Today, ragtime’s best-remembered musician is Scott Joplin, but at the time his friend Louis Chauvin was equally famous within the tightly knit rag scene.
Chauvin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and although he died without leaving recordings, we know that his ivory chops were legendary in vaudeville circles all over the Midwest.
“Chauvin emerged from the urban subculture of St. Louis,” says Ed Berlin, a ragtime scholar and author of three books on the genre. “Chauvin’s reputation is astonishing when one considers it is based on his contribution to “Heliotrope Bouquet,” a mere 32 measures of music, less than three minutes including repeats. However, its ethereal beauty is unlike anything else coming from the ragtime years, and he certainly impressed Scott Joplin who was the era’s standout composer. This piece of music is unlike anything else ever composed.”
Louis Chauvin couldn’t read music, but his friend Scott Joplin notated “Heliotrope Bouquet” and added the latter half. We’re only left with two other compositions that bear Louis Chauvin’s name, but at least these glimpses provide context to his legend.
Chauvin frequently warmed up by hammering double-time octaves in opposing directions using the entire keyboard. In 1904 he won player Tom Turpin’s piano contest at the Rose Bud Club, and since Joplin was known as the “King of Rag Time Writers,” Chauvin was soon taglined “King of Rag Time Players.”
“The list of contestants demonstrates that as the winner, Chauvin’s talent must have been formidable,” Berlin says. If someone hummed him a composition Chauvin could sit down and play the piece note-for-note, adding harmonies and changing the arrangement to make it his own. Even though Louis’s best known talent lay in fast runs on the keys and incredibly technical impromptu compositions, he was also known as a fantastic singer and a fluid dancer. One account claims Chauvin “had an insatiable thirst for women, opium, and alcohol.”
Louis Chauvin died in Chicago March 26, 1908. He was 27 years old, and the cause of death was complications from syphilis.