Blake was born at 319 Forrest Street in Baltimore, Maryland, to John Sumner Blake (1838–1917) and Emily "Emma" Johnstone (1861–1927), both of whom had been slaves. He was the only surviving child of eight, all the rest of whom died in infancy. In 1894, the family moved to 414 North Eden Street, and later to 1510 Jefferson Street. John Blake earned US$9.00 weekly working as a stevedore on the Baltimore docks.
Blake's musical training began when he was four or five years old. While out shopping with his mother, he wandered into a music store, climbed on the bench of an organ, and started "foolin’ around". When his mother found him, the store manager said to her, "The child is a genius! It would be criminal to deprive him of the chance to make use of such a sublime, God-given talent." The Blakes purchased a pump organ for US$75.00, making payments of 25 cents a week. When Blake was seven, he received music lessons from a neighbor, Margaret Marshall, an organist for the Methodist church. At age fifteen, without his parents' knowledge, he began playing piano at Aggie Shelton's Baltimore bordello. Blake got his first big break in the music business in 1907, when the world champion boxer Joe Gans hired him to play the piano at Gans's Goldfield Hotel, the first "black and tan club" in Baltimore.
According to Blake, he also worked the medicine show circuit and was employed by a Quaker doctor. He played a Melodeon strapped to the back of the medicine wagon. Blake stayed with the show only two weeks, however, because the doctor's religion didn't allow the serving of Sunday dinner.
Blake said he composed the melody of the "Charleston Rag" in 1899, when he would have been only 12 years old. It was not committed to paper, however, until 1915, when he learned to write musical notation.
In 1912, Blake began playing in vaudeville with James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, which accompanied Vernon and Irene Castle's ballroom dance act. The band played ragtime music, which was still quite popular. Shortly after World War I, Blake joined forces with the performer Noble Sissle to form a vaudeville musical act, the Dixie Duo. After vaudeville, the pair began work on a musical revue, Shuffle Along, which incorporated songs they had written, and had a book written by F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles. When it premiered in June 1921, Shuffle Along became the first hit musical on Broadway written by and about African-Americans. The musical also introduced hit songs such as "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Love Will Find a Way."
Blake made his first recordings in 1917, for the Pathe record label and for Ampico piano rolls. In the 1920s he recorded for the Victor and Emerson labels among others.
In 1923, Blake made three films for Lee DeForest in DeForest's Phonofilm sound-on-film process: Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, featuring their song "Affectionate Dan"; Sissle and Blake Sing Snappy Songs, featuring "Sons of Old Black Joe" and "My Swanee Home"; and Eubie Blake Plays His Fantasy on Swanee River, featuring Blake performing his "Fantasy on Swanee River". These films are preserved in the Maurice Zouary film collection in the Library of Congress collection. He also appeared in Warner Brothers' short film Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932), with the Nicholas Brothers, Nina Mae McKinney, and Noble Sissle.
In July 1910, Blake married Avis Elizabeth Cecelia Lee (1881–1938), proposing to her in a chauffeur-driven car he hired. Blake and Lee met around 1895, when both attended Primary School No. 2, at 200 East Street in Baltimore. In 1910, Blake brought his newlywed to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he had already found employment at the Boathouse nightclub.
In 1938, Avis was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died later that year, at the age of 58. Of his loss, Blake said, "In my life I never knew what it was to be alone. At first when Avis got sick, I thought she just had a cold, but when time passed and she didn’t get better, I made her go to a doctor and we found out she had TB … I suppose I knew from when we found out she had the TB, I understood that it was just a matter of time."
While serving as bandleader with the United Service Organizations (USO) during World War II, he met Marion Grant Tyler (1896-1982), the widow of the violinist Willy Tyler. Blake and Tyler married in 1945. She was a performer and a businesswoman and became his valued business manager until her death in 1982. In 1946, as Blake's career was winding down, he enrolled in New York University, graduating in two and a half years. Later his music career revived, culminating in the hit Broadway musical, Eubie!.
In the 1950s, interest in ragtime revived and Blake, one of its last surviving artists, found himself launching yet another career as ragtime artist, music historian, and educator. He signed recording deals with 20th Century Records and Columbia Records, lectured and gave interviews at major colleges and universities all over the world, and appeared as a performer and clinician at top jazz and rag festivals.
Blake was a frequent guest of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. He was featured by leading conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Fiedler. In 1977 he played Will Williams in the Jeremy Kagan biographical film Scott Joplin. By 1975, he had been awarded honorary doctorates from Rutgers, the New England Conservatory, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and Dartmouth. On October 9, 1981, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Ronald Reagan.
Eubie!, a revue featuring the music of Blake, with lyrics by Noble Sissle, Andy Razaf, Johnny Brandon, F. E. Miller, and Jim Europe, opened on Broadway in 1978. The show was a hit at the Ambassador Theatre, where it ran for 439 performances. The production received three nominations for Tony Awards, including one for Blake's score. The show was filmed in 1981 with the original cast members, including Lesley Dockery, Gregory Hines and Maurice Hines. Blake performed with Gregory Hines on the television program Saturday Night Live on March 10, 1979.
Blake continued to play and record until his death, on February 12, 1983, in Brooklyn, just five days after celebrating his purported 100th birthday (actually his 96th birthday; see below).
He was interred in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His headstone, engraved with the musical notation of "I'm Just Wild About Harry", was commissioned by the African Atlantic Genealogical Society (AAGS). The bronze sculpture of Blake's bespectacled face was created by David Byer-Tyre, curator and director of the African American Museum and Center for Education and Applied Arts, in Hempstead, New York. The original inscription indicated his correct year of birth, but individuals close to him insisted that Blake be indulged and paid to have the inscription changed.
If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.
Blake was reported to have said this on his birthday in 1979, but it has been attributed to others and appeared in print at least as early as 1966 (when it was attributed to an anonymous 90-year-old golf caddie).
In later years, Blake listed his birth year as 1883; his 100th birthday was celebrated in 1983. Most sources, including the Encyclopædia Britannica, and a U.S. Library of Congress biography, incorrectly list his birth year as 1883. Every official document issued by the government, however, records his birthday as February 7, 1887. This includes all official documents issued in the first half of his life, including the 1900 census, his 1917 World War I draft registration, 1920 passport application, 1936 Social Security application, and death records as reported by the United States Social Security Administration. Peter Hanley writes, "In the final analysis, however, the fact that he was only ninety-six years of age and not one hundred when he died does not in any way detract from his extraordinary achievements. Eubie will always remain among the finest popular composers and songwriters of his era."1969: Nomination for a Grammy Award for The 86 Years of Eubie Blake in the category of "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Small Group or Soloist with Small Group".
1972: Omega Psi Phi Scroll of Honor
1974: Doctor of Fine Arts, Rutgers University
1974: Doctor of Humane Letters, Dartmouth College,
1978: Doctor of Fine Arts, University of Maryland
1979: Doctor of Music, Morgan State University
1980: George Peabody Medal, Johns Hopkins University
1981: Presidential Medal of Freedom, October 9, 1981, awarded by President Ronald Reagan
1982: Doctor of Music, Howard University
1995: United States Postal Service stamp issued in his honor
1995: Induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, New York City
1998: James Hubert Blake High School built in Cloverly, Maryland, in his honor
2006: The album The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake (1969) was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. The board annually selects songs that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."