About this work
For those living in America (and many other parts of the world) in the mid-70s, Scott Joplin's rag The Entertainer was almost ubiquitous. After decades of relative neglect, it seemed as though Joplin's music, and ragtime in general, had surpassed even the stature it had enjoyed during Joplin's own lifetime. How did this come about? A small-scale Joplin revival was already underway around 1970 when composer/conductor/educator/author Gunther Schuller was given a copy of The Red Back Book, a 1909 publication of ragtime orchestrations put together by Joplin's publisher, John Stark. Schuller liked what he found and put together the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble to perform and record some of those arrangements. The recording sold very well and won a Grammy Award. Film director George Roy Hill came across this record and thought that Joplin's music would be the perfect accompaniment for his next film, The Sting, which went on to be a huge success worldwide. Marvin Hamlisch arranged Joplin's music for the film; the music won the Academy Award for best film score and the soundtrack recording was a top ten bestseller. Hamlisch's version of The Entertainer, which served as the film's main theme, was likewise a huge hit and won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. In his Grammy acceptance speech, Hamlisch called Joplin "the real new artist of the year." By that time, Joplin's name and music were everywhere familiar and such was his newfound fame that Joplin received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
The origins of The Entertainer date back to Joplin's first big success, The Maple Leaf Rag, in 1899. The money Joplin made from that rag enabled him to move to St. Louis, MO, where he temporarily gave up playing piano publicly and devoted himself to teaching and composing. He started to look to more ambitious forms and, in the years 1901 and 1902, produced the ballet The Ragtime Dance and the opera A Guest of Honor. Both were large failures, and Joplin was forced back to writing the more financially rewarding piano rags. But the experience Joplin had gained in working in larger forms showed in the greater sophistication of his new rags. One of those new works was The Entertainer, written in late 1902 and dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club.
The admittedly infectious sequence of melodies and the slightly wistful quality underlying the work's high spirits, made The Entertainer a hit right from the beginning. Joplin's publisher, John Stark even tried to capitalize on The Entertainer's popularity by setting its famous opening melody to words in "Oh, You Tommy." It is also said that in 1920s New Orleans, watermelon street hawkers would use the beginning of that same melody in shouting out "Watermelons, they're wet, they're cold."