Atkins, Cholly 1913–2003
Cholly Atkins 1913–2003
Upon hearing of the death of choreographer Cholly Atkins in 2003, vocalist Gladys Knight told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “He was so underrated and overlooked for the contributions that he made to our industry. There is not one African-American artist that he did not touch in some way.” Indeed, the list of European and American stars touched by Atkins’s art was a long one, ranging from screen dancer Gene Kelly in the 1930s to the 1980s vocal group New Kids on the Block.
Perhaps Atkins’s most significant contributions to American culture were the dances and stage moves he created for Motown Records in the late 1960s. Though these defined Motown’s look and became familiar to a wide cross-section of Americans through concerts and television programs, Atkins gained little recognition for his work until the end of his long life, because he worked primarily behind the scenes. In Atkins’s autobiography, Class Act, his co-author, Jacqui Malone, called Atkins “one of America’s most influential twentieth-century dance masters.”
Cholly Atkins was born Charles Atkinson in Pratt City, Alabama, outside Birmingham, on September 30, 1913; he formed his stage name by shortening his own last name and taking the first name of a New York newspaper columnist, Cholly Knickerbocker. His father had come to Birmingham to take a job in one of the city’s steel mills, but the family soon moved on to Atlanta. Atkins’s parents split up, and his mother moved Atkins and his brother to Buffalo, New York. Atkins’s earliest instruction as a dancer came from his mother, who taught him the latest steps of the 1920s, but he also took music lessons and danced in school shows at Buffalo’s Public School 47. “Those lessons in junior high were the real foundations of my musical knowledge, because you had to go to music class,” Atkins wrote in Class Act.
Atkins began his show-business career as a singing waiter at a Buffalo-area resort called Alhambra on the Lake in 1929, and soon he teamed up with co-worker William Porter to form a song-and-dance team called the Rhythm Pals. They barnstormed around the country for much of the Great Depression and even performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1935, but they broke up soon after that. Atkins then made his way to California. He appeared in an elaborate stage show produced by jazz singer and trumpeter Valaida Snow at Sebastian’s Cotton Club, and word of his talent spread
Born Charles Atkinson on September 30, 1913, in Pratt City, AL; died on April 19, 2003; married three times; two children. Religion: Baptist. Military Service: U.S. Army; served in U.S. Army Band, 1943-45.
Career: Recorded tap dance solos and did choreography for various films, Hollywood, CA, late 1930s; Apollo Theater, choreographer, 1940-42; performed in tap duo Coles and Atkins, 1940s-1950s; freelance choreographer for various vocal groups, 1950s-1960s; Motown Records, Detroit, MI, choreographer-director, 1965-71; continued as freelance choreographer and dance teacher; choreographed musical Black and Blue, 1988; published autobiography, Class Act (with Jacqui Malone), 2001.
Selected awards: Black Heritage Award, Black Music Association, 1988; Tony Award, for Black and Blue, 1988; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Living Treasure in American Dance Award, Oklahoma City University, 1999.
around Hollywood. Several films of the late 1930s, including The Big Broadcast and Broadway Melody of 1938, featured the recorded sound of Atkins tap dancing as white dancers appeared on screen. In 1940 Atkins began choreographing shows at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater.
Serving as a drummer in the U.S. Army Band during World War II, Atkins teamed up with dancer Charles “Honi” Coles to form the tap duo of Coles and Atkins after the war. The partnership came about almost by chance: Coles and Atkins considered opening a dance academy but lacked financing, so they took to the stage to raise money. The school was forgotten as the pair contributed their memorable dance interludes to the concerts of jazz artists such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Lionel Hampton. The film world was introduced to their talent when they appeared in the 1949 Marilyn Monroe film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. By the late 1950s, however, the fortunes of tap were fading along with those of jazz, as new rhythms such as R&B and rock ‘n’ roll ascended.
The now middle-aged Atkins adapted by offering his services to a youthful group, the Cadillacs, that wanted to hone its stage presence. In the late 1950s African-American pop music was inundated with vocal groups that had plenty of street corner harmony-singing experience, but little knowledge of how to present themselves on a formal stage, and Atkins found his services in demand. A wave of girl groups such as the Crystals followed their male counterparts in the early 1960s, and Atkins, working out of the CBS building in New York, helped shape the images of many of them. Sammy Strain of the group the O’Jays was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the moves Atkins taught were “so simple, little pivots and stuff, but so hard I’d have nightmares over them.”
Atkins was then recruited for an artist development staff position at Detroit’s Motown label by founder Berry Gordy. After the death of his second wife, Dotty, in 1962 and marriage to his third wife Maye, Atkins signed on with Motown in 1965 with the official title of choreographer-director, just as the label’s new artists were beginning to show up on network television programs and to embark on worldwide tours. Atkins shaped the way Motown looked on stage, but his routines—externally simple yet precise and beautifully calculated—seemed so inevitable that few thought to ask the name of the person who had created them. Atkins remained with Motown until the label departed for Los Angeles in 1971.
Some Atkins moves, such as the crisp hands-forward freeze-frame indelibly associated with the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love,” became almost cliches of American pop culture, commonly imitated by many of those who grew up during the Motown era. Others, such as the behind-the-back tambourine toss Atkins devised for the Miracles’ “Going to a Go-Go,” required more practice on the part of the musicians and looked back to the era of the elaborate jazz and swing stage dances in which Atkins had gotten his start. Indeed, Atkins and various dance observers often stressed that he had not so much invented a new dance language as updated jazz dance for the pop era.
Atkins and his wife moved to Las Vegas in 1975, but the inexhaustible Atkins had hardly settled into anything that could be called retirement. He choreographed Las Vegas casino shows and continued to work with select artists such as the swing vocal group Manhattan Transfer and teen pop idols New Kids on the Block. The lack of credit Atkins received for his work was painfully underlined in 1984 when his part was cut from Motown’s twenty-fifth anniversary television special, but despite increasing health problems Atkins soldiered on. In 1988, at age 75, he choreographed a Broadway musical, Black and Blue, and finally received recognition from his peers in the form of a Tony award.
In the final decade of his life, Atkins was belatedly honored as a treasure of American dance. He appeared at major dance festivals and was given a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write Class Act, which appeared in 2001. Atkins choreographed a Las Vegas show for former Motown artist Gladys Knight, and continued to teach dance in Las Vegas until a few months before his death of pancreatic cancer on April 19, 2003. Only in retrospect, it seemed, had it become clear that the music of Motown, like so many other African-American musical forms, relied on dance as an integral part of its creative expression.
(With Jacqui Malone) Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins, Columbia University Press, 2001.
Atkins, Cholly, and Jacqui Malone, Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins, Columbia University Press, 2001.
Boston Globe, April 22, 2003, p. B7.
Daily News (New York), April 23, 2003, p. 38.
Detroit Free Press, April 22, 2003.
Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 22, 2003, p. B4.
Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2003, Part 2, p. 10.
New York Times, April 23, 2003, p. B10.
Times (London, England), April 30, 2003, p. Features-31.
—James M. Manheim
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