And there was distant music,
Simple and somehow sublime,
Giving the nation
A new syncopation-
The people called it Ragtime!
The son of a freed slave, Thomas Million Turpin learned the niceties of running a saloon from his father, “Honest John.” Then Tom established the Rosebud Bar in St. Louis and made it the showplace for offbeat rhythms the world has come to know as “ragtime” music.
Tom Turpin, shown left, and his brother Charles both inherited their physiques and their spirit from their father. John Turpin was a man of independence and courage whom slavery left unbowed. Likely a house slave and literate, he often bragged that after Emancipation he never worked for anyone but himself. Following the Civil War, known as “Honest John, he became politically active as a black leader in Savannah, Georgia, where a street is named for him and where Tom was born in 1873.
Later in that decade, John moved his wife, Lulu, and their children to Mississippi, arriving just as Reconstruction was ending and the state began passing “Jim Crow” laws that would discriminate strongly against people of color. Apparently recognizing the deteriorating situation, Turpin uprooted his family once more and moved to more moderate Missouri, settling in St. Louis about 1880. There he went into business as owner of the Silver Dollar Saloon at 425 South 12th St. Noted for his ability to handle trouble in his establishment, Honest John never used his fists, preferring to grab miscreants by the wrists and strike them with his head — called by some the “Missouri State Head Butting Champion.”
When his sons Tom, known as “Million” to his family, and older brother Charles were old enough, John took them into the business, teaching them how to wait tables and tend bar. The boys, however, developed “gold fever,” traveled West, and likely with money from their father bought a stake in the Big Onion Mine in Searchlight, Nevada, the town shown above. When the mine proved to be a bust, they separately wandered back to St. Louis where Tom in an 1889 directory was recorded as a bartender in his father’s saloon.
While working at the Silver Dollar, Tom began to entertain customers by playing the piano. Largely self-taught since a boy, he had developed his own hard-thumping style that lent itself to the new syncopated rhythms that people were calling ragtime. Turpin also was writing music in this idiom, in 1897 becoming not only the first published St. Louis ragtime composer, but the first black composer with a published rag. Called the “Harlem Rag” it proved to be successful and was issued in several editions. It gave the youth the money to strike out on his own.
In 1897, drawing on the years of experience working for his father, Tom opened Turpin’s Saloon at Nine Targee Street, apparently living above the establishment with a wife and baby, both of whom died during this period. This twin tragedy may temporarily have unhinged him. According to a report in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in late February 1898, Tom was arguing with a bar patron on “the relative merits of negro women." Inflamed by liquor, each drew a pistol and dared the other to shoot. Said the newspaper: “It was a battle to the death and both of the black men exhibited nerve and bulldog tenacity...Then came a bullet that prostrated Keeler. It entered his left side and he sank to the floor.” He later died at the hospital. Tom was arrested but charges appear to have been dropped. Turpin’s saloon closed.
Turpin advertised his saloon relentlessly. He touted it as “headquarters for colored professionals” and kept it open around the clock. According to one observer: “The Rosebud had something for almost everybody, including two bars, gambling facilities, a sportsmen's club, a wine room where the piano entertainment resided, and a gentleman's brothel upstairs.”
He boasted about being a distributor of Applegate’s “Old Rosebud Whiskey.” Profiled earlier in my post [June 2012] Col. C. L. Applegate was described in his own ads as “Kentucky’s Leading Distiller.” Old Rosebud was a flagship brand of Applegate’s distilling and rectifying organization, renowned for the colonel’s give-away items to saloons. Turpin’s likely would have been well supplied with shot glasses and a fancy Rosebud decanter sitting behind the bar.
Tom Turpin himself often was the star entertainer. As he got older, he carried three hundred pounds or more on his six-foot frame. His large stomach made it difficult to see the keyboard so that he often played standing up in front of a raised piano, banging out ragtime tunes in an inimitable style.
He also continued to write music. After issuing “Bowery Buck” in 1901, Turpin composed “A Ragtime Nightmare,” a tune based on a work by a black playwright. He followed that up with “Buffalo Rag.” Although he composed a number of other ragtime pieces, these are the ones by which Tom Turpin is best remembered today.
In 1901, Tom married for the second time; his wife Willamete “Willie” Turpin. The next several years were a boom time for the Rosebud Cafe as the year-long St. Louis International Exposition (1904/1905) brought hundreds of thousands to the city. The saloon was constantly busy. Ragtime music, now at the top of its popularity, poured out its doors. With the end of the World’s Fair, many musicians moved on to Chicago and other destinations. Interest in ragtime declined in St. Louis. Jazz became the craze.
Beset by these realities, the Rosebud folded in 1906. Far from being discouraged, however, Tom Turpin continue to run saloons, dance halls, brothels and even a theater in St. Louis, often with the help of brother Charles. In 1910 he open a new establishment, the Eureka Club at 2208 Chestnut Street. In 1916 he opened another saloon at 2333 Market Street that he called The Jazzland Cafe, another center for black musicians. During those years Turpin also was serving as a deputy constable for the African American community in St. Louis and regarded as politically potent.
Turpin died in August 1922 at the relatively young age of 50, the cause of death listed as “peritonitis” from a rupture of the abdominal wall. He was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in the Normandy district of St. Louis County, a graveyard run by the United Church of Christ. His gravestone is shown here as it lies in Section 27, Lot 16.
The inscription calls him "The Father of St. Louis Ragtime." One biographer has summed Tom’s life up this way: “Turpin left a wide swath of happy memories for thousands of people in his considerable wake.” As a fan of ragtime, to that observation I add “Amen.”
Note: A two -story replica of the Rosebud with bar and piano has been built next to the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis, now a state historic site. Except during the winter closing of the entire complex, Turpin’s recreated drinking establishment is on the tour given at the site and can be rented for special events.