James Hubert Blake (February 7, 1887 – February 12, 1983) was a composer, lyricist, and pianist of ragtime, jazz, and popular music. With long time collaborator Noble Sissle, Blake wrote the Broadway musical Shuffle Along in 1921; this was one of the first Broadway musical ever to be written and directed by African Americans. Blake's compositions included such hits as, "Bandana Days", "Charleston Rag", "Love Will Find A Way", "Memories of You", and "I'm Just Wild About Harry". The musical Eubie!, which featured the collective works of Blake opened on Broadway in 1978.
Born James Hubert Blake at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1887, to former slaves John Sumner Blake (1838 - 1917) and Emily "Emma" Johnstone Blake (1861 - 1927). He was the only surviving child of eight who all died in infancy. In 1894 the family moved to 414 North Eden Street, and later to 1510 Jefferson Street. John Blake worked earning US$9.00 weekly as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks.
Blake's musical training began when he was just 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 US$75.00 making payments of 25 cents a week. When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from their neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist from the Methodist church. At age fifteen, without knowledge of his parents, he played piano at Aggie Shelton’s Baltimore bordello.
Blake said he first composed the melody to the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, which would have made him 12 years old, but he did not commit it to paper until 1915, when he learned to write in musical notation.
In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with Jimmy Europe's "Society Orchestra" which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. The band played ragtime music which was still quite popular at the time. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville music duo, the "Dixie Duo." After vaudeville, the pair began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated many songs they had written, and had a book written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. The musicals also introduced hit songs such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way."
In 1923, Blake made three films for Lee DeForest in DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process. They were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake featuring their song "Affectionate Dan", Sissle and Blake Sing Snappy Songs featuring "Sons of Old Black Joe" and "My Swanee Home", and Eubie Blake Plays His Fantasy on Swanee River featuring Blake performing his "Fantasy on Swanee River". These films are preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection at in the Library of Congress collection.
In July 1910, Blake married Avis Elizabeth Cecelia Lee (1881–1938), proposing to her in a chauffeur-driven car he hired. Blake and Lee met around 1895 while both attended Primary School No. 2 at 200 East Street in Baltimore. In 1910 Blake brought his newlywed to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he had already found employment at the Boathouse nightclub.
In 1938 Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died later that year at 58. Of his loss, Blake is on record saying, "In my life I never knew what it was to be alone. At first when Avis got sick, I thought she just had a cold, but when time passed and she didn’t get better, I made her go to a doctor and we found out she had TB … I suppose I knew from when we found out she had the TB, I understood that it was just a matter of time."
Blake continued to play and record into late life. He died in 1983 in Brooklyn just five days after celebrating his claimed 100th birthday (actually his 96th -- see below). He was interred in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
“ If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
In later years Blake listed his birth year as "1883" and his 100th birthday was celebrated in 1983. Most sources, including the Encyclopædia Britannica, and a U.S. Library of Congress biography, incorrectly list his birth year as "1883". Every official document issued by the government, however, records his birthday as "February 7, 1887". This includes the 1900 Census, his 1917 World War I draft registration, 1920 passport application, 1936 Social Security application, and death records as reported by the United States Social Security Administration. Peter Hanley writes: "In the final analysis, however, the fact that he was only ninety-six years of age and not one hundred when he died does not in any way detract from his extraordinary achievements. Eubie will always remain among the finest popular composers and songwriters of his era."