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Baltimore Historical Treasures

Icons of Baltimore, the unsung mecca of jazz & blues...


Eubie Blake was born James Hubert Blake in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1883. He played the organ at six years old, got his first job playing in a brothel at 15, and made his professional stage debut in a Pennsylvania medicine show at the age of 18.

In 1905, Blake moved to New York City, where he decided to try to publish his first song, "Sounds of Africa." He asked the influential but fiery Will Marion Cook to accompany him to the publisher, and his song was accepted for $100. However, when Kurt Schindler, the arranger who was going to score it, asked why Blake changed keys without modulation, Blake related: "Cook flared up and said, `What right have you to question my protege? How long have you been a Negro?' `I'm only asking a question,' Schindler said. `Well you have no right to ask it. We write differently from other people.' `Good day, gentlemen,' said Schindler, and all bets were off." The song, renamed Charleston Rag, was not published until after 1919.



The Royal Theatre, first opened in 1922 as the black-owned Douglass Theatre, was the most famous theatre along West Baltimore City's Pennsylvania Avenue that was one of a circuit of five such theaters for black entertainment in big cities. Its sister theaters were the Apollo in Harlem, the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Regal Theatre in Chicago and the Earl Theater in Philadelphia. All of the biggest stars in black entertainment, jazz and blues performed at the Royal. Ethel Waters debuted there, as did Pearl Bailey, who sang in a chorus line. Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller worked as accompanists. Singer Louis Jordan Duke Ellington, The Tympany Five, Etta James, Nat King Cole, The Platters, The Temptations, and The Supremes, as wekk as a 40-piece, all female band with Count Basie called the Sweethearts of Rhythm, were all performers at the Royal. Baltimore City's first talking motion picture was shown there: 1929's Scar of Shame, featuring a black cast.


Billie Holiday was the daughter of Clarence Holiday. Her early life is obscure, as the account given in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, is self-serving and inaccurate. Her father abandoned the family early and refused to acknowledge his daughter until after her first success. At some point in her childhood, her mother moved to New York, leaving her in the care of her relatives who, according to Holiday, mistreated her. She did menial work, had little schooling, and in 1928 went to New York to join her mother.


 William Henry "Chick" Webb, despite being under five feet tall, was one of the giants of swing and taught us all a lesson about overcoming handicaps.  He was born February 10, 1909 in Baltimore.  At a young age, he contracted spinal tuberculosis that left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs.  Doctors recommended he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints.  From then on, he took to drumming.  First on pots and pans and oil drums.  After selling newspapers, he saved enough to buy a drum set, which used special custom-pedals, so that he could reach them, due to his small stature.  He moved to New York at the age of 17 and started playing with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington.