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Pianist Ellis Larkins Dies

Ellis Larkins, a virtuoso pianist hailed in his teens as “the Negro Prodigy”, died Sun., Oct. 1 of pneumonia at Maryland General Hospital in Baltimore. He was 79.

Larkins was born and raised in West Baltimore. Music pervaded his everyday life. His father, a janitor, played violin in the City Colored Orchestra. His mother played piano and his sisters and brothers all sang or played an instrument. Larkins began learning to play when he was four, and at 12 he played for Eleanor Roosevelt at the National Urban League’s 25th Anniversary. But it wasn’t jazz Larkins played. It was the music of classical pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski.

“I wasn’t allowed to play jazz in the house,” Larkins once told The Baltimore Sun. His musical studies at Douglass High School and at the Peabody Conservatory (where he studied before blacks were officially allowed) focused on classical music. The sound of jazz got its hooks in him, though. His graduation dissertation from Juilliard, where he attended on a scholarship, “demonstrat[ed] the similarities between the melodic lines of Bach and boogie-woogie,” he told Whitney Balliet in a New Yorker interview.

From Juilliard he went on to play with Mildred Bailey, Anita Ellis and others. In the 1950s he recorded historic sets with Ella Fitzgerald and Ruby Braff. From the 1940s through the 1960s Larkins found plenty of work in New York and made a big splash in the cabaret scene, playing the Café Society Uptown, the Blue Angel, the Bon Soir and the Carnegie Tavern. During this period and into the early 1970s he performed with Joe Williams, Jane Harvey, Eartha Kitt and Harry Belafonte.

After marrying in 1971 and living for a time in L.A., Larkins and his wife, Crystal, returned to Baltimore in 1988. Larkins played in the city occasionally and enjoyed a life of semi-retirement.

A viewing will be held Mon., Oct. 7 at Phillips Funeral Home, located at 1727 North Monroe St. in Baltimore. A wake will be held Tues. Oct. 8 at 10 a.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, between Lafayette and Arlington Avenues, followed by a funeral Mass at 11 a.m. Larkins will be buried at Arbutus Memorial Park. He is survived by his wife, a sister, a niece, a nephew, and several great nieces and great nephews.

Originally Published