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Tom Turpin

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Biography

Thomas "Million" Turpin was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1873. His father, "Honest John" Turpin, took great pleasure in pointing out the fact that after emancipation he never worked for anyone but himself. He did, however, get involved in the politics of Reconstruction, and subsequently a street in Savannah was named after him. John, his wife Lulu, and their children took themselves to St. Louis near the beginning of the 1880s, and Mr. Turpin went into business there as owner and operator of the Silver Dollar Saloon. Also known as "Old Man Jack," he was famous for his stamina, never resorted to fisticuffs, and held the distinguished title of Missouri State Head Butting Champion. His sons were as tall and powerful as their father, having inherited his ingenuity and courageous spirit. At the age of 18, Tom got caught up in the Gold Rush for a little while with his younger brother, Charles. They invested in a mining prospect on the outskirts of Searchlight, Nevada. But the Big Onion Mine gave up hardly any gold whatsoever and each went his separate way. Charlie hawked jewelry in Mexico and Tom floated about on the prairies for a while but by 1894 they were both back in St Louis, where Tom decided to open a saloon just like his father had. He called it the Rosebud. Situated in a district locally famous for its houses of prostitution, the Rosebud soon served as the epicenter of a rapidly evolving music that was beginning to be called ragtime. Tom was a self-educated piano player who loved to encourage younger musicians who were developing their own original ideas. Two of his most brilliant pupils were Louis Chauvin and Sam Patterson. And there, in the Rosebud, at 2220 Market Street, Thomas Turpin composed his own rags, beginning with "Harlem Rag" in 1897. It was to be the first published rag written by an American of African ancestry. "Bowery Buck," from 1899, was designed to serve as the basis for the highly contagious buck-and-wing dance. Turpin had visited New York and it is possible that "Bowery Buck" was even composed somewhere in the Bowery district. Turpin brought out "Ragtime Nightmare" in 1900, followed by "St. Louis Rag" in 1903, and "The Buffalo Rag" in 1904. By this time, he had spent a lot of time in the company of Scott Joplin, whose influence is apparent in these last two pieces, so melodically rich and substantial. In 1909, Turpin had landed in Butte, Montana where he apparently wrote "Siwash -- Indian Rag." Turpin's "Pan-Am Rag" of 1914 was graced by an Artie Matthews arrangement, but neither of these late works made it past the copyright stage to actual publication. The last surviving musical entity attributable to Thomas Turpin was a World War I instrumental from 1917 called "When Sambo Goes to France." Turpin also worked with Artie Matthews, writing waltzes, rags, and comedic ditties to be utilized during stage shows at Charlie Turpin's Booker T. Washington Theater. Sadly, the sheet music was thrown away after each week's performances, leaving nothing at all for posterity. Deputy constable, saloon and casino proprietor, professional panderer, piano pounder, and father of St. Louis ragtime, Thomas Turpin passed away on the August 13, 1922. Charlie Turpin was the first Afro-American to be elected into public office in the state of Missouri. He became a justice of the peace and outlived his brother by 13 years, dying on Christmas in the year 1935. ~ arwulf arwulf