February 19, 1902
May 18, 1986
The tap dancer John Bubbles, known as "the father of rhythm tap," was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in Indianapolis. At the age of ten, he teamed up with six-year-old Ford Lee Washington (1906–1955) in an act billed as "Buck and Bubbles." Bubbles sang and danced while Buck, standing at the piano, played accompaniment. The duo won a series of amateur-night shows, and they subsequently began playing engagements in Louisville (where the two sometimes appeared in black-face), Detroit, and New York City. When Bubbles's voice changed at the age of eighteen, he focused on dancing.
Bubbles developed a new style of tapping that was spiced with extremely difficult innovations, such as double over-the-tops (normally a rough figure-eight pattern executed with the appearance of near self-tripping; Bubbles would do them with alternate legs, traveling backwards and forwards and from side to side). By 1922, Buck and Bubbles reached the pinnacle in vaudeville by playing at New York's Palace Theatre. Bypassing the black Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, they headlined the white-vaudeville circuit from coast to coast. Their singing-dancing comedy act, in which Buck's easy piano style contrasted with Bubbles's witty explosion of taps, was featured in the Broadway Frolics of 1922, Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930 and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. Bubbles secured his place in Broadway history when he created the acting, singing, and dancing role of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess in 1935.
During the 1930s, Buck and Bubbles played the London Palladium, the Cotton Club, and the Apollo Theater; they were also the first black performers to appear at Radio City Music Hall. The two broke color barriers in theaters across the country. Motion pictures in which they appeared include Varsity Show (1937), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Atlantic City (1944), and A Song Is Born (1948). The duo remained together until shortly before Buck's death in 1955. On his own, Bubbles appeared with Bob Hope in Vietnam and recorded several albums, including From Rags to Riches (1980). After being partly paralyzed by a stroke in 1967, Bubbles made one of his final public appearances as a singer in 1980 in the revue Black Broadway.
Bubbles's rhythm tapping, later called "jazz tap," revolutionized dancing. Before him, dancers tapped up on their toes, emphasizing flash steps (difficult, acrobatic steps with extended leg and body movements), and danced to a quicker tempo (two beats to a bar). Bubbles cut the tempo in half, extended the rhythm beyond the normal eight beats, dropped his heels, and hit unusual accents and syncopations. "I wanted to make it more complicated, so I put more taps in and changed the rhythm," said Bubbles about his style, which anticipated both the new sound of bebop in the 1940s and the prolonged melodic line of "cool" jazz in the 1950s.
Goldberg, Jane. "A Hoofer's Homage: John Bubbles." Village Voice, December 4, 1978.
"John William Bubbles." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives: Volume 2, 1986-1990. Detroit, Mich.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
Slide, Anthony. The Vaudevillians: A Dictionary of Vaudeville Performers. Westport, Conn.; Arlington House 1981.
Smith, Bill. The Vaudevillians. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
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