A Tribute To The Late American Composer Eubie Blake
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this July Fourth, we're going to talk about the life and music of a great American composer Eubie Blake. His music is being revived in the Broadway show "Shuffle Along" about the making of Blake's 1921 musical of the same name. And a new album called "Sissle And Blake Sing Shuffle Along" collects 1921 recordings of songs from the show, including some recorded by Blake and the show's lyricist Noble Sissle and this Blake piano roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE SONG, "SHUFFLE ALONG MEDLEY")
GROSS: The 1921 musical "Shuffle Along" not only left us with great music, it changed Broadway. It was created by and starred African-Americans. It brought new syncopated rhythms and dances to Broadway and even helped launch the Harlem Renaissance.
We're going to listen back to the program on Blake that we produced in 1998 as part of our series on American popular song. It features pianist Dick Hyman and singer Vernel Bagneris performing songs by Blake. Vernel has performed on Broadway, co-created and co-starred in a Jelly Roll Morton review and the black vaudeville review "One More Time." He was in the HBO series "Treme."
Dick Hyman is an expert in the piano styles of the teens, 20s, and 30s and has been the composer and music director on many films, including a few Woody Allen movies. We'll hear about the impact of Eubie Blake's work and the obstacles he faced as an African-American composer from theater historian Robert Kimball. He helped rediscover Blake in the late 1960s and co-authored the book "Reminiscing With Sissle And Blake." Eubie Blake not only wrote musicals, he wrote for vaudeville. We'll start with one of his vaudeville songs written with lyricist Noble Sissle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER WHERE MY SWEETIE CAN BE")
VERNEL BAGNERIS: (Singing) You can say what you choose. I've got the darndest blues that any love birdy ever had. Believe me, I've got 'em bad. For since my sweetie went away, why, then both night and day, all I could say is, I wonder where my sweetie can be. I wonder why she ever quit me. I wonder who could have loved her more than I or made her think they thought more of her. I wonder when she quit me. And then I wonder what I did that caused me to lose. I wonder with whom she up and flew. I wonder what he has got and what I have not. And then I wonder if she ever wonders of me. I wonder where my sweetie can be.
I wonder where my sweetie can be. I wonder why she ever left me. I wonder who could have loved her more than I or made her think they thought more of her. I wonder when she quit me. And then I wonder what I did to cause me to lose. Now, I thought that I was a real Romeo, but this other guy's got some tricks I don't know. And then I wonder if she ever wonders of me. I wonder where my sweetie can be.
GROSS: Great. Wow. (Laughter). Now, Robert Kimball, you rediscovered Eubie Blake in the late '60s. Tell us a little bit about him biographically - where he was from.
ROBERT KIMBALL: Eubie Blake was born in Baltimore on February the seventh, 1883. He was the son of slaves. In fact, his father had 21 children by two wives. Eubie was the only one of the 21 children to live to adulthood.
GROSS: Not only did he live to adulthood - how old was he when he died?
KIMBALL: One hundred years and five days.
GROSS: Amazing (laughter). Some of the songs we'll be hearing today are from "Shuffle Along," Eubie Blake's 1921 musical written with Noble Sissle. And this is really a landmark musical in the history of the Broadway stage. Robert Kimball, what's so important about "Shuffle Along" musically?
KIMBALL: "Shuffle Along" described itself accurately as a musical melange. It brought together so many diverse styles and influences. You hear operetta in a song like "Love Will Find A Way." It's very important, and it was a very courageous decision for Sissle and Blake to have a beautiful ballad that could've come right out of a Jerome Kern show as part of their score. It also reflected the vaudeville acts of the four creators. Miller and Lyles, who were the book writers of "Shuffle Along" - later, Miller became particularly well-known for writing "Amos 'N' Andy" routines.
But Miller and Lyles had these wonderful sketches that they did together. And it was their comic routines that provided the basis for the books that they wrote for "Shuffle Along" and other musicals of that period. And then you had Sissle and Blake's remarkable vaudeville act, which was really crucial. And it was an extended 15 or 20-minute sequence which would involve a diversity of materials.
And it was the coming together of all these different influences that made "Shuffle Along" special. Another part about "Shuffle Along" that has always struck me very forcefully is that because there were no other black musicals on Broadway when they gathered the talent together to bring "Shuffle Along" to Broadway, they were able to obtain the very best talent in the black community.
GROSS: Who are some of the people who'd come out of "Shuffle Along?"
KIMBALL: We think of certainly - well, one person who you don't think of was Paul Robeson. He was a member of the cast of "Shuffle Along." The most beloved of the black artists of the '20s, Florence Mills, was from "Shuffle Along." In many ways, the most famous of performers from that period who later went on to achieve great renown in Europe was Josephine Baker. She was from "Shuffle Along."
Two great figures in music were playing in Eubie's orchestra - Hall Johnson, whose choir was world-renowned, and the extraordinary composer William Grant Still, who played the oboe in the "Shuffle Along" orchestra. These are just some of the great people who were part of that show.
GROSS: For now, Dick, I'm going to ask you to do a song from "Shuffle Along." This is called "I'm Craving For That Kind Of Love." It was the showstopper of the musical. You want to do it for us?
DICK HYMAN: That would be great.
HYMAN: (Playing piano).
BAGNERIS: (Singing) I'm wishing and fishing and trying to hook someone sweet, like you'd meet in a book. I'll be her Romeo. I won't be no phony-o (ph). She may be the baby of some other guy. I'll take him and make him say bye-bye. And when I get her, I will set her upon my knee and make my plea to kiss me, kiss me, kiss me with her tempting lips, sweet as honey drips. Press me, press me, press me to her loving breast while I gently rest real love's tender size while I gaze - let me gaze into her eyes, eyes that will just hypnotize.
Then I know she'll whisper, whisper, whisper to me soft and low - something nice, you know? Honey, honey, honey when there's no one near, my baby dear, she'll say huddle me, cuddle me, cling to me, sing to me, spoon to me, croon to me, sigh to me, cry to me. I'm craving for that kind of love.
Kiss me with her tempting lips, sweeter than honey drips. Whisper something soft and low, whisper something nice, you know? Huddle me, cuddle me, cling to me, sing to me, spoon to me, croon to me, sigh to me, cry to me. And I'm craving for that kind of love.
GROSS: That's a really fun song (laughter). Now, when that song was sung in "Shuffle Along" in 1921, it was done by someone named Gertrude Saunders, and what an unusual style she had of singing. I thought maybe we'd listen for a little bit of that 1921 recording and how - hear how it sounded back then and her voice. Why don't we give that a spin? It's from 1921. Gertrude Saunders.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CRAVING FOR THAT KIND OF LOVE")
GERTRUDE SAUNDERS: (Singing) How about you kiss me? Kiss me, kiss me with your tempting lips? The way that honey drips. Press me, press me to your loving breast and let me gently rest. Breathe love's tender sighs. (unintelligible) hypnotize. Whisper, whisper...
GROSS: That's an amazing style of singing. I mean it's this really odd combination of this operatic style and syncopation. Is this something brand-new happening, this kind of singing, Robert Kimball?
KIMBALL: This has also got an element of sort of, like, a blues shouter in there, too.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KIMBALL: Yes, it's the beginning, of course, of the recordings. I believe Bessie Smith had just started to record at that time, and you're having this great infusion of artists for that tradition as well as - again, very classically trained, and it's the bringing together of these incredible styles plus some extraordinarily vocal embellishments, that use of portamento and things that we just don't hear anymore.
GROSS: What influence did "Shuffle Along" have on other Broadway musicals? As we were saying, you know, it brings this kind of mix of a light opera sound and ragtime and syncopation.
KIMBALL: I would think musically, and knowing from what I've heard from Irving Berlin and others, that Mr. Berlin said that the impact of "Shuffle Along" was extraordinary in that there's no question that the kind of syncopated songs that he wrote after, like "Everybody Step" and "Pack Up Your Sins And Go To The Devil," which were for the "Music Box Revues," were influenced by songs like the "Baltimore Buzz," "Craving For That Kind Of Love," which he heard in "Shuffle Along." It's hard to imagine Gershwin's fascinating rhythm without hearing what Sissle and Blake were doing before.
GROSS: We're listening back to our 1998 program about composer Eubie Blake. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our tribute to composer Eubie Blake which was originally broadcast in 1998 and features singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theater historian Robert Kimball.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: One of the things I find so interesting about this period of Eubie Blake's music is that you have this constant cross-influence of black and white influences 'cause you have Gershwin and Berlin picking up on what Blake is doing, but you also have Eubie Blake being very inspired by operatic, kind of light opera composers, like Leslie Stuart, who's British, and Victor Herbert. So this is constant cross-influence. It's - the influences don't just go one way.
KIMBALL: Eubie felt that this was the way it should be, and he said it was very difficult for black artists to write in styles that are associated with the white culture, the high culture. And so originally, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," the most famous song from "Shuffle Along," was a waltz. And Lottie Gee, the leading lady of "Shuffle Along," said, Eubie, you can't have a waltz in a colored show. You have to make it a one-step.
And so he made the change. He said he didn't want to make the change, but of course she was right, he said, given what happened with the song. But it was his wish to be able to write any kind of music he wanted. And it was very hard for him to be able to do that because of these these expectations, and I think with "Love Will Find A Way" the ballad, they were all terrified.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned that "I'm Just Wild About Harry" was originally done as a waltz and that wasn't considered, you know, a kind of black form so he changed it to, what, a one-step? Can you play it for us both ways, Dick? Just a few bars?
HYMAN: Well, sure. The way that we generally play it is (playing piano).
If you were to play it as a waltz, it'd be (playing piano).
GROSS: Right. And, you know, during the period that Eubie Blake starts writing, a lot of African-American performers are still performing in blackface. And when Sissle and Blake were starting off with their vaudeville act, did they ever perform in blackface? Where they expected to do that?
KIMBALL: They wouldn't do it. They didn't do it. And the reason they were able to achieve that was because they had both worked very closely with James Reese Europe. They were part of his musical aggregate. Eubie was a pianist and a leader for some of the Europe bands that performed, and Sissle was a vocalist. And they performed a great deal in the homes of millionaires, and they were always expected to dress properly, respectfully and, at times, formally. And they felt that for their audience, they must dress the same way when they performed on the vaudeville stage.
GROSS: So they'd just say no if people expected them? (Laughter).
KIMBALL: They said no.
GROSS: There's a song I'm going to ask you to do, Vernel and Dick, from "Shuffle Along" called, "If You've Never Been Vamped By A Brownskin, You've Never Been Vamped Before," and when we were thinking of including this song in our show today, a couple people said, well, maybe you don't want to sing that song because, you know, the lyrics might sound stereotyped or offensive to contemporary ears. And, Vernel, what's your take on that?
BAGNERIS: I think that Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake were extremely careful themselves about how they would represent themselves to their audience. So I don't have a problem with that other musical material from the period. When you say, darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi, then I'd change it to, people beat their feet on the Mississippi. And I do the number. A lot of African-American artists won't even touch the material once they see a lyric. I prefer to see if the lyric can be doctored in some way and then present this wonderful song and not lose the material.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song? This is from "Shuffle Along," the 1921 musical by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. We have Dick Hyman at the piano, Vernel Bagneris singing.
BAGNERIS: (Singing) Now, Deacon Birch, of Mount Zion Church, was hauled up into court. He was brought in by his wife, I think, and charged with non-support. A sealskin brown with jet-black hair caused Deac to lose his head. And when the judge called Deac to speak, these are the words he said. Your Honor, if you've never been vamped by a brownskin, you've never been vamped at all. Well, a vamping is vamp is a brownskin, and believe me, judge, that ain't no stall. A high brown gal will make you break out of jail. A chocolate brown will make a tadpole smack a whale. A pretty sealskin-brown, I mean one long and tall, would make the silent sphinx out in the desert bawl. If you've never been a vamped by a brownskin, judge, you've never been vamped at all.
A high brown gal will make you break out of jail. A chocolate brown will make a tadpole smack a whale. A pretty sealskin-brown, I mean one long and tall, would make the silent sphinx out in the desert bawl. If you've never been vamped by a brownskin, judge, you've never been vamped at all. You've never been vamped at all. I arrest myself.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's great. Now, Vernel, I know you actually met Eubie Blake.
BAGNERIS: Yeah, when I was doing "One More Time."
GROSS: Your New Orleans musical.
GROSS: Did he share any good stories with you?
BAGNERIS: Well, not so much stories as much as help me to face what later on I would get nationally with the press.
GROSS: What do you mean?
BAGNERIS: He'd come down to New Orleans to see the show when we were actually in our original workshop period with it before we opened in New York. And I asked him about the blackface because I knew that he had personally refused to appear in blackface. And he was saying that when you're doing an authentic piece about the T.O.B.A circuit, that...
GROSS: That was, like, the black minstrel and vaudeville circuit.
BAGNERIS: Yes, the Theatre Owners Booking Association's circuit of colored vaudeville - that the truth is that the majority, 99 percent of the performers, would have to have that moment. And so tell the truth was his thing. You know, if you're going to do a historic piece, you want to paint it as clearly and as purely as you can. So that was a big help for me to have a man who to me was such a legend, 96 years old at the time, watching a show and saying, this feels good, this feels like this is the truth and it feels like you haven't painted it out of - bleached it out of commission.
GROSS: We'll continue our tribute to composer Eubie Blake with singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theater historian Robert Kimball after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with more of our tribute to composer Eubie Blake. His 1921 musical, "Shuffle Along," written with lyricist Nobel Sissle, was created by and starred African-Americans and brought new syncopated rhythms and dances to Broadway. The current Broadway musical "Shuffle Along" is about the making of the show. And a new album called "Sissle And Blake Sing Shuffle Along" collects 1921 recordings of songs from the show.
Our tribute was originally part of FRESH AIR's series on American popular song, and was first broadcast in 1998. It features singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theater historian Robert Kimball.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now, another interesting thing about Eubie Blake and the period that he starts performing - and it's a period when African-American composers are starting to organize through - well, James Reese Europe, probably the most famous African-American conductor of his time, and he died - I think it was in 1919...
GROSS: Yeah. He organized something called the Clef Club, which I guess was the first black musicians' union. Robert Kimball, do you want to say a few - just a little bit about the kind of organizing that's happening in the African-American music world in New York at about the time of "Shuffle Along?"
KIMBALL: Well, you had the theatrical organization called The Frogs, which included virtually all of the writers who are writing for the musical stage, both lyricists and composers. And that was a - kind of a fraternal organization. So these groups were organizing. And I think probably the crucial factor that - in addition to all of that that changed the feelings at the time was World War I.
And World War I broke down some of the old racial lines because black soldiers were fighting and Jim Europe formed this tremendous band, which achieved renown in Europe. And he brought it back to the United States. And indeed, it was really a triumphant expression of unity and, well, a sort of oneness with the American experience.
GROSS: One of the many interesting things about "Shuffle Along" is that it relates to the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, Langston Hughes says that the reason why he came to New York and went to Columbia University is because he really wanted to see "Shuffle Along." And in fact, let me quote something that Langston Hughes wrote about "Shuffle Along" and its importance to the Harlem Renaissance, which we think of as being largely a literary renaissance.
Langston Hughes wrote, (reading) certainly it was the musical review, "Shuffle Along," that gave a scintillating sendoff to that Negro vogue in Manhattan. Everybody was in the audience, including me. It gave just the proper push, a pre-Charleston kick, to that Negro vogue of the '20s that spread to books, African sculpture, music and dancing.
You know, after reading that, I wanted to hear more about the Harlem Renaissance and its connection to "Shuffle Along," so we actually invited an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, David Levering Lewis, talk about it. He wrote the book "When Harlem Was In Vogue" about the Renaissance, and he won a Pulitzer for his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois.
And he told me that another music event that helped launch the Harlem Renaissance was a victory parade in 1919 after World War I in which the most famous African-American conductor of the day, James Reese Europe, led his 369th U.S. Infantry Hell Fighters Band through Manhattan. Noble Sissle had helped him organize this band and had been the drum major overseas. Eubie Blake was a close friend of Europe's. So I asked Lewis about the importance of this victory parade.
DAVID LEWIS: The march that James Reese Europe led from Washington Square straight up the spine of Manhattan into Harlem was the victory parade of the returning 369th Infantry Regiment, perhaps the most highly decorated infantry regiment - American regiment - participating in the hostilities of World War I. The symbolism of that march with all of New York turned out, white and black, troops covered with confetti - by the time they reached 125th Street, each soldier had a damsel on his arm - the symbolism of that march was that jazz was marching into the American scene with a vengeance.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite Eubie Blake song or one that has stuck with you?
LEVERING LEWIS: I guess I would say - I would select "Love Will Find A Way." It's charming. It's lilting. It's simple, and it shows Blake early on at his craft at the top of it.
GROSS: David Levering Lewis, thank you very much for talking with us.
LEVERING LEWIS: My pleasure.
GROSS: David Levering Lewis is the author of "When Harlem Was In Vogue." I have to say, "Love Will Find A Way" is one of my favorite songs of Eubie Blake's too. It was a love ballad in the musical "Shuffle Along," and I think it was also Sissle and Blake's theme song in their act. So I thought maybe we could listen to a 1921 recording of Sissel and Blake performing this song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE WILL FIND A WAY")
NOBLE SISSLE: (Singing) Love will find a way though the skies now are gray. Love like ours can never be ruled. Cupid's not schooled in that way. Dry each tear-dimmed eye. Clouds will soon roll by. Though fate may lead us astray, my dear, mark what I say, love will find a way.
GROSS: That's really wonderful. We're talking about and reviving some of the music of Eubie Blake today. Joining me are singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and music theater historian Robert Kimball, who's the co-author of "Reminiscing With Sissle And Blake." Robert Kimball, the song that we just heard, a love ballad, "Love Will Find A Way," that was apparently a very radical song to include in a musical like "Shuffle Along," which was a musical written and performed by African-Americans. Why was it considered so radical to have a love ballad in a black musical?
KIMBALL: Before "Shuffle Along," when one black artist sang about love to another, it was usually done in a style burlesquing love. It was something that was supposed to not take place on the stage. So there was a great sense of foreboding that the authors of "Shuffle Along" felt when they decided to go ahead and put this song in their show, not only in it but the main song of the show, the theme song of the show.
And they - Sissle and Blake tell the story of opening night when Sissle, Miller and Lyles were terribly worried about the reception that the song would receive. And they describe themselves as having one foot in the door of the stage - the stage door to the theater - and one out in the alleyway getting ready to take off for Harlem because they were sure that Eubie Blake was going to be pelted with fruit and vegetables by people who were angry at hearing a song like that in a colored show.
GROSS: Was there a problem?
KIMBALL: No, not all. It was not at all a problem. It was a great song from the show and one that was sung and performed everywhere.
GROSS: So did that open the door for it to just be accepted on stage?
KIMBALL: Absolutely. The show, the song, everything opened the doors. It really said to all black Americans, not only in musical theater but in all the arts - and this is why it's so closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance - that now anything is possible. We can do whatever we want to do. If we can break into this bastion where there had been segregation and difficulties for black artists to be heard, then we can try to write, to compose and perform. And indeed they did. And so it became really a clarion call and it gave opportunities, at least for a while because it changed in the '30s, for black artists to be seen in shows on Broadway as a regular part of the Broadway experience.
GROSS: We're listening back to our 1998 tribute to composer Eubie Blake. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our program about composer Eubie Blake - originally broadcast in 1998 - featuring singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theater historian Robert Kimball.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: "Shuffle Along" brought a lot of new syncopated rhythms to Broadway and, Dick, I thought maybe you could play one of Eubie Blake's most famous ragtime pieces and talk a little bit about what - well, Eubie Blake's contribution to ragtime.
HYMAN: Well, Eubie Blake was one of the originals. He lived long enough - that's the remarkable thing - that he long outlived the age of ragtime. But he was there as a teenager, at any rate, and the original date of Charleston rag was 1899, which would've made Eubie 15 or 16 years old. Interestingly enough, that peace was not known under that title at first. He recorded it in the early 1920s under the title "Sounds Of Africa." The form of Charleston rag, as almost all piano rags, is the same as the form of the march. There's a first theme, a second theme, a first theme again and finally the third theme, which some people refer to as the trio and - sometimes with interludes between - "Charleston Rag."
(Playing "Charleston Rag").
GROSS: Whoa, I bet that wasn't easy to learn (laughter). We're here reviving some of the great songs of Eubie Blake, and my guests are singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theater historian Robert Kimball. After "Shuffle Along," Sissle and Blake resumed their vaudeville act, took it to Europe. Meanwhile, on Broadway, "Shuffle Along" had helped launch a series of other music reviews starring African-Americans. And Eubie Blake ends up writing for one of those a few years later, and I'm thinking of the "Blackbirds" revue of 1930.
There was a series of musical revues called "Blackbirds Of 1928," "Blackbirds Of 1930," and for the "Blackbirds Of 1930" he teamed up with Andy Razaf who had worked with Fats Waller. And some of the songs they wrote were "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Black And Blue" and "Honeysuckle Rose." And Vernel and Dick are going to do a song that comes out of "Blackbirds of 1930." It's called "You're Lucky To Me." And I think it was Ethel Waters who originated this in the actual show. Vernel, Dick, you want to give this one a go?
BAGNERIS: (Singing) Never since a child was I reconciled by the folks who laugh at bugaboos. Voodoos haunted me, trailed me constantly till the day you came my way like good news. Whenever you're near all my fears disappear. Dear, it's plain as can be you're lucky to me. My only luck charms are your two loving arms. Anybody can see you're lucky to me. No harm can happen to me anymore. I'm writing 13s all over my door. My mother and dad thought that my luck was bad. Now like me they agree you're lucky to me.
No harm can happen to me anymore. I'm writing 13s all over my door. My mother and dad thought that my luck was bad, but now like me they agree, baby, you're lucky to me.
GROSS: And that's a really contemporary-sounding song...
GROSS: ...I think, you know, melodically. And, in affect, you know, Barry Singer wrote a biography of Andy Razaf, and in that book Singer says that Razaf said that some of the intervals in "Lucky To Me" were really innovative at the time and that Ethel Waters particularly enjoyed the song and that she said when she sang it I've never sung changes like that before. And Andy Razaf said to her neither has anyone else (laughter). Dick Hyman, what do you think is particularly innovative for its time about the intervals in that song?
HYMAN: Well, the harmonies that the intervals go with (playing piano) - that's wonderful. And that's very untypical of that period.
GROSS: We're listening back to our 1998 program about composer Eubie Blake. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH Air. Let's get back to our tribute to composer Eubie Blake, which we originally broadcast in 1998. It features singer Vernel Bagneris, pianist Dick Hyman and theather historian Robert Kimball.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Robert Kimball, you rediscovered Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel in the late 1960s. How did you meet him? How did you find him?
KIMBALL: I would say that I was one of the people who helped rediscover Eubie. I was, at that time, the curator of the Yale American Musical Theater Collection, and I was looking to build the archives. And one day, I was speaking to John Lahr, the writer, and he said my father - his father, Bert Lahr, the great actor-comedian - suggested that the very first people you should contact - me contact - were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. So actually it was Bert Lahr who arranged for John Lahr and myself to go up and meet Noble Sissel. And this would've been I'm sure in the spring of 1967. And we had a visited Sissel. He told us maybe just weeks before he was going to throw out all his old files and his old materials...
KIMBALL: ...That he'd said no one is interested in them. There's no reason to keep them. And by this miracle we were able to get there in time. We didn't know how close we were to losing this extraordinary heritage. Well, he said, if this interests you fellas, I'll call my old pal up and go out and visit him in Brooklyn. So he made a phone call and he said I have these two boys here who would like to meet you and if we could come out. So Sissel drove us out to 284A Stuyvesant Ave., where Eubie and Marian Blake lived. As Eubie said, when he married Marian, I got the coop with the chicken. It's her house that he was moving into. And we were greeted there by Eubie and the afternoon that I spent there was one of the most memorable in my life.
GROSS: Dick Hyman, you knew Eubie Blake. Any good stories you want to share with us?
HYMAN: Well, I...
GROSS: Or any tips that he gave you about the piano?
HYMAN: (Laughter) Well, I visited him at the coop, as you say. We were putting together a show honoring Eubie's 100th birthday, which appeared on public television. And I think it was called, brightly enough, "A Century Of Music: Eubie Blake." And we went through his files of old material, and it seemed to me that he had written a song at least one song a day for his entire life. There they were in his own hand, and we found a whole lot of things which we used on that show, including the song "(I'd Give A) Dollar For A Dime," which Joe Williams reintroduced. I don't know if it had much of a history before that time. And since that time, it's been taken up by a number of singers. I think Joe's was the first performance.
GROSS: It's a wonderful song. It would be one of the songs that I would make an argument really should be revived again (laughter). I mean, this is a song I'd really like everybody to hear and to remember. I'd like to see it back in circulation. In fact, maybe you could start recirculating it (laughter) right now (laughter). Would you do it for us, Vernel?
BAGNERIS: Yeah, it'd be great. (Singing) That little jukebox right over there is like a magic key for it can take me anywhere on wings of memories. I'd give a dollar for a dime. I've got to hear that record play again, turn love's December into May again, bring me the thrill just one more time. I'd give a dollar for a dime so I can hear that sweet refrain again that carries me down lovers' lane again, back when the world was all in rhyme.
It seems that song was written for us. Every word and note has charms. Our two hearts would sing the chorus as I held you in my arms. I'd give a dollar for a dime. My aching heart is on my sleeve again, to close my eyes and make believe again. I'd give a dollar for a dime to play that record one more time.
GROSS: What a great song. We've heard a lot of great songs today by Eubie Blake. And it's interesting, you know, right before he died when he became celebrated with the help, Robert Kimball, of the book that you wrote and the shows that you worked on with him, his songs were kind of regaining popularity again. And then in the past few years I feel like he's been forgotten all over again (laughter) so, you know, I'd love to hear more of his songs back in circulation. And I want to thank all of you for helping us bring back some of his songs on the show today. It's really been so pleasurable to hear them performed. Thank you pianist Dick Hyman, singer Vernal Bagneris, theater historian Robert Kimball. Thank you.
KIMBALL: Thank you.
HYMAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Our tribute to Eubie Blake was originally broadcast in 1998 as part of our series on American popular song. Performances of the new backstage musical "Shuffle Along" continue on Broadway until July 24. The new album "Sissle And Blake Sing Shuffle Along" collecting 1921 one recordings was recently released by Harbinger Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Our tribute was conceived, researched and produced with project consultant Margaret Pick of Pacific Vista Productions with assistance from Terry Bronson (ph). It was recorded by engineer Mike DeMark at the studios of WNYC in New York and edited by Tracy Tannenbaum (ph). Ann Marie Baldonado did the rebroadcast editing. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk with Larry Tye about his new biography of Robert F. Kennedy, focusing on his transformation from stalwart anti-communist to liberal icon. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.