At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, ragtime music swept across America and Europe. There are many musicians that have made a significant impact on American music, but not many people know about the ragtime composers. These men and women created some of the most memorable melodies in American history.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 11 of the greatest ragtime composers and explore their lives and music.
1. Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Famous African-American composer, Scott Joplin had one of the shortest careers in ragtime history, yet is affectionately known by many as “The King of Ragtime.”
He was born in 1868 in Texas his family members worked as railway workers for a living and musicians as a hobby.
Joplin, therefore, grew up playing music, and by the time he was in his 20s, he left his job as a railway worker himself to pursue a musical career.
Joplin traveled throughout the United States making money as a piano teacher with a number of students going on to become famous ragtime artists themselves, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden (who we’ll look at later).
He is most well known for composing The Entertainer’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Rag’ which is probably the most famous rag of all time and sold 75,000 copies of sheet music in the first six months alone!
In 1916, he developed syphilis-induced dementia, passing away three months later at just 48 years old.
2. Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941)
Ferdinand Joseph Lemoth, a.k.a Jelly Roll Morton, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1890 with his family being part of the Creole community.
He had a tough upbringing and began playing the piano in brothels at the age of 14, earning him the nickname of Jelly Roll Morton.
He was close to his grandmother during this period of time, but she disowned him when she found out where he was playing his music.
In the early 1900s, Jelly Roll started touring the south in minstrel shows and by 1920, he was composing in Hollywood and Chicago.
“Wolverine Blues” was one of his most famous pieces during this period.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, his career took off in New York, including his “King Porter Stomp” which became Benny Goodman’s first real hit.
Nevertheless, Jelly Roll continued to struggle financially and face racial segregation until his death in 1941 from respiratory problems, a complication of a stabbing he suffered in 1938.
3. James P. Johnson (1894-1955)
James Price Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1894 growing up among New York City’s music culture.
His mother taught herself to play the piano and sang in their church choir, so he also grew up with music in the home.
He was a lifelong fan of Scott Joplin and in 1912, Johnson got his own first job as a pianist, beginning his musical career and ending his academic one.
Johnson quickly gained popularity along the East Coast of the United States as a ragtime pianist where he, along with Jelly Roll Morton, released some of the first recorded jazz solos.
Some of Johnson’s most famous include “Harlem Strut“ and “Carolina Shout.”
While his career suffered somewhat during the Great Depression as so many others did, he supported himself through grants and his “Spirituals to Swing” concerts in the late 1930s.
Despite suffering a stroke in 1940, Johnson’s career continued to soar in the jazz and ragtime world.
He passed away in 1955 after suffering another stronger stroke in 1951.
4. Eubie Blake (1887-1983)
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was born in 1887 in Baltimore, Maryland.
His parents were former slaves, and he was the only of his several siblings to live past childhood.
Blake started teaching himself the organ when he entered a music store as a young boy after the store manager convinced the Blakes to buy an organ on account of his raw talent, and he began music lessons with the organist at the local church.
At age 15, Blake secretly began playing piano at a Baltimore bordello, until 1907 when boxer Joe Gans discovered him and asked him to play at the Goldfield Hotel.
Blake began composing and wrote down his now-famous “Charleston Rag,” which he had written the melody for many years earlier.
Blake’s later career success resulted in his 1969 album “The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake” and earned him many appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin.
He passed away at almost 100 years old after a long career.
5. Joseph Lamb (1887-1960)
Born in 1887 in New Jersey, Joseph Francis Lamb was the only non-African American ragtime artist notable to most.
He taught himself piano as a young boy, and in 1907 met his idol, Scott Joplin, while purchasing Joplin’s music.
Joplin recommended Lamb to John Stark, who began publishing his music, and between 1908 and 1919, Stark published 12 of Lamb’s rags.
The heavier, melody-dominant style included “Ethiopia Rag” and “The Top Liner Rag.”
The lighter style with narrower melodies included “Champagne Rag” and “Bohemia Rag.”
Lamb continued composing until his death of a heart attack at age 72.
6. Arthur Marshall (1881-1968)
Born in 1881 in Missouri, Arthur Owen Marshall was 15 when Scott Joplin visited his town of Sedalia, and he stayed with the Marshall family.
Marshall and his friend Scott Hayden became Joplin’s students with Marshall going on to study music at George R. Smith College and earning a teaching license.
In the early 1900s, Marshall and Scott Hayden lived with members of the Joplin family.
Marshall played in as many tours and contests as the existing racial discrimination would allow.
He often collaborated with Joplin, including on “Swipsey Cake Walk.”
He announced his retirement from music in just 1917 but later participated in some ragtime revivals before his death in 1968.
7. Scott Hayden (1882-1915)
Scott Hayden was born in 1882 in Missouri
As previously mentioned, he began studying with Scott Joplin alongside Arthur Marshall when he was in high school, and eventually lived with the Joplin family for a time.
The two ragtime composers were also related by marriage as Joplin’s first wife was Harden’s sister-in-law.
Hayden had a short and difficult life with his wife Nora passing away while giving birth to their daughter in 1901.
He moved to Chicago, remarried, and got a job as an elevator operator before dying of tuberculosis in 1915.
His short career did include some well-known collaborations with Joplin, such as “Something Doing” and “Kismet Rag.”
He also wrote some of his own pieces, including “Pear Blossoms,” which he never was able to finish.
8. James Scott (1885-1938)
James Sylvester Scott was born in 1885 in Missouri with both of his parents being former slaves.
In 1902, he began working at a music store washing windows, but started playing on the pianos in the shop.
Due to his popularity with patrons, the shop owner began printing Scott’s work.
Some of his notable pieces from this time were “A Summer Breeze,” “March and Two Step” and “On the Pike March.”
In 1905, Scott left to find Scott Joplin, who introduced him to John Stark.
Throughout Scott’s career, Stark published many of his, including “Frog Legs Rag.”
Scott’s health and career had begun deteriorating when motion picture replaced theater in popularity and he moved in with his cousin after the death of his wife.
Despite these hardships, Scott continued teaching, composing, and leading an eight-member band until his death at age 52 from dropsy.
9. Ben R. Harney (1872-1938)
Benjamin Robertson Harney was born in 1872 in either Kentucky or Tennessee.
For some time, historians debated whether he was white or African American, eventually determining that he was white from a prominent intellectual family.
In his childhood, Harney took formal piano lessons, but in his teens became much more interested in the ragtime he heard around the saloons in Louisville.
Harney began composing music, some of his earliest hits being “You Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down” and “Cake walk in the Sky” in the early 1890s.
In 1896, Harney relocated to New York City.
He spent time performing and also wrote “Ben Harney’s Rag Time Instructor,” on how to rag and other instructional books.
A heart attack in 1928 ended his career, and a second in 1938 cost him his life at age 66.
10. Tom Turpin (1871-1922)
Thomas Million John Turpin was born in Savannah, Georgia in the early 1870s.
Little is known about his childhood, but he opened a saloon in his twenties that hosted many ragtime artists at the time.
Many believe that Turpin’s own “Harlem Rag” from the 1890s was the first rag published by an African American musician.
Turpin was known for his large 6 foot, 300-pound stature and he was so tall for his era that they had to raise his piano on blocks.
In addition to publishing rags, including “Ragtime Nightmare” and “St. Louis Rag,” he served as a deputy constable and was considered one of the first politically active African American individuals in the St. Louis area.
Turpin died around 1922, but little more is known about his death.
11. Fats Waller (1904-1943)
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was born in 1904 in New York City where he was the seventh of 11 children total and the fifth to survive childhood.
His father was a reverend and his mother was a musician, and he began playing piano at age six, learning the organ at the family’s church when he was 10.
At just 15, he left school to become an organist at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater and one year later, he had already composed his first rag.
His earliest pieces include “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues.”
In 1935, his tune “A Little Bit Independent” was No. 1 on “Your it Parade” for a full two weeks.
Waller continued to write and perform music with great success until his death in 1943 from pneumonia.
He passed away in the middle of a cross-country tour and while his hit “Early to Bed” was in the middle of its time on Broadway.
Summing up our List of Famous Ragtime Composers
As you can see, ragtime is a style of music that not only has an interesting history but also had powerful influences on other genres.
And while you probably had heard of Scott Joplin, some of the other ragtime composers on our list are ones that not many have heard of.
Are there any that you think we’ve missed off? Let us know and we’ll add them to our list of ragtime composers soon.