Ethics Addendum: Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface,” The John Bubbles Connection

The post about Fred Astaire’s dark-make-up-assisted homage to tap-dancing legend Bill Robinson in “Swing Time” was incomplete, both historically and ethically. This post should remedy that.

The dance number in question, “Bojangles of Harlem,” was, as I wrote in the introduction, Fred’s homage to two great black tap dancers who were teachers and inspirations for him, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles.  The post explained why the salute to Robinson was important, but did not elaborate more on Bubbles. He was not as big a star as Robinson nor as well known, either at the time of the film or ever, and is less remembered today. Nevertheless he was an important cultural figure, and it can be argued that Astaire’s number was really more of a tribute to Bubbles than Robinson, not that many noticed.

First, you need to know about Bubbles. Born John Sublett (1902-1986), he teamed at the age of ten  with the six-year-old Ford Lee “Buck” Washington in a decades-lasting act, “Buck and Bubbles.” in which Buck stood and played piano and Bubbles sang and danced.  As adults, “Buck and Bubbles” ultimately  played at New York’s Palace Theatre, the London Palladium, the Ziegfeld Follies, the Cotton Club, the Apollo, and became the first blacks to perform at Radio City Music Hall. Their popularity allowed them to break the color barriers in theaters across the country.

Bubbles personal stardom suffered because he was considered part of a team for most of his career, but he revolutionized tap dancing. He perfected the technique of dropping his heels on the offbeat, accenting rhythms with the toes, and extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music while loading the bar with a complex pattern of beats. He became known as the Father of Rhythm Tap, and virtually all tap dancer who followed him were influenced by his innovations, none moreso than Fred Astaire, who became his dance student in 1920.  Astaire was always profuse in his praise and admiration of Bubbles, and most, but not all, of his steps in “Bojangles of Harlem” were Bubbles’ moves rather than Robinson’s. Bubbles even worked with Fred and Hermes Pan on the choreography. Dancing with the big shadows in the background: that was a Robinson feature. The derby? Both Robinson and Bubbles were known for wearing them.

Robinson had a more extensive film career and was a national celebrity, but Bubbles was no flash in the pan. He originated the role of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (1935), singing the classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” To complete the Robinson-Bubbles confusion, Sammy Davis, Jr., who performed the song “Mr. Bojangles” to evoke Robinson, took over the role of “Sportin’ Life” in the Hollywood version of the opera.

Before being partially paralyzed by a stroke, Bubbles appeared in many TV shows, and toured with the USO during World War II. Returning Astaire’s admiration, he pronounced Fred the greatest dancer of all time, though when asked who the greatest tap dancer was, he said, “You’re looking at him.” Michael Jackson was among the admirers of Bubbles’ dancing style, and reportedly studied his steps for inspiration. Jackson named his pet chimpanzee “Bubbles” as his salute to the dancer.

I know, I know. Don’t think about it too hard.

I’m still trying to get my ethics brain around Fred Astaire’s number. He saluted two competing African American contemporaries, teachers and rivals in a single number, while referencing only one of them, Robinson, in the title, while using Bubbles’ moves in  a setting where they were associated with the other dancer. The dark make-up wasn’t a slur, but it does evoke the slur that all blacks look the same, since Fred was playing two black tap-dancers at once. Still, his “Swing Time” number is one of the only remembrances in our culture of either artist, and Bubbles, at least, appears to have consented to being willfully confused with Robinson.

On balance, I think Fred did a good thing.

I think.

Here’s Bubbles in action:



Sources: Wikipedia, American Tap-dance Foundation.



17 thoughts on “Ethics Addendum: Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, And The Good “Blackface,” The John Bubbles Connection

  1. The thing is, he could have done it without the blackface makeup, and it would have been just as memorable. Why did performers back then think they had to put on blackface, especially when most networks and movie companies hired very few true black performers?

  2. I think maybe the inherent problem with the tap dancing thing is despite its incredible athleticism and artistic finesse, it comes off looking like colored fellas tryin’ to ingratiate themselves with white folks in return for a few shekels. Darkies bein’ gay. Terribly fraught and unfortunate but I’m afraid it’s inescapable. If I had been a young black guy in the ’60s and seen that tape, I’d probably thought to myself, and want to say to Bubbles and his fellow tap dancers, “Man, don’t demean yourself like that.”

    • Other Bill – from IMDB criticizing a critic: ” These commentaries, which are all about painfully deconstructing every single aspect of the racial clichés and supposedly harmful depictions of Black people contained in those films and are full of precious profundities like “Notice how the dancers smile too much, which is a hateful racial stereotype”, were evidently put together in a commendable spirit of political correctness. Unfortunately, [those who do this are] totally blind to the wonderful qualities of those films, with the end result that he robs the viewing experience of all joy, discovery, wonderment and spontaneity.”

      Black people can be PC too, but if most of them didn’t appreciate the qualities mentioned above and feel pride in the performers — and continue to say so by buying the DVDs, asked for reruns on BET and saying so out loud –, it wouldn’t matter how much white people love them, they would be yelling way louder than you.

      • It’s a tough call, PA, at least for me. Maybe it’s kind of an ethics zugwag? I think Rochester on Jack Benny was a great character. He had much more sense and humanity than the character Jack Benny played. Was Red Foxx on Sanford and Son a great character? I’m not sure. Are Tyler Perry’s characters great? Helpful? Should they be? Must they be? Beats the hell out of me, but these sorts of things strike me as worth considering.

        • OB: Rochester was a great character because he had (one of ) the greatest of “straight men” ever. Neither would have gone to those iconic heights without the other. Looked up Sanford and Son and wasn’t surprised to see it played in the 70s (the decade I spent most of living in Japan), and you couldn’t get me to a Tyler Perry movie if you paid for the popcorn — I’ve seen the trailers. So we are at an impasse. Consideration is worth considering, though.

  3. Thanks for this, Jack. I’d completely forgotten the dance sequences (and Sublett’s fine voice too) in “Cabin in the Sky.” The movie itself is too turgid to watch over again (seen it three or four times), but YouTube pulls out the best, including the clips of Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and, one of my favorite all time voices, Lena Horne. My wonder is how Vincente Minnelli got to put together a cast like that for his first directlng job (okay, he’d done “Panama Hattie” the year before but … nah … and besides, it was uncredited just as (I was astonished to learn) Busby Berkeley’s choreography was uncredited for “Cabin…”.

    • “Cabin in the Sky” is one strange movie, as is “Green Pastures,” but both are worth watching for the amazing talent.

      Re Busby: Given his inimitable style, he didn’t really need to be credited, did he?

      • Re Busby: He didn’t, you’re right. Not for people who know the name, the movies, the style. And I wouldn’t expect to have his credit specially inserted now – as I saw Trumbo’s done on one of his, given that it was, fairly or not, considered “a best of the century” or something like that. I hate the idea that one of the technologies now on the drawing board – if not being manufactured as we speak – will give the Average Joe the power to purchase a gadget to hook to his computer so he can alter . . . things himself.

  4. Amazing talent. Too bad we don’t have as many films of him and Robinson as we do of Astaire and Kelly, and it is too bad their films likely did not have the same budgets…

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