Pianist Eubie Blake, who composed his first song in 1899 at age 16, never went to college. But he picked up his sixth honorary doctorate last night, this time at the University of Maryland.
"I don't know the words those gentlemen (the other degree recipients) used," he said with a smile. "So I'll tell you what George M. Cohan would. My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you."
Blake, a bit wobbly in step at age 95, was helped off the platform and performed "charleston rag," his first composition, written in his native Baltimore, and "Memories of You."
Introducing the former, he pointed out that he wrote it in the same year Scott Joplin wrote "Maple Leaf Rag," the most popular rag composition of all time.
"This is for the musicians now," he said snappily. "I wrote this in six flats. So it's kind of hard for a popular pianist to play."
Then he tore into it, thumping the bass line and dragging the melody line. Afterward came "Memories of You," the gentle theme he wrote for the Broadway show, "Blackbirds of 1930."
The audience, including 2,100 graduates, clapped in rhythm as h played a medium bounce tempo portion, and gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion.
At a news conference later, Blake, who is represented on Broadway currently by a revue that is drawing packed houses, said he is in good health despite smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (he started smoking at age 6). "Ain't nothing wrong with me," he said. "I'm just old."
Others receiving honorary degrees were U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest L. Boyer, the commencement speaker, and Athelstan Spilhaus, a meteorologist and oceanographer known as the father of the Sea Grant Program.