Early Life and Training
Eubie Blake was born James Hubert Blake on February 7, 1883, in Baltimore, Maryland, to Emily Johnston and John Sumner Blake. Blake’s religious mother ran a strict household while his father stressed the importance of education, having become literate despite being enslaved.
Blake, whose nickname, “Hubie,” would be tweaked to Eubie, started playing the pump organ as a child with the encouragement of his mother. Though originally slated to play for the church, Blake was drawn to the more free-flowing musical style of ragtime and would sneak out to play at a nearby brothel—Aggie Shelton’s Bawdy House. In 1899, while working at Shelton’s, Blake composed his first rag for piano, “Sounds of Africa,” later known as “Charleston Rag.”
Partnership With Noble Sissle
Blake toured and played at night clubs in the early 1900s. In 1907, he started playing at the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore, owned by African-American prize fighter Joe Gans; there, Blake established a reputation as a stellar performer and composer. (Blake wrote and published his own rag compositions, though he would earn far less than he should have due to unethical music publishing practices.) In 1910, Blake wed classical pianist Avis Lee, a woman he revered as a graceful beauty. They were married until her death in 1939.
In May 1915, while in Baltimore, Blake met singer and lyricist Noble Sissle, and the two embarked on a rewarding partnership. They soon composed “Ot’s All Your Fault,” which became a smash for vaudeville vocalist Sophie Tucker. In 1916, via Sissle’s recommendation, Blake then joined the Society Orchestra, a Harlem-based group led by James Reese Europe.
After Sissle returned from serving in World War I, he and Blake performed on the vaudeville circuit as the Dixie Duo, discarding the prevalent convention of the time of performing in black face.
In 1945, Blake enrolled in a music program at New York University and graduated at the age of 67. During the 1950s, ragtime once again began to be appreciated by the public and hence over the years Blake would be recognized as one of the great living purveyors of the form.
In 1969, he recorded with Columbia Records The 86 Years of Eubie Blake. He became a regular guest on The Tonight Show during the ’70s, received many awards—including the Presidential Medal of Honor—and performed until he was in his late 90s, having ultimately composed more than 350 songs. In 1978, the show Eubie! premiered on Broadway, a hit musical overview of the pioneer’s life. In honor of Blake’s 100th birthday, the Kennedy Center presented the televised Eubie Blake: A Century of Music, which won an Emmy Award in 1983.
James “Eubie” Blake died on February 12, 1983, a few days after turning 96, in Brooklyn, New York.