Features and Reviews
Remembering Eubie Blake
By Bill Mitchell
It was over thirty years ago that I first met Eubie Blake, one of the earliest and greatest of the East Coast ragtimers. His "Charleston Rag," originally titled "Sounds of Africa," dates back to 1899, the year that Scott Joplin's "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag" were published. Born in 1883, he lived to be arguably the most famous centenarian in the country. I felt myself fortunate to see him in person on a few occasions, and will share with you some of the remarks I included in my diary following a couple of parties for Eubie.
July 21, 1969
July 7, Monday evening, there was a reception for Eubie Blake at Milt Larsen's home theater in Los Angeles. Present were Mr. And Mrs. Eubie Blake, Shelton Brooks, and Maple Leaf Club musician-members: Dick Zimmerman (emcee), Dave Bourne, Bob Bradford, Chuck McCluer, Walter Colvin, Pat Gogerty, Robbie Rhodes, Jim Hession, Kathy Backus, Rod Miller, Park Mathe, W. C. Chester, myself, and host Milt Larsen.
Eubie and Shelton engaged in much hearty repartee and reminiscence. Both men are 86. After the MLC musicians had each played a couple of numbers, Eubie and Shelton played. Eubie performed "Charleston Rag," "The Dream Rag," "Eubie's Boogie," "Swanee River" (a concert arrangement), snatches of "Fizz Water" and "Chevy Chase," "Memories of You," Chaminaud's "Scarf Dance," "Stars and Stripes Forever," and "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
Shelton treated us to his familiar compositions, "Darktown Strutters' Ball," "Some of These Days," and "Walkin' the Dog."
Eubie regaled us with anecdotes: boyhood and his mother's strictness, early music lessons, Baltimore street parades, learning to write songs, Don Lambert's spectacular performance at the Newport Jazz Festival on "Tea for Two," and Jim Europe, who was a big man physically as well as musically.
January 9, 1973
Last night Ethel and I had the good fortune to be invited to a party for Eubie Blake and his wife, Marion, who arrived by train from New York Sunday evening. They are in L.A. for a filming of a Duke Ellington special Wed. night at the Shubert Theater. This will be shown on network TV in February.*
The party was hosted by Floyd and Lucille Levin at their Studio City home. Also present were Leonard Feather, Barry Martyn, and a few other personal friends of the Levins. There was a buffet supper and conversation at this delightful, informal reception.
We talked at length with Eubie - I should say listened, for he is an indefatigable talker, and loves to reminisce. He spoke of the early years he was in show biz, and of the collaborators he had worked with. Noble Sissle is still living, but is quite senile half the time, Eubie says. In fact, most of his friends are senile, and Eubie keeps from that state by regular daily practice (two hours, till he starts making mistakes and starts cussing; then his wife stops him) and by frequent public appearances. He will be ninety in February, and is remarkably spry and alert for his age. As we left he complemented Ethel on her dress. Ethel said she wore it because it is the warmest thing she owns. Quipped Eubie, "Even warmer than your husband?"
Eubie spoke of Irving Berlin, "Izzy," as his friends call him, who is still alive, but never appears in public anymore.
He had high praise for him as a songwriter, although not as a pianist. "He plays in six flats usually, and sometimes five flats, and isn't any better in five flats."
Eubie spoke of being accused of stealing famous songs. "Gypsy Blues" from Victor Herbert's "Little Gypsy Sweetheart," for example. He said he "writes around" songs, but that is not stealing. "Memories of You" he frankly acknowledges to be written around "To a Wild Rose," at least in part.
I brought along a copy of Max Morath's "Giants of Ragtime" folio, and Eubie looked over the rags in it. He said he didn't like "Chevy Chase" and "Fizz Water," but was pleased with "Tricky Fingers" and "Dictys on Fifth Avenue." He explained that a "dicty" was someone like Martin Luther King, Julian Bond, etc., a distinguished Negro. He said "Tricky Fingers" was difficult to play. He commented that the Lucky Roberts rags were greatly simplified and put in easy keys. He said he didn't know many of Joplin's rags.
I presented him with a copy of my "Ragtime Recycled" LP, for which he was very grateful. Later in the evening when the Levins were playing their copy and "Maple Leaf Rag" came up, Eubie commented to Ethel, "That sounds like it's in F. I usually play it in A-flat." Thus Eubie revealed that he had perfect pitch, for he was absolutely correct. I had recorded it in F for a lark, a la the Lu Watters band version.
Eubie is lively, and laughs frequently in genuine amusement at the things he tells. He is a good mimic, and in his stories of old cronies he often imitates the way they sound.
The only real sign of age in Eubie is the inability to recall names spontaneously. He is only too aware of this, and apologized for not being able to come up with the name he wants immediately. However, he invariably recalls the name a few minutes later and gives it.
Eubie drinks neither alcholic beverages nor coffee. However, he smokes cigarettes and has a sweet tooth. He especially enjoyed the cake and candies that were offered last night. He has never traveled by airplane. When he went to Germany for an appearance he sailed. When he comes to California, he always takes the train, although the delays and inconveniences sometimes annoy him. His hearing is sharp, and also his vision.
He spoke warmly of Dave Bourne, who was unable to be present last night. Dave is a grand fellow, well loved by all musicians and fans. Talking with Leonard Feather, I asked if he knew Dave. He didn't as yet, but had arranged over the phone for Dave to guest lecture in his course on jazz. Feather had just flown in from England, where he attended his father's funeral. I told him I had enjoyed his review of the film "Lady Sings the Blues," and had seen it. He said he had to admit Diana Ross did a good job of acting, although he still contended that the movie might just as well been called something like "Sadie Jones Sings the Blues" for all that it had to do with Billie Holiday. Leonard is a neighbor of the Levins, living just down the street.
It will be interesting to see how much attention Eubie gets on the TV special. He and Marion are becoming skeptical; Willie "The Lion" Smith was canceled, as were some others, and the producers seemed quite casual about rehearsals, telling Eubie to show up Tuesday.
Eubie spoke lovingly of Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite." Marian said they were going to look up William Grant Still**, but he wasn't listed in the phone book. Possibly he's in the Musicians' Directory.
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*I don't recall anything about the Ellington special in which Eubie was supposed to appear. I don't even know if it ever came through. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't ever get off the ground.
**William Grant Still was a distinguished black composer. He wrote "An Afro American Symphony," and even did a few of Artie Shaw's big band arrangements in the early forties.