Louis Chauvin

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Louis Chauvin was a brilliant and influential pianist who created a steady stream of original melodies while seldom taking the time to write them down or get them published. His story is colorful and…
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Louis Chauvin was a brilliant and influential pianist who created a steady stream of original melodies while seldom taking the time to write them down or get them published. His story is colorful and tragic, and he didn't live long enough to make any phonograph recordings. Chauvin was born on Lucas Street in St. Louis, MO, on March 13, 1881. His mother was Afro-American and his father a Mexican of mingled Spanish and Native American ancestry. A child prodigy, he possessed harmonically advanced and prematurely modern musical sensibilities and was a skilled improviser who dazzled listeners with his formidable technique.

At the very beginning of the 20th century, the proving ground for pianists in St. Louis was Tom Turpin's Rosebud Café and a private annex around the corner he named the Hurrah Sporting Club. Turpin, whose magnum opus was "The Harlem Rag," maintained and oversaw a fertile artistic environment for aspiring young musicians. The most promising of them all was Louis Chauvin, who quit school when he was 13 years old and ran off with his friend Sam Patterson to join the Alabama Jubilee Singers, an ensemble that toured from St. Louis to western New York state and back. When they weren't singing spirituals and traditional airs the two young men performed as comedians, and Chauvin specialized in cakewalking while wearing women's clothing. "Chauvin looked good in that dress and wig," Patterson would recall years later.

Chauvin had a marvelous tenor singing voice and could dance the buck-and-wing as well as regular and eccentric tap. Legend has it that Turpin, Joe Jordan, Patterson, and Chauvin formed a four-piano and vocal quartet, working up renditions of ragtime, popular, and classical favorites. Patterson and Chauvin also founded a singing group called the Mozart Comedy Four and became locally famous as the vaudeville duo of Chauvin & Patterson. They performed in blackface (very much in the manner of Bert Williams and George Walker) and in 1903 assembled a musical revue with the now arcane title "Dandy Coon." This traveling variety show, featuring a cast of 30, only made it as far as Des Moines, IA, and then disintegrated.

Before returning to St. Louis, and perhaps inspired by the need for cash, Chauvin and Patterson composed a waltz entitled "The Moon Is Shining in the Skies" and had it published by S.Z. Marks, proprietor of a local music store. Aside from an appearance with Patterson at the World's Fair in 1904, Chauvin spent most of the time that remained to him partying and playing piano in the bordellos where he was happiest. In 1906 his "Baby, It's Too Long Off," a song with words by Elmer Bowman, was published by M. Whitmark & Sons in New York City. In 1907 Chauvin collaborated with Scott Joplin on the beautiful ragtime composition "Heliotrope Bouquet"; Chauvin wrote the first two themes and Joplin the remainder. This is the piece for which Chauvin is remembered and revered.

For an individual of his talent to have published such a paltry quantity of compositions is one of fate's crueler canards. Never a very robust individual, Louis Chauvin wore himself down with alcohol and opiates. He also contracted venereal disease and succumbed to neurosyphilitic sclerosis on March 26, 1908, at the age of 27 in Chicago, where one of Joplin's other collaborators, Scott Hayden, would die from tuberculosis seven years later. Louis Chauvin lies buried in the Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. His "Heliotrope Bouquet" is still savored as one of the inestimable treasures in all of ragtime.