There is no mistaking Jimmy Slyde's signature move—that cool, smooth, seemingly effortless slide across the floor from which he took his name. Over an impressive career spanning more than six decades, legendary tap dancer Slyde, also known as the "King of Slides," became synonymous with the style of dance known as rhythm tap. He performed alongside the great big bands of the 1940s during the golden age of tap, and later he starred on Broadway and film in the 1980s when the art made a resurgence. The late tap great Gregory Hines, quoted in Dance Magazine in 2005, summed up Slyde's importance: "I can't decide if it's Jimmy Slyde, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly—or Jimmy Slyde, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire." Either way, Jimmy Slyde stands among the legends of tap.
The dancer known as Jimmy Slyde was born James Titus Godbolt on October 27, 1927, in Atlanta, Georgia. When he was two years old his family moved to Boston, where he spent his childhood. His mother enrolled him in the New England Conservatory of Music as a youth, hoping to make a concert violinist of him. During his lessons, though, Jimmy could hear the sound of tapping coming from Stanley Brown's dance studio across the street, and soon he was hanging out there, watching such tap greats as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Charles "Honi" Coles, and Derby Wilson. At the age of twelve he began taking classes at the studio, and it was there that he learned the slide, which would become his trademark, from teacher Eddie "Schoolboy" Ford.
Godbolt also met another student there, Jimmy Mitchell, who was then going by the name "Sir Slyde." The two paired up, calling themselves the Slyde Brothers, and later Godbolt adopted the moniker "Jimmy Slyde," the name he would use for the rest of his career. The Slyde Brothers began performing in nightclubs and burlesque and vaudeville theaters around New England, developing a popular following. Before long, they were touring with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and other celebrated bandleaders. During this era tap dancers proved a popular accompaniment for big bands. As Slyde recalled in the book Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, "During a song, I would tap about three choruses up front. And then the band would come back in, and I'd do another two and a half, three choruses. Then I'd close it up and whip it out."
The timing of Slyde's career, however, was less than fortuitous. Just as he made a name for himself, the big-band music and tap dance acts of the 1940s were declining in popularity as they were supplanted by rock and roll in the 1950s. As work dried up, many tap dancers hung up their shoes or took on menial jobs to pay the bills. Slyde made some television and film appearances and worked during the 1960s as a choreographer for the Crosby Brothers. In 1966 he appeared at the historic Berlin Jazz Festival.
With little work available in the United States, Slyde moved to Paris in 1973. There he performed and taught with Sarah Petronio, who was then leading a revival of tap culture in the city. He became known for a style of dance called "rhythm tap," marked by rapid, intense, and complicated footwork—and, of course, that incredible slide. In this way, the dancer becomes a percussive instrument, creating his own music and rhythm. Slyde explained in Tap! that "dancing is a translating thing, especially if you're tapping. You're making sounds yourself…. Different dancers have different sounds. Some dance heavy, some dance light. I'm strictly sound-oriented…. I'm a musical dancer."
Slyde was a featured performer in the 1985 Paris revue Black and Blue, a celebration of black musicians and dancers that recalled the elegance of earlier music-hall days. The show transferred to New York City in 1989, running for 829 performances at the Minskoff Theater on Broadway. Reviewing Black and Blue for the New York Times, critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, "It is the dancers … who make up the show's fabric. The variety of styles that tap can but does not always contain is telegraphed in the first dance number, which combines the veterans Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Ralph Brown and Lon Chaney with two younger soloists, Ted Levy and Bernard Manners, and the teen-age prodigy Savion Glover. This challenge competition, traditional to hoofers, is a testament of faith in tap as a creative idiom." Slyde earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance, and in 1993 the production was made into a television movie by Robert Altman.
The success of Black and Blue marked a reversal of fortune for Slyde, and the beginning of a resurgence of tap dance. Slyde also made several appearances in popular films during the 1980s, portraying Jimmy Slide in the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola picture The Cotton Club and appearing in Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight in 1986. Slyde followed up with Tap in 1989, dancing alongside tappers Sammy Davis Jr. and Hines.
Although his obituary in the New York Times described him as a "reluctant teacher," Slyde was keen to act as a mentor to younger artists and stood as an important figure in the tight-knit dance community. He originated and hosted a weekly "jam session" at La Cave, a nightclub in Manhattan, where Slyde and other veterans would trade taps with younger hoofers such as Savion Glover, Van Porter, Ira Bernstein, and Roxane Butterfly. Glover, who performed with Slyde on many occasions, felt a particular affinity for Slyde, whom he called, as quoted in the November 2005 issue of Dance Magazine, the "grandfather of tap."
Slyde garnered many accolades during his long career. In 1993 he was honored with a tribute performance at the Miller Theatre in New York celebrating his "45 Years of Foot Poetry-in-Motion." Slyde received the coveted Choreographers' Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984-86, 1988, and 1993, in addition to a National Heritage Fellowship from that organization in 1999. Other honors include the Charles "Honi" Coles Award (2001), the Hoofer Award of the American Tap Dance Federation (2002), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2003), and a Dance Magazine Award (2005).
Praising Slyde in Dance Magazine on the occasion of his 2005 award, Sali Ann Kriegsman described the dancer's art: "Slyde's dancing is at once poetry, music, storytelling, philosophy. He has an uncommon lyricism, a lucid, inventive, and immaculate rhythmic sensibility. His tonation is nuanced, his sound mellow, his demeanor elegant, and his taps clear as glass. His virtuosity, spiced with those famous slides and an occasional pirouette or double tour, is always in service to the art."
Though his health declined in later years, Slyde remained a fixture in the tap community—in spirit, if not always in person—well into his seventies. He died at his home in Hanson, Massachusetts, at the age of eighty.
At a Glance …
Born James Titus Godbolt on October 27, 1927, in Atlanta, GA; died on May 16, 2008, in Hanson, MA; married Donna; children: Daryl.
Career: Tap performer with the Slyde Brothers, 1940s-50s; choreographer for the Crosby Brothers, 1960s; dance instructor and performer in Paris, 1970s; appeared in stage and screen productions.
Awards: Choreographers Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1984-86, 1988, and 1993; National Heritage Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1999; Charles "Honi" Coles Award, New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day, 2001; Hoofer Award, American Tap Dance Foundation, 2002; Honorary Doctorate in Performing Arts, Oklahoma City University, 2002; Guggenheim Fellowship, 2003; Dance Magazine Award, 2005.
Black and Blue, Paris and New York, 1985-89.
The Cotton Club, 1984.
Round Midnight, 1986.
Frank, Rusty E., Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955, revised edition, Da Capo Press, 1994.
Guardian (London) June 5, 2008.
Dance Magazine, November 2005.
New York Times, May 21, 1989; May 17, 2008.
Playbill, May 19, 2008.
"Dr. Jimmy Slyde, 2002 Hoofer Award Recipient," American Tap Dance Foundation, http://www.atdf.org/awards/slyde.html (accessed July 25, 2008).
"Jimmy ‘Slyde’ Godbolt," National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Fellowships, http://www.nea.gov/honors/heritage/fellows/fellow.php?id=1999_06 (accessed July 25, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring