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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Shifty Blues - Eubie Blake

James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887 – February 12, 1983) was an American composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. In 1921, Blake and long-time collaborator Noble Sissle wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along, one of the first Broadway musicals to be written and directed by African Americans. Blake's compositions included such hits as, "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find A Way", "Memories of You", and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie! featured the works of Blake and opened on Broadway in 1978. Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland to former slaves John Sumner Blake (1838–1917) and Emily "Emma" Johnstone (1861–1917). He was the only surviving child of eight, all the rest of whom died in infancy. In 1894 the family moved to 414 North Eden Street, and later to 1510 Jefferson Street. John Blake worked earning US$9.00 weekly as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks. In later years Blake claimed to have been born in 1883, but his Social Security application and all other official documents issued in the first half of his life list his year of birth as 1887. Many otherwise reliable sources mistakenly give his year of birth as the earlier year, reprinting the false information that had been printed before these official documents and census records came to light. Blake's musical training began when he was just four or five years old. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ, and started "foolin’" around. When his mother found him, the store manager said to her: "The child is a genius! It would be criminal to deprive him of the chance to make use of such a sublime, God-given talent." The Blakes purchased a pump organ for US$75.00 making payments of 25 cents a week. When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from their neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist from the Methodist church. At age fifteen, without knowledge of his parents, he played piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello. Blake got his first big break in the music business when world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans' Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" in Baltimore in 1907. According to Blake he also worked the medicine show circuit and was employed by a Quaker (Quakers) Doctor. He played a Melodeon (organ) strapped to the back of the medicine wagon. Blake stayed with the show only 2 weeks because the Doctors' religion didn't allow the serving of Sunday dinner. Blake said he first composed the melody to the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, which would have made him 12 years old, but he did not commit it to paper until 1915, when he learned to write in musical notation. In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe's "Society Orchestra" which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. The band played ragtime music which was still quite popular at the time. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music duo, the "Dixie Duo." After vaudeville, the pair began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated many songs they had written, and had a book written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. The musicals also introduced hit songs such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way." In 1923, Blake made three films for Lee DeForest in DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process. They were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake featuring their song "Affectionate Dan", Sissle and Blake Sing Snappy Songs featuring "Sons of Old Black Joe" and "My Swanee Home", and Eubie Blake Plays His Fantasy on Swanee River featuring Blake performing his "Fantasy on Swanee River". These films are preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection in the Library of Congress collection. In 1938 Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died later that year at 58. Of his loss, Blake is on record saying, "In my life I never knew what it was to be alone. At first when Avis got sick, I thought she just had a cold, but when time passed and she didn’t get better, I made her go to a doctor and we found out she had TB … I suppose I knew from when we found out she had the TB, I understood that it was just a matter of time." While serving as bandleader with the United Service Organizations (USO) during World War II, Blake met and married Marion Grant Tyler, widow of violinist Willy Tyler, in 1945. Tyler, also a performer and a businesswoman, became his valued business manager until her death in 1982. In 1946, as Blake's career was winding down, he enrolled in New York University, graduating in two and a half years. Later his career revived again culminating in the hit Broadway musical, Eubie!. In the 1950s, interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator. Blake signed recording deals with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records, lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as guest performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals. He was a frequent guest of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Blake was featured by leading conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. By 1975 Blake had been awarded honorary doctorates from Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Dartmouth. On October 9, 1981, Blake received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan. On March 10, 1979 Blake performed with Gregory Hines on Saturday Night Live. Blake claimed that he started smoking cigarettes when he was 10 years old, and continued to smoke all his life. The fact that he smoked for 85 years was used by some politicians in tobacco-growing states to build support against anti-tobacco legislation. Blake continued to play and record into late life, until his death. Eubie Blake died February 12, 1983 in Brooklyn, just five days after celebrating his (claimed) 100th birthday (actually his 96th—see below). He was interred in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His head stone,engraved with the musical notation for I'm Just Wild About Harry, was commissioned by the African Atlantic Genealogical Society (AAGS). The bronze sculpture of Eubie's bespectacled face was created by David Byer-Tyre, Curator/Director of the African American Museum and Center for Education and Applied Arts, Hempstead NY. The original inscription indicated his correct year of birth, but individuals close to him insisted that Eubie be indulged; and paid to have the inscription changed. If you support live Blues acts, up and coming Blues talents and want to learn more about Blues news and Fathers of the Blues, Like ---Bman’s Blues Report--- Facebook Page! I’m looking for great talent and trying to grow the audience for your favorites band! ”LIKE”

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