In a 1972 concert in Berlin, Germany, composer Eubie Blake introduced one of his piano rags by announcing, “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to play you the first number that I composed, in 1899….Well I’ll tell you, what gives me the license to say that – I was born in Baltimore in 1883, the seventh day of February.” Though Blake always maintained that he was born in 1883, numerous government documents show evidence that he was actually born in 1887. Regardless of the year, on that auspicious February 7th the world welcomed a most significant figure in early-20th-century music.
Blake is most famous for his collaborations with Noble Sissle, and specifically for the 1921 hit musical Shuffle Along. The show was the first musical with an all African-American cast to enjoy serious financial success on Broadway, and it helped to launch the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Paul Robeson, and William Grant Still (Still played in the pit orchestra). The most famous song from the show, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” was originally written as a Viennese waltz but underwent numerous rewrites during rehearsals to become the fabulous foxtrot we all know and love today (and that Harry S. Truman selected as his presidential campaign song for the 1948 election). You can hear a 1921 recording of Eubie Blake leading the Shuffle Along Orchestra on the Library’s National Jukebox (and click here to listen to more Eubie Blake selections in the Jukebox)!
Shuffle Along was revived in 1932 and again in 1952, though neither production was successful. “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” along with over 20 other numbers, was also featured in the 1978 musical revue, Eubie!, which in contrast ran for 439 performances. In 2016, the show Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed opened on Broadway starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon and Billy Porter.
And as for Blake’s first piano rag that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog? That would be his Charleston Rag – and look what we hold in our collections! The composer deposited a manuscript piano score for copyright registration in 1917. According to Blake, he first composed the tune in 1899, even though the score itself did not come to the Library’s collections for another 18 years. The Music Division’s Billy Taylor Papers hold an annotated script for a Eubie Blake birthday tribute that Taylor concludes thusly:
Like a rare few in the history of American music, Eubie Blake will withstand the test of time. In fact, many thought he might well live through it. He died in  — shortly after his one hundredth birthday. Yet, he leaves a multi-dimensional legacy – he enriched the literature of ragtime – he brought black music to Broadway – he was influential in the development of Harlem stride piano – and above all, he brought joy and comfort to the millions of people who touched and continue to touch his music.