" Willie, a pianist he'd once mentioned in a letter, Blake said:
His name was Willie Joseph. His mother worked for some rich white people who recognized his talent and sent him to the Boston Conservatory. He was the first Negro to graduate as a classical pianist. He lost a leg in a skating accident in 1900. In those days, Negros weren't supposed to read music. We pretended we couldn't read and people would marvel at the way we could play show music and rags--they thought by ear. The only arrangement I ever copied was Willie's "Stars and Stripes Forever"--I still play it.
In December 1979, the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood hosted the West Coast premiere of Blake's Broadway show, "Eubie!" Lucille and I sat with Eubie and Marion in the front row. The gleam of a pinpoint spotlight hung like a halo over Eubie's bald head during the entire first act. After the final curtain calls, an on-stage ceremony honoring him featured surprise appearances from members of the show's New York cast, including Maurice and Gregory Hines. The after-show reception glittered with Hollywood stars, musicians, and fans.
A few months later, Adelaide Hall, who had been living in London for forty years, made a rare appearance in New York City at Michael's Pub. We were the Blakes' dinner guests at the dazzling opening night and shared Eubie and Adelaide's reunion. Still youthful and attractive at seventy-six, Hall reprised the momentous 1927 wordless vocal on Ellington's "Creole Love Call," confirming the still-regal splendor of her voice. Then she introduced Blake, who climbed on the stage to accompany her on "Memories of You." Seated at our table between sets, the singer reminisced fondly with the eminent composer who had launched her career in 1923.
Blake often said he would never retire. "I'll keep performing until, one day while I'm on stage, the man upstairs says: åNine, ten, you're out!'" A distinguished cast came together to celebrate Blake's one-hundredth birthday on February 7, 1983, with an incredible two-hour concert. Adelaide Hall came from London to sing a medley of tunes from "Shuffle Along," and pianists Dick Hyman, Dick Zimmerman, John Arpin, Max Morath, Billy Taylor, Terry Waldo, and Bobby Short added their talents to the show. The stellar rhythm section featured Howard Alden on banjo and guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Ron Traxler on drums.
Blake, stricken with pneumonia, was unable to attend the hundredth-birthday concert; he watched a special closed-circuit broadcast of the event. The huge bouquet of yellow roses next to his bed was a gift sent by his friend, comedian Bill Cosby.
It was five days after his one hundredth birthday when, as he predicted, the man upstairs said: "Nine, ten, you're out!" At the time Eubie took the final count, he was the only one left who could authentically talk about and play the music from the ragtime era. He was there at the beginning.
The Maryland Historical Society and the Baltimore Cultural Arts Program received his huge collection of memorabilia, documenting the pianist's journey from bawdy houses to concert stages. The Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center, also located in Baltimore, features several large displays and a bronze head of Eubie by noted sculptor Dr. William Douglas Hartley, a gift Lucille and I presented to the museum in 1988.
Eubie Blake's life and work spanned a considerable portion of our nation's musical history. He began in medicine and minstrel shows, made cylinder recordings and piano rolls, and became a major force in the development of the American musical theater. His songs will continue to be a source of joy to music lovers.
Eubie Blake enriched the lives of countless friends and fans. I am fortunate to have been a member of both groups.