Eubie Blake and His Incredible Score for Shuffle Along

We do not know that much about Eubie Blake (1887-1983), other than the fact that he was a great ragtime piano player and composer. However, Wikipedia has some very good information which we have copied out and are providing here.

“Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland to Emily “Emma” Johnstone and John Sumner Blake, both of whom had been slaves. He was the only surviving child of eight, all the rest of whom died in infancy. It is believed that his father, John Blake, earned $9.00 weekly working as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks.

“Blake’s musical training began when he was 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 $75.00, making payments of 25 cents a week. When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from a neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist for the Methodist church. At age 15, without his parents’ knowledge, he began playing piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello. Blake got his first big break in the music business in 1907, when the world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans’s Goldfield Hotel, the first ‘black and tan club’ in Baltimore.

“Blake said he composed the melody of the ‘Charleston Rag’ in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old. It was not committed to paper, however, until 1915, when he learned to write 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. Shortly after WWI, Blake joined forces with the performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville musical act, the Dixie Duo.”

Blake, Sissle, F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles “were African-American vaudeville veterans who first met in 1920 at an NAACP benefit in Philadelphia. None of the four had ever written a musical, or even appeared on Broadway.  Promoters were skeptical that a black-written and produced show would appeal to Broadway audiences. After finding a small source of funding, Shuffle Along toured through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. However, with little funding, it was difficult to meet travel and production expenses, and the cast rarely got paid. When the show came back to New York, about a year later, during the Depression of 1920-21, the production owed $18,000 and faced strong competition on Broadway in a season that included Ziegfeld’s Sally and a new edition of George White’s Scandals. It was only able to book a remote theater on West 63rd Street that had no orchestra pit.”

The show opened on May 23, 1921 and closed, according to Norton’s Chronology, July 15, 1922 after a run of 484 performances.

“In the end, however, the show earned $9 million from its original Broadway production and three touring companies, an unusual sum in its time.”

The story revolves around political corruption in Jimtown and highlights a newcomer, Harry Walton, who runs on a platform of reform.

Gerald Bordman, in his Chronicle on American Musical Theatre, says that “The book represented no step forward in the musical theatre, but the music certainly did. Blake’s was a foot-stomping score. Its rhythms provoked an orgy of giddy dancing that had audiences shouting for more tap routines, soft shoes, buck and wing, and precision numbers. The hit, of course, was ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry.’ ”

Continuing, Bordman noted that “… the score was first class all the way. Whether in a stunning, ahead-of-its-time love ballad like ‘Love Will Find a Way’ … or the racy festivity of ‘Bandana Days’ (essentially a chorus number), Blake’s melodic gift and taste were unfailing.”

In the days that follow, we will try to piece together as many audio and video clips that we can find that authentically present the music from the show. We have found some clips of Eubie Blake as an older man, and they give a great deal of pleasure. We are featuring Eubie Blake in today’s Monday Morning Post because of the date it opened on Broadway; however, it is ironic that today is also Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day of recognition.