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Biographies John Stark, 1841-1927

Image of John Stillwell Stark (detail from unamed publication).
John Stillwell Stark, [n.d.]. Misc. Iconographic Collection, Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

John Stillwell Stark was born in Kentucky in 1841. His family moved to Indiana, where he grew up on a farm.

As an adult, Stark moved his own family to Sedalia, Missouri, in 1882--in retrospect, a fortunate move, for it put him in the right place at the right time. Stark opened a small music shop; within a few years, he was able to purchase a local music publishing firm which he renamed John Stark & Son. As serendipitous as his relocation to Sedalia was his decision to publish "Maple Leaf Rag," a song by a local composer, Scott Joplin. Within 10 years, Joplin's piece had sold more than 500,000 copies, making Stark's fortune and Joplin's reputation.

Works such as Joplin's made Stark well known as a music publisher. In time, Stark & Son added other ragtime composers to their catalog, among them James Lamb, Arthur Marshall, and Scott Hayden, all protégés of Joplin. Stark's insistence on "classic ragtime" not only matched Joplin's artistic philosophy but also helped to make the concept of African-American saloon music palatable to white middle-class audiences. "We mean to advertise these as classic rags and we mean just what we say," stated Stark & Son publicity. "They have lifted ragtime from its low estate and lined it up with Beethoven and Bach."

Because of business disagreements, Joplin eventually left Stark for other publishers. Nevertheless, Stark was successful enough to move to New York where he competed with the myriad publishers of Tin Pan Alley. After a profitable career as a ragtime publisher, Stark returned to St. Louis, where he died in November 1927.