The name Scott Joplin is now nearly synonymous with ragtime—the loose, syncopated musical style that swept the nation in the late-19th century and laid the groundwork for the emergence of jazz in the early 20th. Yet the most important figure in the history of ragtime was a virtual unknown as recently as the late 1960s. It was then that a grassroots ragtime revival began making Joplin and his music known within a growing community of dedicated enthusiasts. It took the star-making power of Hollywood, however, to transform him from a relatively minor cult figure into a household name. The transformation was completed on this day in 1974, when the musical score to The Sting earned Scott Joplin a share of an Oscar, more than five decades after his death in 1917.
The Sting starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman in a story of good-guy con men in 1930s Chicago. Ragtime music had passed out of fashion more than three decades before the events depicted in The Sting, but director George Roy Hill had fallen for Scott Joplin’s piano music after hearing his son play an album by classical musicologist and ragtime revivalist Joshua Rifkin. Hill gave the job of scoring The Sting to a young Hollywood composer named Marvin Hamlisch, who worked largely from 1909 sheet music to arrange and orchestrate six of Joplin’s compositions for use in The Sting—the melancholy “Solace” and upbeat “The Entertainer” most prominent among them. Historical accuracy aside, Joplin’s music proved to be an incredibly effective choice for evoking the mood of Depression-era America.
The Sting and Marvin Hamlisch both had big nights at the 46th annual Academy Awards on April 2, 1974. The Sting won Best Picture, among seven total Oscars, and Hamlisch won three, including Best Song and Best Dramatic Score for The Way We Were along with the award for Best Song Score and/or Adaptation for The Sting. The win for the Joplin-based score of The Sting brought the ragtime revival to the mainstream. Less than two weeks after the Oscars, “The Entertainer” was released as an instrumental single, reaching #3 on the Billboard pop charts in mid-May, while the soundtrack album from The Sting reached the #1 spot on the album charts simultaneously. At the Grammy awards the following year, “The Entertainer” helped propel Marvin Hamlisch to a win in the Best New Artist category, prompting Hamlisch to call Scott Joplin “the real new artist of the year” in his acceptance speech.