Ragtime, for most Americans, meant a tinkling piano; and no one played the ragtime piano any better or longer than Eubie Blake. Blake, a musician, composer, and performer born in Baltimore in 1883, published his first rags in 1914. He met his lifelong friend and collaborator, Noble Sissle, the following year. The team of Blake and Sissle went on to write and perform such notable musical hits as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and such successful Broadway shows as "Shuffle Along."
Eubie Blake was one of the most important figures in early-20th-century African-American music, and one whose longevity made him a storehouse of the history of ragtime and early jazz music and culture. Born in Baltimore in 1883, Blake began playing piano professionally when he was 16; he wrote his first composition, "Sounds of Africa," (later retitled "Charleston Rag") around the same time. His career did not really take off until he met Noble Sissle in 1915. Together, Blake and Sissle wrote many hits. Blake also collaborated with Andy Razaf (on "Memories of You"), Henry Creamer, and other writers, composing more than 350 songs.
James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was born on February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, Maryland. John Sumner Blake, Eubie's father, a former slave, was a Civil War veteran and a stevedore. Eubie's mother, Emily Johnston Blake, also a former slave, was a laundress. The youngest of 11 children, Blake was the only one of his brothers and sisters to survive infancy. The Blake home, recalled Blake in Al Rose's Eubie Blake, was a very strict one. Blake's mother was a devoutly religious woman who gave much of her time to her church, and who tolerated absolutely no inappropriate behavior. Infractions of her rules, Blake remembered, resulted in corporeal punishments swift and severe.
One of the few demands of Blake's father was that his son receive an education. John Blake was taught to read as a slave a rare opportunity and, therefore, was adamant about the importance of literacy. Eubie Blake, however, did not remember his school days fondly, partially owing to general disinterest and frequent fights.
Blake's musical training began around the age of four. He first learned to play on a pump organ his mother had purchased in the hope that he would use his talents to the service of the church. Blake took his first piano lessons from Margaret Marshall, a next - door neighbor. Blake recalled being given the usual standards to play, as well as hymns, which kept his mother happy. However, he was more drawn to the music he heard drifting into his window from the many nightclubs and brothels in his neighborhood. Unable to resist the infectious rhythms and melodies of this raucous music, Blake's practice turned to perfecting this new style of playing.
Eubie Blake on stage at the age of 98 playing Charleston Rag.