“12th Street” Was No Easy Street: From Rag to Riches (If Only Briefly)

On November 9, 1886 Euday Louis Bowman was born. Even if you haven’t heard his name, you’ve heard his greatest hit: “12th Street Rag” is an infectiously upbeat ragtime tune.

Here is Pee Wee Hunt’s 1948 recording of “12th Street Rag”:

Yes, “12th Street Rag” is infectiously upbeat, but in a way it’s a sad song. The song brought Bowman fame and fortune but only after he was too ill to enjoy them.

Many details of Euday Bowman’s life are debated. Was he born in Fort Worth or outside Mansfield? (Bowman Springs Road between Mansfield and Arlington was named for the community of Bowman Springs, where Euday’s family lived.) Did he lose a leg while hopping a freight train in his travels as an itinerant ragtime pianist? Was “12th Street Rag” named for the street in Kansas City’s redlight district or for the street in Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre? Bowman played piano in both places and named several of his compositions after streets. Several of the so-named streets are found in both Fort Worth and Kansas City. (Best guess: He was born in Fort Worth, wrote the song about Kansas City’s 12th Street while living in that city.)

bowman 1900 censusThis much is for sure: Bowman lived most of his life on the near South Side with his older sister Mary, who taught piano for about a half-century. The Bowmans lived on Missouri Avenue in 1900 when Euday was thirteen. Sister Mary was listed in the census as a music teacher. (Note the solidly Fort Worth name of the census enumerator. Kleber Van Zandt Jennings was the son of Hyde Jennings [as in our Hyde Park and Jennings Avenue] and Florence Van Zandt Jennings, daughter of Khleber Miller Van Zandt.)

For years Mary owned a house at 707 Arizona just across the street from the railroad tracks.

bowman 24 cdBowman also lived on St. Louis Avenue, as listed in the 1924 city directory.

Euday played piano in Fort Worth shoeshine parlors and bars, sometimes at private parties. Like his sister, he also gave piano lessons. To pay the bills he even collected and sold scrap paper and worked as a teamster. As mentioned, he also spent some time in Kansas City, where he played piano in saloons and brothels. He wrote “12th Street Rag” about 1914.

Bowman is said to have written the first strain of the song, consisting of just three notes, more or less as a joke for a friend who had just opened a pawn shop, reasoning that if a pawn shop with a three-ball sign could succeed, so could a three-note song.

Bowman tried to market the song himself but went into debt doing so. In need of money, he sold the rights to the song to a Kansas City music publisher for a couple of hundred dollars. Over the years the song would be recorded by dozens of musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Liberace, Count Basie, Bob Wills, and Roy Clark.

bowman liberaceLiberace got in on the “Rag” rage.

This 1917 New York Tribune ad for the Columbia Grafonola mentions the “12th Street Rag.”

Bowman received no royalties from the song until he regained the copyright in 1937.

In that year he performed the song during Billy Rose’s musical production “Melody Lane” at Fort Worth’s Frontier Centennial.

bowman-1947The song was released on a “phonograph recording” in 1947.

bowman pee wee But royalties were sparse until 1948, when big band leader Pee Wee Hunt and his orchestra recorded the song. They made the recording almost as an afterthought: At the end of a recording session, there was a little space left on the disk, so they added “12th Street Rag.” The recording had not been intended for airplay, but because of a musicians strike at the time, the recording did get airplay, became wildly popular. Capitol Records released the seventy-eight, and the song became a chart-topper.

bowman 5-1-49Suddenly Euday Bowman, the forty-year overnight success, was receiving fat royalty checks. But by then he was terminally ill, and most of his money went to pay medical bills. This New York Tribune review in the May 1, 1949 Dallas Morning News lists Bowman and his rag among the songs by the likes of Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy.

Bowman died three weeks later in New York City while promoting his revived notoriety.

bowman-obitHis death was little noted in the Star-Telegram. Euday Bowman was survived by his sister Mary.

mary-bowman-obitShe died a year later. The Star-Telegram devoted much more space to her death (this clip is just an excerpt) than it had to Euday’s and in this clip is in error on both the place and date of his death.

In a final grand gesture, Euday Louis Bowman used his late-won fortune to erect for himself and his sister one of the grandest non-cattle baron mausoleums at Oakwood Cemetery.

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One Response to “12th Street” Was No Easy Street: From Rag to Riches (If Only Briefly)

  1. Deborah Carl says:

    Bowman and his sister were portrayed this year at Oakwood!

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