In time for Missouri's 200th birthday, symphony to celebrate 'locally grown' ragtime music

Gregory J. Holman
Springfield News-Leader
Springfield's Gary Ellison, shown here performing at a 2002 Commercial Street wake for a local musician, was named "Missouri's Official Ragtime Piano Player" by the state senate in 1973. He will perform Scott Joplin hits and other ragtime music in a Springfield Symphony concert celebrating Missouri's 200th birthday on May 8, 2021.

Ragtime music, with its syncopated or "ragged" rhythms, is considered by many observers to be the first purely American form of popular music.

Drawing on a diversity of styles, ragtime emerged from Black communities in cities like St. Louis toward the end of the 1800s, and one of its most famous composer-performers, Scott Joplin, had plenty of ties to both St. Louis and Sedalia. In Sedalia in 1899, Joplin often played piano in a downtown saloon to help pay his way through college. While doing so, Joplin composed and copyrighted a song, "Maple Leaf Rag," that became the model for much ragtime music that came afterward.

"That turned out to be the first song in the history of published music to sell a million copies of sheet music," Gary Ellison told the News-Leader on Thursday. "And so that sort of makes this, what, the world's first hit? I don't know."

Ellison is a longtime Springfield ad executive, storyteller and musician who was named "Missouri’s Official Ragtime Piano Player" by the state Senate in 1973. 

Scott Joplin is considered the "King of Ragtime" music and had plenty of ties to Missouri cities including St. Louis and Sedalia. This mural honors Joplin at the Orr School in Texarkana, Arkansas.

Ellison began playing Missouri ragtime in Springfield, and after college he performed in nightclubs and restaurants all across the country, according to a news release from Ellison. He played at Coca-Cola Corner in Disneyland, performed with the Springfield Youth Symphony at New York's Lincoln Center and even hauled his old upright piano (once owned by Mickey Mantle) from Boston to the Rio Grande valley in Texas, and from Kansas City to the Florida Gulf Coast. The Gary Ellison USO Show toured U.S. bases during the Vietnam conflict in 1967. The following year, he toured South Korea.

Then-Gov. Kit Bond proclaimed March 3, 1984 as Gary Ellison Day in Missouri. A few days later, Ellison played three concerts of the music of Scott Joplin and other Missouri composers in the governor’s mansion.

As part of a celebration of ragtime and Missouri's 200th birthday, he'll perform "Maple Leaf Rag," "The Entertainer" and other ragtime masterworks during a pair of Springfield Symphony Orchestra concerts with Missouri music as their focus. They take place at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on May 8 at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts.

Ellison has longstanding ties to the symphony, performing in concerts and for many years serving as emcee during the symphony's now-defunct "Firefall" celebration for July 4. In 2007, the Springfield Regional Arts Council awarded Ellison the "Ozzie" for his contributions to local culture.

Tickets for the May 8 concert are available at springfieldmosymphony.org or by calling 417-864-6683.

Reach News-Leader reporter Gregory Holman by emailing gholman@gannett.com. Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.