Scott Joplin was dubbed the “King of Ragtime” for his unique compositions and amazing ability to improvise on the piano. He composed forty-four ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. “Maple Leaf Rag” became ragtime’s first and most influential hit.
Joplin was born near Texarkana, Texas, in 1868. His father was an ex-slave from North Carolina and his mother was a freeborn woman from Kentucky. His mother worked with a family as a domestic worker. When she would take Joplin with her, he was able to play the family’s piano. He taught himself to play by sight and improvisation, and received some guidance from friends.
A German immigrant music teacher heard a young Joplin play, and was so impressed that he gave him music lessons for free. The music teacher exposed Joplin to various forms of European music, such as folk and opera.
Joplin was also heavily influenced by gospel hymns, spirituals, dance music, and work songs. During his teenage years he played at church gatherings and at social events, and he became known as a musical genius who did not need a piece of music to go by, and he could make up his own music.
When Joplin decided to make a career as a pianist, he found out that there were not very many opportunities for him. Besides the church, brothels were one of the only places where he could make money, so he played jig-piano in red-light districts in the mid-South.
Joplin took classes in composition and counterpoint at one of the nation’s first all-black academic institutions, the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri.
In 1893 he performed for visitors to the World’s Fair in Chicago. He was not an official performer, but he found work in the cafes at the fair. There he formed his first band. Joplin was one of the biggest hits at the fair.
Joplin’s first hit came when he moved to Sedalia. He worked at the Maple Leaf Club and the Black 400. In 1899 he sold his “Maple Leaf Rag” to a Sedalia music publisher. The piece was an immediate hit and ragtime’s first popular piece. The piece influenced hundreds of “rags” written by other composers.
Maple Leaf Rag became the first instrumental to sell over one million copies, and it helped ragtime become a popular musical form.
Joplin moved to St. Louis in 1900. There he produced some of his best-known work, such as “The Entertainer,” “Elite Syncopations,” March Majestic,” and “Ragtime Dance.”
Joplin moved to New York in 1907, where he formed the Scott Joplin Music Company. He passed away in 1917, at the age of 44.
Joplin helped rejuvenate American popular music, and he set the standard for ragtime compositions. He helped pave the way for young black artist to reach American audiences of both races.
In 1970 Joplin was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1976 he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Motown Productions produced a Scott Joplin Biographical film starring Billy Dee Williams. In 1983 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer as part of its Black Heritage commemorative series.
Modern technology has allowed music fans to enjoy his work. Websites such as youtube.com have videos of his songs, including performances by Joplin himself. Simply type his name in the search box and numerous videos will be displayed.