Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Eubie Blake

1883-1983 / Lyricist, composer, pianist

Composer and performer Eubie Blake had been playing piano in Baltimore bars and saloons when he began to experiment with ragtime, a jazz style featuring syncopated melodies. At the age of just 16, Blake composed his first rag, "The Charleston Rag."

Blake met singer Noble Sissle in 1915, and the pair formed a vaudeville act called the Dixie Duo. Breaking an accepted but racist tradition of the time, they performed not in blackface but in tuxedos. (Previously, black performers used exaggerated make-up to make their faces appear darker.) Blake and Sissle's first song, "It's All Your Fault," performed by Sophie Tucker, became an overnight hit. It also kicked off a long and fruitful songwriting partnership.

In 1921, composer Blake and lyricist Sissle joined writers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey L. Lyles to create Shuffle Along, Broadway's first all-black musical comedy. Cast members included Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson; all three would go on to stardom. Shuffle Along also launched many of Blake's most enduring songs, among them "Love Will Find a Way" and "I'm Just Wild about Harry."

Building on the success of Shuffle Along, Blake and Sissle created two more hit musicals, Elsie and Chocolate Dandies. Working independently, Blake composed tunes for Swing It, the series of Blackbirds musical revues, and the self-titled tribute Eubie! Success came his way, but he never tired of advancing the careers of other African-American musicians. Blake performed benefit concerts on behalf of the NAACP and the Urban League, as well as numerous black youth groups and schools.

In 1948, presidential candidate Harry Truman adopted "I'm Just Wild about Harry" as his official campaign song. When Truman won the election, Blake was summoned to Washington, D.C., to work on a new arrangement for his inauguration—only to be replaced at the last minute by a white singer.