To begin with, America’s first pop star died a penniless man, buried in an unmarked grave, and with a series of unfinished and unrealized compositions.
The second born of six children, Scott Joplin was introduced to music because of his parents: Giles Joplin, a former North Carolina slave, and Florence Givens, an African-American freewoman from Kentucky. Giles Joplin used to play the violin at plantation parties while Florence is a skilled banjo player.
At the age of 7, Scott Joplin learned the basics of music from his parents and was allowed to play the piano while his mother did the house chores. Scott was obsessed with the piano, playing it every afternoon.
His prowess in playing the piano was further developed upon meeting German-American music teacher Julius Weiss. Weiss became a big factor in Scott Joplin’s life, having taught him for free after knowing of Joplins’ financial difficulties. He fell in love with Scott’s perseverance and passion for music. The two became lifelong friends until Weiss’s death.
When his father left for another woman in his teenage years, Scott worked as a railroad laborer and performed at a number of local events. Not long after, Scott left for Texarkana to pursue a career in music but it wasn’t until when he moved to Missouri in 1894 that things began to change for the great Scott Joplin.
Though the ragtime music did not originate from Scott Joplin himself, it was his theatrical play around the melody and syncopation that differentiates him away from the usual ragtime music that was already played around Minstrel Shows, a racist entertainment during the era of slavery and post-Civil war in America.
After being exposed to ragtime music in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Scott Joplin knew just what to do to innovate what was once a piece of simple dance music. Working part-time as a piano teacher while performing in Missouri shows, Scott Joplin published his own music in 1895; and in 1899, he scored his first successful ragtime composition called “Maple Leaf Rag.
Maple Leaf Rag was no sleeper hit. In its first six months, it sold a hundred thousand copies and soon sold over a million copies making Scott the first musician to do so. Maple Leaf Rag influenced ragtime music, having been recognized as one of Joplin’s most copied compositions which would become the model for ragtime tunes to come.
Though It was believed that his contract with John Stillwell Stark, his music publisher, only allowed him 1% of the royalty, Scott Joplin did not slow down and managed to compose three other ragtime music pieces: The Ragtime Dance, March Majestic, and his most famous tune and also, the first music piece to gain worldwide fame, The Entertainer.
The immortality of “The Entertainer” is undeniable. These days, “The Entertainer” is usually associated with ice cream trucks and even silent films.
Scott Joplin was undeniably gaining a reputation and it won’t be long he grasps on another ambition: to make an opera.
But Scott Joplin’s life was never the same after the financial failure during the tour of A Guest of Honor, his first opera, showing early signs of syphilis, and the death of his wife, Freddie Alexander, ten weeks after their marriage.
His failed attempt at getting a producer in New York to produce his next opus in 1907 and upon making ends meet with his second opera, Treemonisha, led to his deterioration and soon after his confinement and death because of Syphilitic Dementia on the 1st of April, 1917 in Manhattan State Hospital.
His second wife Lottie Stokes, whom he married in 1909, composed one last music with her husband in 1914 under the name Scott Joplin Music Company called Magnetic Rag.
Though unnoticed, like Scott’s second opera, the composition (in fact, all of his compositions) received posthumous appreciation in the 1970s when the 1974 film The Sting used his music, was released, and won the Best Picture award at the Oscars.
Scott Joplin’s grave was finally marked at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst after 57 years.
His music resurfaced once again and by the late ’70s. Treemonisha, his second opera, was produced in full and he was awarded posthumously the Pulitzer Prize. In 1976, his rented home in St. Louis was recognized as a National Historic Landmark; and in 2002, Joplin’s own recorded performances in the 1900s is included in the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, forever cementing his legacy in music and recognizing Scott Joplin as America’s first pop star.
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