Scott Joplin Biography

(American Composer and Pianist Known as the ‘King of Ragtime’)

Birthday: November 24, 1868 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Texarkana, Texas, United States

Scott Joplin, known to the world as the King of Rags, was an American composer and pianist. He is credited for upgrading and introducing “banjo piano”, a plebian form of entertainment often affiliated to salons and brothels, to elite American art form. Born into a music-loving working class African-American family, he learned to play the banjo as a child and the piano at the house of his mother’s employer around the age of seven. By eleven, he caught the attention of a German music teacher, who gave him lessons free of cost. Leaving home around the age of nineteen, Scott Joplin first became a traveling musician, playing in brothels because nobody was willing to provide scope to the Black musicians. He spent a large part of his early years in St. Louis and Sedalia. At the age of 27, he managed to publish his first work and wrote over 100 original ragtime pieces during his brief career. His most popular piece is Maple Leaf Rag. Interest in his works waned after his death in 1917 and he was forgotten until interest in his music was stimulated in the 1970s by the use of his music in the Academy Award-winning score to the film The Sting; it earned him his only award, a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in music.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 48


Spouse/Ex-: Belle Jones (m. 1899–1903), Freddie Alexander (m. 1904–1904), Lottie Stokes (m. 1909–1917)

father: Giles Joplin

mother: Florence Givens

siblings: Monroe Joplin, Myrtle Joplin, Ossie Joplin, Robert Joplin, William Joplin

Born Country: United States

African American Men African American Singers

Died on: April 1, 1917

place of death: Manhattan, New York City, United States

Notable Alumni: George R. Smith College

Cause of Death: Dementia

U.S. State: Texas

More Facts

education: George R. Smith College

awards: 1976 - Pulitzer Prize
- Grammy Award
- Academy Award for Best Original Song Score and Adaptation

Childhood & Early Life

Scott Joplin is believed to have born on November 24, 1868 in Texarkana, a city located in the US state of Texas. However, that might not be true as the June 1870 census locates him in Linden, Texas, as a two-year-old, implying that he was born a little before June 1868.

His father, Giles Joplin, was a former slave, who at the time of Scott’s birth worked as a tenant farmer in East Texas. His mother, Florence Givens, was freeborn. Born second of his parents’ six children, he had an elder brother called Monroe, and four younger siblings; Robert, Josie, William and Johnny.

Nothing is known about his childhood except that he grew up in the farm, listening to his father playing the violin and his mother the banjo. He too learned to play the banjo. However, they did not remain there for long.

In the June 1880 census, we find the family located in the newly established town of Texarkana. While it is not known when exactly they made the move, some sources believe it to be 1875.  There he started going to school while his father and elder brother worked as railroad laborer.

To supplement the family income, his mother too took up house cleaning and laundry and it was at one of her employers house that young Scott first started tinkling with a piano; he was allowed to play the instrument while his mother cleaned the house. He was by then seven years of age.

By eleven, he had become proficient enough to draw the attention of a German piano teacher, Julius Weiss. Soon, Weiss started giving him lessons in piano, ear training, sight reading and harmony free of cost, a gesture Scott Joplin never forgot.

Weiss also introduced him to the world of classical music, especially opera. When lumberman Col. R. W. Rodgers, with whom he lodged, bought a new piano, he made sure that the old square one was sold to the Joplin’s at a discounted rate.

Very soon young Scott was spending all his spare time on the newly acquired instrument, which caused frictions in the household. While Florence encouraged her son to pursue a career in music, Giles wanted him to learn something practical.

Sometime in early 1880s, Giles moved in with another woman.  Meanwhile, Scott continued to study with Weiss until the latter’s departure in 1884. Thereafter, Scott too left for Sedalia.

By September 1884, he returned home to work as an assistant teacher at the Negro school or may be as a railroad laborer. He remained in the area possibly until 1888, performing in a vocal quartet and playing the piano in and around Texarkana.

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Early Career

In around 1888, Scott Joplin left Texarkana to become an itinerant pianist. Quickly, he discovered that nobody would give any scope to the Black musicians. Nonetheless, he continued to travel around, playing the piano in different brothels in various Midwestern towns, spending a large part of this period in St. Louis.

In July 1891, he might have briefly returned to Texarkana. Records mention him as a member of the Texarkana Minstrels, raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis.

In 1893, he attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, forming a band for which he arranged the music and played the coronet. However, it is not known if they were actually able to perform at the Exposition because the involvement of the African-American was kept minimal.

Although African-Americans had little opportunity to perform at the Exposition, they had ample chance for showcasing their music at the saloons, cafés and brothels that lined the fair. Swiftly, he became a favorite of the audience.

It was also during the Exposition that he first met Otis Saunders, who encouraged him to write down and publish his songs. When the fair ended, the two musicians moved to Sedalia, where they continued to perform.

Scott Joplin remained at Sedalia for several years, earning his keep as piano teacher. Among his students were future composers like Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden and Brun Campbell. He also formed the eight-member Texas Medley Quartette, in which two of his younger brother, Robert and Will, also participated.

From 1894 to 1896, he traveled around with Texas Medley Quartette, performing in various places. Meanwhile in 1895, he managed to publish two of his songs Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face. In the following year, he had three more songs, including the Great Crush Collision March, published.

In 1897, he enrolled in Sedalia's George R. Smith College for Negroes, studying piano and theory. Meanwhile in 1898, he tried to sell two of his piano pieces. While only one, Original Rags, was published, he was forced to share the credit with a staff arranger, Charles N. Daniels.

Success at Last

In the summer of 1899, while working with the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Scott Joplin came across a young lawyer, Robert Higdon. They together met music store owner and publisher John Stark, who eventually published Maple Leaf Rag under the stipulation that Joplin would receive 1% royalty on each sale.

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The deal was signed on August 10, 1899 and although the initial sale was low, by 1900 it sold half a million copy, rendering Joplin a small but steady income for the rest of his life. Over the time, Stark became one of his major publishers.

In 1901, he relocated to St. Louis, where he published many of his important works including Elite Syncopations, The Entertainer, The Ragtime Dance, March Majestic etc. Sometime during this period, he also wrote his first opera, A Guest of Honor.

In 1903, he founded Opera Company and undertook a national tour with A Guest of Honor even before its publication. Unfortunately, the box-office receipts were stolen at some of point of time. When he could not make the required payment, all his belongings, including the score, was confiscated.

In 1907, Scott Joplin moved to New York City, where he started writing his second opera, Treemonisha, completing the piece by 1910. An idea ahead of time, the work celebrates African-American culture, concurrently stressing that education is the only way out for the African Americans.

Although the score of Treemonisha received a glowing, full-page review in the American Musician and Art Journal in 1911, it was not fully performed in his lifetime. Its sole performance, a self-financed concert read-through in 1915, was a miserable failure.

In December 1913, he founded Scott Joplin Music Company. By that time, he knew that his days were numbered and started working feverishly, publishing Magnetic Rag in 1914 and Frolic of the Bears in 1915. However, most of the works he wrote in his final years are now lost.

Major Works

Scott Joplin is best remembered for his 1899 work, Maple Leaf Rag. The work not only earned him his honorific nickname, King of Rags, but also became the model for ragtime compositions and continued to be recorded by many well-known artists even after his death.

Awards & Achievements

In 1976, almost six decades after his death, Scott Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music for his second opera, Treemonisha.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1899, Scott Joplin married his first wife Belle Jones, with whom he had a daughter. The child died in 1903, leading to the divorce of her parents in early 1904.

In June 1904, Joplin married Freddie Alexander. She died on September 10, 1904, ten weeks after their wedding, of complications resulting from a cold.

In 1909, he married Lottie Stokes, remaining with her until his death in 1917. They did not have any children.

Around in 1904, Scott Joplin was first infected with syphilis, which developed into neurosyphilis by 1916. In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital and died there on April 1 of syphilitic dementia. He was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst.

In 1974, his grave was given a marker and his house in St. Louis was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1976.

In 1983, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of Scott Joplin as part of its Black Heritage series.

In 1987, he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

See the events in life of Scott Joplin in Chronological Order

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