A historic musical collaboration was honored Saturday commemorating the 1899 contract signing of the famous “Maple Leaf Rag,” between publisher John Stark and composer Scott Joplin. Adding to the day’s event was a visit from Stark’s great-great-grandson Kyle Stark and his family, of St. Louis.
The Central Business and Cultural District hosted a Commemoration Ceremony at noon Saturday at the Stark Pavilion during the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival.
Mayor Stephen Galliher greeted the crowd and said that Missouri House Rep. Steve Cookson and Missouri House Rep. Nathan Beard had designated U.S. Highway 50 from Limit Avenue to the east city limit as the Scott Joplin Memorial Highway; and from Limit Avenue to the west city limits as the Leroy Van Dyke Memorial Highway.
Unveiling the historic marker located at 114 E. Fifth St., were Sedalia Community Development Director John Simmons and Sedalia historian Becky Imhauser. The marker sits at the original site of the John Stark and Son Music Co.
The “Maple Leaf Rag” was Joplin’s most famous work and the Aug. 10, 1899, contract signing provided a 10 percent royalty to Joplin, something that was unprecedented at that time for a black man or a composer in general.
Kyle Stark, who had attended the first Joplin Festival as a child with his father and grandfather in 1974, said that being able to attend the commemoration was providence. This time he brought his wife Laura, and sons Jonathan, 11, and Nick, 8.
“This is very exciting,” he noted. “In fact I called Larry (Melton) just a few weeks ago.”
Melton, of Union, the interim curator of the Sedalia Ragtime Archive, had “put a call out” for anyone who had attended the festival in 1974-75 to attend this year’s commemoration.
“My Dad and grandpa had come down with the contract (in 1974),” Stark added. “I called Larry and … it just came together. I was truly unaware … this all happen by a fluke and I truly believe in those things. I think a lot of things are sort of meant to be.”
Stark, who owns Stark Imprints, added that Melton’s knowledge about Scott Joplin, ragtime music and John Stark was “amazing.”
“He blew me away with just his knowledge and his gratefulness,” he said.
Stark said his father, Ray Stark, had told him should attend the Joplin Festival sometime.
“He said ‘truly it’s like royalty,’” he note. “I can’t imagine what it was like having the contract here, that must have been amazing.”
Stark said he was “humbled” to be at the ceremony and festival.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” he added. “I’m just a normal person, I love ragtime.”
Stark said the original “Maple Leaf Rag” contract was part of his family’s heritage for many years. When he was a child, his father had it hanging in their home, in St. Louis. By another act of providence the family and the contract were saved from a devastating fire.
“I remember being a little kid running through Stark Printing,” he noted. “The contract was on my grandpa’s desk … I really didn’t know what it was. Then my grandpa gave it to my dad. My dad had it on the wall and as I was getting older, 9, 10, 11, he explained it to me. It was really cool.”
Stark said a collector from New York began to call wanting to purchase the contract. Stark’s father said it wasn’t for sale, but the man was persistent and continued to call for years.
“About 10 years later they finally worked out an agreement,” he said. “It was to be his prize possession and he was going to put it in a museum and show it off. My dad wanted to make sure it was going to be there for people to enjoy, not put away in a closet.
“They made an agreement and My dad put the contract in the mail,” Stark added. “A couple weeks later our house burned to the ground — a little divine intervention there for the contract. We could have lost that contract if it wasn’t for these events taking place over a decade.”
The contract is still part of the late purchaser’s estate in New York, Stark said.
He added that attending the festival made him “open his eyes” to the importance of ragtime and the contract signing. He told the story of how Joplin and John Stark met in Sedalia.
“I think every historian has a different way of how Joplin and Stark met,” he said. “Some say Stark one sunny afternoon went over to the Maple Leaf Club and sat down and was having a drink, but what really happened was was much more simple than that.
“William, John’s son, my great grandfather, was hanging out one night at the saloon and heard Joplin play,” Stark added. “That’s how it happened. He said ‘Scott I’ll take you to see my father tomorrow morning.’ As simple as it may be, it was just that simple. There’s no fluff, it was just two gentlemen recognizing talent, Joplin says ‘thank you.’ They go to the store, and listened, and signed, and the rest is history. I like simplicity, it was truly simple. That’s were the power comes from.”
He said he smiles as people tell the more “fluffier” stories about the Joplin/Stark encounter. He is also amazed at how the two men change the course of music history.
“It blows me away, a white businessman and a son of a slave changed American music,” he noted. “It just doesn’t get any better than that. These days we can’t even get along, and back then they made American music history.”
Stark said he believed Joplin was far ahead of the “curve” when it came to music of that era.
“And, Stark he was so ahead of the curve too,” he added. “I wonder how that idea popped into his head. I try to imagine what he was doing at the time that he thought ‘royalty!’ Let’s form a relationship that we would both benefit from. They showed the world that we can collaborate, no matter our age or race. It’s about talent. That’s what I truly think is the essence of the music.”
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.