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.
Here’s Bubbles in action: