the-return-of-the-living-dead

Ragtime Implicated In Death Of Cincinnati Musician Charles Lisker

The headline in the Cincinnati Post of 22 November 1905 told the fatal tale: “Death Calls Pianist As He Plays Notes Of His Own Lively Ragtime - Charles Lisker’s Favorite Air Proves His Death Dirge.” 

The story below that headline was just as floridly elaborated as you would ever want:

“While the merry strains of the piano were filling the room with melody in response to the deft touch of his nimble fingers, Charles Lisker, musician, of 216 Fifteenth Street, fell from the piano stool and died instantly. His mother, who was absent on an errand, returned to find her son lying dead on the floor, while the loose sheet of music that had fluttered to the floor gave mute evidence that his last moments had been given to his art, which he so passionately loved.”

This “ragtime death” occured just as ragtime music was beginning to be considered respectable in Cincinnati. For a dozen years before 1905, ragtime was almost exclusively connected with saloons and illegal gambling joints in the seedier parts of the city.

Karl “Charles” Lisker made his living as a musician from a quite early age. He was not quite 17 when he began listing himself in the City Directory as a musician. The woman the Post describes as his mother was, in fact, his stepmother. Charles’ birth mother died when he was around 20 years of age and his father remarried. Charles’ father, also a Karl who went by “Charles,” worked as a machinist, sawyer, cabinet maker, carpenter, candy manufacturer  while he earned enough to buy property and live on the rentals.

Charles Jr. studied law, but never practiced as a lawyer. During the mid-1880s, he was a house musician for a while at the London Theater on the corner of Vine and Mercer. In the 1890s, he toured as far as Maysville with the David O'Brien Comedians, for whom he was billed as a “talented pianist.”  Mostly seems to have operated from his home, first at 72 Fifteenth and later at 216 Fifteenth. It appears that he had heart problems throughout his life, and this not only interfered with his employment outside the home, but also - for a couple of years - kept him from working at all. At the time of his death, Charles was 45 years old and unmarried.

The Post reported that Lisker “was quite well known, both as a composer and pianist. ”

“The tune he was playing at the time, while of the light and popular variety, was one of which he was particularly proud, as he had given great assistance to the author in its arrangement and theme.”

The Post story suggests that he was good to his stepmother:

“He was a good son,” sobbed the mother, “and his music was my only rival to his love.”