In 1915, Eubie Blake wrote his first song. Right away his new partner, Noble Sissle, suggested that they take it to Sophie Tucker at the Haryland Theater for her to sing.
Tucker, known as the "Last of the Red Hot Mammas," was then in the flower of her career and the perfect showcase performer for a songwriter.
But Blake thought Sissle was crazy. "First thing, you couldn't go backstage to see a white woman in Baltimore," he recalls.
Sissle insisted, however, saying they'd been put out of better places. To their surprise, the musicians got backstage. Tucker liked the song, "It's All Your Fault," and asked for a lead sheet.
"I told her she could have the one we were using," Blake continued. "The ink had run all over it. But she took it."
That was a significant milestone in a rich and colorful career that produced two full-scale. Broadway musicals, "Shuffle Along" and "The Chocolate Dandies," which introduced the "Great White Way" to some of the most urban Afro-American music, dance and humor. It resulted specifically in songs like "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Memories of You" that have become standards.
Blake was a major figure in creating the black presence on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Performers such as Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Hall Johnson. William Grant Still and Paul Robeson all appeared in "Shuffle Along" before going on to greater fame.
Now, 63 years later, Blake is still composing. He turned 95 yesterday and still is going strong.
"People don't believe how old I am," Blake says with a wink and sly smile. "They say I'm lying about my age. But I say I'm lucky to be breathing as old as I am!"
To imagine how long Blake has been on the national musical scene, think of America three-quarters of a century ago. The electric light and telephone were new to the American home and the horseless carriage an object of bad jokes. It was the end of the ragtime era and Americans were dancing the cakewalk.
Blake celebrated his birthday by appearing on the "Today" show, playing piano and reminiscing. Next week he and his wife of 33 years, Marian, will take off for a vacation in Mexico City.
"I don't want to go," says Blake in his high-pitched voice that has become raspier with age. "I guess the longer you live, the more you love your home."
Last week Blake's telephone rang constantly with calls from television stations, newspapers and magazines asking for interviews.
His wife took the calls. Still possessing the graceful presence that marked her as a dancer in the 1920s, she occasionally exclaimed, "I'll be glad when this is over. This is about to drive me crazy."
But she also was excited. "He won't be 95 again," she told a caller. For his part, Blake was taking everything in stride, not everything attention to the phone calls.
His doctor of 31 years comes for a house call. He's there to give the musician an injection for prostate-gland trouble.
"He said he wanted to try this instead of operating on me. If I died on the operating table, he said it would be a mark against him. I can't complain. He's kept me alive for 31 years."
Blake is sitting in the music room of his comfortable four-story Brooklyn home, in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section. The walls are covered with plaques, certificates and framed photographs commemorating Blake's 75 years in show business. Many are recent, having come in the ragtime revival of the early 1970s that focused new attention on him.
"I started playing piano when I was 6," he recalls. "A lady next door gave me lessons. You know not too many black folks had pianos in those days."
He'd shown an early interest in music. At the age of 5 or 6, he had strayed from his mother's side while visiting a downtown department store and wandered into a music shop. He climbed onto an organ stool and startled customers and salesmen by picking out tunes.
"The salesman talked my mother out of her address," Blake remembers. "That was a Saturday night. On Monday morning they backed a truck up to our house and delivered an organ. She put a dollar down and paid 50 cents a week. That way you pay for the organ the rest of your life."
Although his greatest achievements were in musical theater, Blake's first composition was "Charleston Rag," written in 1899, the same year Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" took the country by storm.
The pumping bass and dancing melody line still give "Charleston Rag" a ringing infectious sound when he played it Monday on the "Good Morning America" show.
But at the time he wrote it his mother was furious. "Take that ragtime out of my house," she used to shout when she heard him syncopating church hymns and trying to work out melodies of his own.
Both of Blake's parents were exslaves. He was a stevedore and she was a laundress. They lived in a simple dwelling in East Baltimore. Both were religious.But Blake remembers his mother most.
"My mother was intoxicated with religion," he recalls. "She kept me in church all day on Sunday. Everybody else was out in the streets, seeing the girls, having a good time.
'I'm not an atheist, mind you. But I said, 'If I ever get out of this, I'm not going to anybody's church.'"
He didn't quite keep his word.Still, Blake hasn't been to church in 32 years and he lives across the street from one.
Talking with Eubie Blake is a little like hearing history being recited. He's known many of the great show business figures -- Scott Joplin, Eddie Cantor, Irving Berlin, James Reese Europe, Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Bert Williams, George Walker.
"I met Joplin in Washington in 1910 at a place called Miss Brown's," says Blake, leaning back and scratching his brow. "It was a cabaret on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. A black woman ran it. A lot of people say there were no black places near the White House. But I was there."
Somebody told Joplin that Blake was there and the ragtime king sent for him. "I was sorry I met him," recalls Blake. "He could hardly talk (Joplin was being consumed by syphilis. He told me to keep up the good work."
Through the years Blake has nurtured a masterful sense for timely one-liners. In a recent appearance on the "Tonight" show, he was recounting a boxing match between light heavyweights Battling Nelson and Joe Gans, about that took place in 1908.
Host Johnny Carson asked who the boxers were. Said Blake: "How'd you get this job anyway?"
Yesterday, while being interviewed on radio he was asked how it felt to be 95. He replied. "You ought to try it sometime!"
He's a little hard of hearing, but doesn't let that stop him from composing every day.
"I write the melodies upstairs," he says, "then I come downstairs to the piano and do what I call putting the dress on the girl. I put some harmony under the melody."
And after 75 years of show-business experience. Blake says he has no plans for stopping.
"I ain't going to quit," says the nonagenarian. "When you quit, you lose your touch. Now I'm not going out there when I get so I can't play. But I'll be writing, I'll be doing something."