Merlene Davis: Buck and Bubbles are black Kentuckians worth remembering

February 17, 2011 

I have heard of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson because in my youth I watched some old movies on TV in the afternoons after homework occasionally. I saw him with Shirley Temple and they would merrily burst in to a tap dance routine throughout the film.

But I hadn't heard of John W. Bubbles, born John W. Sublett in Louisville in 1902. Bubbles was a great tap dancer, who created a new way to tap called "rhythm tap," and was selected by George Gershwin to be the first Sportin' Life in the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess in 1935.

Bubbles teamed with another young man from Louisville, Ford Lee Washington, known as Buck, to form the musical duo Buck and Bubbles. They were two Kentuckians who pulled down $1750 a performance in the 1920s and 1930s.

The men reportedly met while working in a Louisville bowling alley setting pins. They won several competitions and traveled to state fairs and convention before settling in New York when they were in their late teens.

The duo danced and sang. Buck played piano, also.

The story goes that Bubbles went to the Hoofer's Club in New York and was laughed off the stage. The club is where the best tap dancers competed.

For the next year, while performing out west, Bubbles practiced new steps and, instead of tapping just with his toes, added his heels as well. According to the American Tap Dance Foundation, Bubbles, "revolutionized tap dancing by dropping heels on the offbeat, accenting rhythms with the toes, extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music, and loading the bar with a complex slew of beats. No wonder he is heralded as the "Father of Rhythm Tap."

The result was he had merged tap with a new style of jazz rhythm that had never been tried before. And he was good at it.

When Bubbles returned to the Hoofer's Club, he gained their respect. Fred Astaire reportedly took lessons from him.

By 1922, the duo reached the height of white vaudeville by playing the Palace Theatre in New York, appearing with the Ziegfield Follies in 1931 and becoming the first black performers at Radio City Music Hall.

When Bubbles starred as Sportin' Life, in Porgy and Bess, Buck played Mingo.

The duo appeared in several movies including, Variety Show in 1937; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Atlantic City, 1944; and A Song is Born, 1948.

Buck died in 1955 and Bubbles' career took a tumble during the next decade. In the January 1965 issue of Ebony Magazine, Bubbles said much of the money he had earned with Buck was gone, but, he said he had been "secure for a long time ... I can't do all the things I want to, but I'm not exactly down and out."

The magazine was featuring him because of his come back. He had teamed with Anna Maria Alberghetti and the act, complete with tunes from Porgy and Bess, traveled the world. Bob Hope took them on his USO Tours. He was 62 and still able to hoof.

In 1967, Bubbles suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. According to Vaudeville, Old and New by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly, Bubbles performed again in 1979-1980, making new records and singing in Black Broadway, a revue, and appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1986, Bubbles suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Baldwin Hills near Los Angeles.

In Vaudeville, Old & New, published in 2007, the authors wrote that the British Broadcasting Company made a documentary marking "the contributions of black American entertainers."

"Though forgotten by American audiences," the authors wrote, "Bubbles remains an icon to each new generation of tap dancers."

We should at least correct the first part of that statement and remember Buck and Bubbles for being Kentuckians and for being the best of their trade.

Saturday will mark Bubbles' 109th birthday. That will be a good time to start.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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