Russell, Nipsey 1924–2005
Nipsey Russell 1924–2005
Nipsey Russell was a comedian who rose to fame during the 1960s with frequent guest appearances on popular U.S. television game shows and variety programs. Known for his clever, sometimes risqué rhymes, Russell had a long and varied career that began at a time when African-American comics were forced to operate under a set of unwritten, discriminatory rules. “Only with the rise of … Nipsey Russell, Timmie Rogers and Redd Foxx did black performers get to play themselves,” noted New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor. “They paved the way, widened by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, for the likes of Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge and an assured raconteur named Bill Cosby.”
Julius “Nipsey” Russell was born October 13, 1924, in Atlanta, Georgia. His career in show business began at a young age: as a four-year-old, he was part of a tap-dance act known as the Ragamuffins of Rhythm, and by the age of six was serving as emcee for a local children's troupe. He recalled years later that his earliest role model was a well-known black tap dancer named Jack Wiggins. “He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced,” Russell told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “As he danced, he told little jokes in between. He was so clean in his language and was lacking in any drawl, he just inspired me. I wanted to do that.”
Russell was an erudite teen, a bookworm who dreamed of becoming a teacher. He left Booker T. Washington High School before his senior year of high school to live with his aunt in Cincinnati, Ohio, so that he could qualify for the in-state tuition rate at the University of Cincinnati. However, he spent just one semester there before enlisting in the armed forces during America's first year of involvement in World War II. He was a U.S. Army medic and reached the rank of second lieutenant before his discharge in 1946.
Featured in Variety Programs
Back in civilian life, Russell took a job as a carhop at The Varsity, a drive-in restaurant in Atlanta that was a local landmark. He soon realized that the tips were higher when he made his customers laugh, and he began to consider a career in comedy. For a time he lived in Montreal, Quebec, before heading to New York City in the late 1940s to break into the new medium of television. Reportedly he made his debut on The Show Goes On, a variety series broadcast on CBS between 1950 and 1952. He also appeared on a trio of musical programs that aired during 1955 and 1956, titled Rhythm and Blues Revue, Rock 'n' Roll Revue, and Basin Street Revue, which featured a number of black musicians, dancers, and other performers.
Russell became a regular on the stages of New York City nightclubs that catered to African-American audiences, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He moved on to performing for largely white audiences at resorts in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Russell's style helped eradicate two longstanding traditions in comedy: prior to his success, mainstream audiences were accustomed to seeing black comedians earn cheap laughs playing the “lazy servant” role, or as part of a duo, with one “straight” member and the other the “funnyman.” This latter strategy was used because it was considered too bold at the time for a black man to address many social topics directly to a white audience.
Russell was “among the first African-American comedians who refused to do dialects or play the Stepin Fetchit-style fool on stage,” wrote Joe Holley in the Washington Post, and while he did have a comic partner for a time—a veteran Hollywood character actor named Mantan Moreland—Russell earned plaudits for his solo act. “Dressed in a conservative business suit and tie but wearing a raffish porkpie hat, he offered a confident, sophisticated approach to comedy,” asserted New York Times writer Mel Watkins. “Hip, glib and conspicuously intelligent, he attracted downtown crowds to Harlem, becoming a standout attraction at the Baby Grand, Small's Paradise and other cabarets with quips like ‘America is the only place in the world where you can work in an Arab home in a Scandinavian neighborhood and find a Puerto Rican baby eating matzo balls with chopsticks.’”
Broke Color Barrier on Television
Russell was a pioneer in television, too. He was one of the first African-American performers to appear in a regularly occurring, non-servant role in a television series when he played Officer Anderson in the NBC series Car 54, Where Are You? during the early 1960s. A chance meeting at a party with game-show producer Mark Goodson led to another first for Russell, this time as the first African American to become a regular panelist on a television game show. The show in question was Missing Links, and Russell proved so popular that he appeared in several other series that matched contestants with celebrity players, including What's My Line, Match Game, Hollywood Squares, and To Tell the Truth during the 1970s. In 1970 he also appeared in one of the first situation comedies with an all-black cast. A television adaptation of the successful Broadway play Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon, the series suffered from poor writing, however, and failed to last the season.
Russell developed his signature rhyming style in the mid-1960s during his time as a panelist on Missing Links. The poems originated one night when host Ed McMahon invited Russell to say goodnight to the audience; Russell rhymed his response, and McMahon surprised him during the next show by asking him to do it again. Over the years Russell committed about six hundred of his four-line poems to memory, and wrote new ones in his spare time. He once claimed that composing the lines was “very simple to do” according to the Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I start with the joke line and write backward.” Years later, Russell's rhymes bore an uncanny resemblance to a revolutionary new musical form that emerged in the early 1980s called rap music.
At a Glance …
Born Julius Russell, October 13, 1924, in Atlanta, GA; died of cancer, October 2, 2005, in New York, NY. Military service: U.S. Army, 1941-45; reached rank of second lieutenant. Education: Attended the University of Cincinnati.
Career: Actor and comedian. Began performing as a tap dancer, singer, and emcee in Atlanta, GA, c. late 1920s-early 1930s; worked as a carhop, 1946; stand-up comedian in nightclubs, Harlem, NY, early 1950s; made television debut on The Show Goes On, early 1950s; made feature-film debut in The Wiz, 1978.
Memberships: Friars Club.
One of the best-known African-American entertainment personalities of the 1970s, Russell was cast as the Tin Man in The Wiz, the African-American retelling of The Wizard of Oz that moved from Broadway to an ill-fated screen adaptation costarring Russell with Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Other film credits include the Goldie Hawn comedy Wildcats (1986) and Posse (1993), a western starring Mario Van Peebles. A favorite with a younger generation of comedians, Russell appeared occasionally in skits on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and as himself on HBO's The Chris Rock Show. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, he died in New York City, his longtime home, on October 2, 2005.
The Wiz, 1978.
Car 54, Where Are You?, 1994.
Made for Borderline/Humorsonic Records, 1960s:
The Funny Side of Nipsey.
Things They Never Taught at School: Laff Lectures.
Sing Along with Nipsey Russell.
Confucius Told Me.
The Lion's Tail! (Or How to Make the Party Roar).
Ya Gotta Be Fast.
The Birds and the Bees and All That Jazz.
Car 54, Where Are You?, NBC, 1961-62.
Barefoot in the Park, ABC, 1970.
New York Times, February 9, 1993; October 4, 2005, p. C19.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 4, 2005, p. 38.
Tampa Tribune, January 16, 1998, p. 22.
Washington Post, October 4, 2005, p. B6.
“Profile: A Tribute to Comedian Nipsey Russell,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, October 4, 2005, storyId_4945317 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId_4945317 (accessed January 27, 2008).
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