Rhapsody in Black

Ragtime legend Eubie Blake's career traversed musical eras

American ragtime pianist and composer James Hubert 'Eubie' Blake was known internationally for his compositions and performances. Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Rhapsody in Black - Eubie Blake

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October 27, 2022

The music known as ragtime started in the late 1800s. In the 1970s, pianist and composer Eubie Blake was one of the only survivors of the early ragtime era, and he was still going strong.

James Hubert Blake was born in Baltimore in 1887. After starting his music education at an early age, the highly skilled pianist started composing rags that were so challenging, they had to be simplified before being published. In 1946, he retired from performing and attended New York University, studying a method of composition called the Schillinger System, which he then used to transcribe music that he knew from memory but had never written down.

He came out of retirement in the 1970s and performed until just days before his death in 1983.

Musical selections from Eubie Blake

Eubie Blake: “Two Variations on the Theme from ‘Fantasy on the Swanee River’”

By the early 1920s, Blake was famous worldwide for his performances and compositions. In 1923, he performed in several of the earliest experimental sound films made by Lee DeForest in New York. This is one of those recordings.

“Charleston Rag”

In the 1890s, Blake’s parents, who were formerly enslaved, put together enough money to buy their son a foot-pumped reed organ. This allowed Blake to start his music education at an early age. He said he composed the melody of his famous "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12. He did not commit it to paper until 1915, when he learned musical notation.

"Shuffle Along Overture"

In 1915, Blake met Black bandleader, singer and lyricist Noble Sissle. The duo began a 57-year partnership, writing for vaudeville, revues, musical comedy and operetta. In 1921, Sissle and Blake had a breakthrough with their musical Shuffle Along. It brought authentic ragtime and jazz dancing to Broadway for the first time and opened new avenues in musical theater for both Black and white performers. The musical ran for 503 performances and toured America for three years.


Credits

Host: Tesfa Wondemagegnehu

Producer: Dan Nass

Writers: Andrea Blain and Scott Blankenship

Additional music selections: Ines Guanchez

Executive Producer: Julie Amacher