Richard C. Norton
Operetta Research Center
28 August, 2020
Eubie Blake: Rags, Rhythm and Race arrives as a most welcome and long overdue biography of pianist and composer Eubie Blake at a tumultuous moment in the United States’ discourse on the history and role of race in American culture. This African-American musician’s life spanned almost a century from 1887-1983, and what an epic adventure it is!
Born the only surviving son of former slaves, James Hubert (Eubie) Blake was drawn to the keyboard at age 5, took piano lessons at 7, and was playing in the bordellos and clubs of Baltimore at age 15. Largely self-taught, Blake could play piano ragtime, popular dance band or classical music with a keen ear. By age 25 he toured with James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, when Blake met Noble Sissle, his best known collaborator and lyricist. Together they formed an enduring vaudeville act playing and singing their own songs in formal tuxedo attire.
With access to Blake’s own archival papers unseen until now, biographers Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom have painstakingly reconstructed Blake’s itinerary through the long-forgotten worlds of early jazz, popular music, vaudeville, musical revue, overnight Broadway success with Shuffle Along in 1921.
Blake’s efforts to sustain a career in musical theatre foundered with Elsie (1923), The Chocolate Dandies (1924), Blackbirds of 1930, and Shuffle Along of 1933. Some of his standards are still heard today, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” “Memories of You,” and “You’re Lucky to Me,” to name but a few. Eubie Blake struggled fitfully, contributing the WPA (Works Progress Administration) musical revue Swing It (1937), a Harlem revue Tan Manhattan in 1941, a USO tour Shuffle Along up to 1946, and a fast flop Shuffle Along of 1952. (USO stands for “United Services Organization;” it was created by President Roosevelt in 1941 as an umbrella producing organization to provide live entertainment for Allied troops all over the world.)
Biographers Carlin and Bloom relate multiple instances of Eubie Blake’s encounters at every turn with structural or systemic racism in everyday life, music publishing, live performance, and within US armed forces. Blake’s life story was littered with unproduced musicals, friendships sustained, partnerships broken, failures and dead ends. And yet with two long-lasting marriages, Blake remained resilient and good-natured in the face of adversity.
All three previous biographical volumes, Bolcom and Kimball’s handsomely illustrated Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake (1973), and Al Rose and Lawrence T. Carters biographies from 1979, have long been out of print. This new volume, essential reading for anyone interested in American musical theatre, adds a great deal more to this narrative post 1975.
Unlike most composers of popular music who experience a long steady decline, Eubie Blake lived to enjoy a startling, unpredictable renaissance, beginning in the late 1960s. Carlin and Bloom trace Blake’s serendipitous climb back up from obscurity. First, America’s rediscovery of ragtime music, then producer John Hammond’s revelatory two LP set for Columbia Records, The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake in 1969, opened the door. Television appearances, a resurgent concert and recording career followed, even Blake’s own record label.
Having outlived all his contemporaries, Eubie Blake became both a symbol, survivor and ambassador for ragtime and African-American musical theatre, his pianistic skills amazingly intact. In 1978, a tiny showcase of songs from Shuffle Along expanded into a full-scale Broadway revue bearing his name Eubie!, running for a year plus a national tour.
This improbable rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story is an irresistible and truly American narrative, honoring a real musical survivor. Why now, a new Eubie Blake bio at Oxford University Press? His struggle with systemic American racism and the fickle tastes of popular music makes for a most enjoyable, satisfying read, thanks to Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom.