The only known photograph of Blake, ca. 1927
Jacksonville, Florida, or Newport News, Virginia, United States (uncertain)
|Died||December 1, 1934 (aged 38)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Little is known of Blake's life. Promotional materials from Paramount Records indicate he was born blind and give his birthplace as Jacksonville, Florida, and it seems that he lived there during various periods. He seems to have had relatives in Patterson, Georgia. Some authors have written that in one recording he slipped into a Geechee or Gullah dialect, suggesting a connection with the Sea Islands. Blind Willie McTell indicated that Blake's real name was Arthur Phelps, but later research has shown this is unlikely to be correct. In 2011 a group of researchers led by Alex van der Tuuk published various documents regarding Blake's life and death in the journal Blues & Rhythm. One of these documents is his 1934 death certificate, which states he was born in 1896 in Newport News, Virginia, to Winter and Alice Blake (his mother's name is followed by a question mark). Nothing else is known of Blake until the 1920s, when he emerged as a recording musician.
Blake recorded about 80 tracks for Paramount Records from 1926 to 1932. He was one of the most accomplished guitarists of his genre and played a diverse range of material. He is best known for his distinct guitar playing, which was comparable in sound and style to ragtime piano. He seems to have lived in Jacksonville and to have gone to Chicago for his recording sessions, at one point having an apartment at 31st Street and Cottage Grove. According to van der Tuuk et al., he apparently returned to Florida for the winter. In the 1930s he was reported to be playing in front of a Jacksonville hotel.
Blake married Beatrice McGee around 1931. In the following year he made his final recording at the Paramount headquarters, in Grafton, Wisconsin, just before the label went out of business. For decades nothing was known of him after this point, and it was rumored that he met with a violent death; Reverend Gary Davis heard he had been hit by a streetcar in 1934. The research of van der Tuuk et al. suggests that Blake stayed in Wisconsin, living in Milwaukee's Brewer's Hill neighborhood, where Paramount boarded many of its artists. He seems not to have found work as a musician. In April 1933 he was hospitalized with pneumonia and never fully recovered. On December 1, 1934, after three weeks of decline, Beatrice Blake summoned an ambulance. He suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage and died on the way to the hospital. The cause of death was listed as pulmonary tuberculosis. He was buried in Glen Oaks Cemetery, in Glendale, Wisconsin.
Blake's first recordings were made in 1926, and his records sold well. His first solo record was "Early Morning Blues", with "West Coast Blues" on the B-side. Both are considered excellent examples of his ragtime-based guitar style and were prototypes for the burgeoning Piedmont blues. Blake made his last recordings in 1932; his career ended with Paramount's bankruptcy. Stefan Grossman and Gayle Dean Wardlow have suggested it is possible that only one side of Blake's last record is actually by him; "Champagne Charlie Is My Name" does not sound like Blake's playing or singing.
The French singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel refers to Blake in the song "Cent Ans de Plus", on the 1999 album Hors-Saison.