If the great composer-pianist, Eubie Blake, were still alive he would be 122. He just might have brought it off. As things stand, living to five days past his 100th birthday on Feb. 7, 1983, he didn't fare so badly in the longevity department. An especially stupendous achievement considering that Blake's daily regimen consisted almost exclusively of 7-Up, whiskey, meat, chocolate and cigarettes. And he was performing almost right up to the end of his life.
Blake's centennial accomplishment is doubly fascinating when you factor in that his mother had ten (!) stillborn babies, or infants who died shortly after birth, before Eubie, a frail but nonetheless healthy baby boy, was born. I've always marveled at how long and hard his mother, Emily, labored to bring genius into the world.
Eubie, himself, felt that his basically illness-free existence was, at least in part, the result of running a very low body temperature. . .somewhere around 96 degrees. Claimed a doctor once told him that it was hard for diseases, germs, and viruses, genetically engineered to flourish at 98.6, to take up lodging in so much cooler and inhospitable a corporial climate. My normal body temperature is also very low, and I've seldom been sick with even so much as a bad cold. So maybe there's a bit of truth to Eubie's medical theories.
He might have also chalked up lasting so long to his almost lifelong refusal to fly. That might have slightly improved his actuarial (no pun intended) chances for survival. “I’ve never been on a plane and never expect to unless I’m handcuffed to a sheriff," he once said. "But, after ninety years on the ground or at sea," according to an internet biography by Dr. Karl Koenig, "Eubie at last took to the air. On May 19, 1973, Eubie made his initial flight to Buffalo, New York, to make some piano rolls. Having conquered his fears, this flight would lead to many others."
One of Blake's more peripheral but nonetheless interesting achievements was having been, along with partner Noble Sissle, among the first of his race to perform on the stage wearing a tuxedo. If not in fact THE first---as he claimed---he was inarguably among the vanguard of newly dignified and empowered African-American entertainers to cast aside the degrading vertiginae (is that a word?) of American minstrelsy. He also appeared, along with Sissle, in a test of talkies made several years before the much more widely vaunted The Jazz Singer. Both men were clad in formal evening attire in the short film.
Not long before Eubie died, I caught him being interviewed on the Today Show. He seemed a bit slow on the uptake, but nonetheless most compos mentis. He was aware of the fact that he was not quite up to speed; for at one point in the dialogue, he interrupted the host (Tom Brokaw?), saying: "Please bear with me. It's all still in there. It just takes a little bit longer to get it out."
I was, am now and always will be Just Wild About Eubie!
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