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John Bubbles (1902-1986)
2002 Inductee

John Bubbles revolutionized tap dancing by dropping heels on the offbeat, accenting rhythms with the toes, extending rhythmic patterns beyond the usual eight bars of music, and loading the bar with a complex slew of beats. No wonder why he is heralded as the Father of Rhythm Tap. There is no dancer today who has not been influenced by his inventions.

Born John Sublett in Louisville and raised in Indianapolis, at the age of ten he teamed up with the six-year-old Ford Lee "Buck" Washington (1903-1955) in an act in which Buck stood and played piano and Bubbles sang. After winning a series of amateur-night shows around town, “Buck and Bubbles" began playing engagements in Louisville, Detroit and New York City. Around the age of eighteen, Bubbles’ voice started changing and he switched his focus to dancing. Smarting at the embarrassment of being laughed out of the Hoofer's Club for being a novice tap dancer, Bubbles retreated to the privacy of the shed, determined to develop his technique. He returned to the Club with his new style of rhythm tapping that was laced with double Over-the-Tops and triple Back Slides, blowing everyone away.

By 1922, Buck and Bubbles reached the pinnacle in vaudeville by playing at New York's Palace Theatre. Bypassing the black T.O.B.A. circuit, their singing-dancing-comedy act headlined the vaudeville circuit from coast to coast. Buck's stop-time piano, played in a cool and laid back manner, contrasted with Bubbles' witty explosion of taps in counterpoint. They played the London Palladium, the Cotton Club, the Apollo, were the first blacks to perform at Radio City Music Hall, and continued to break the color barriers theatres across the country.

Their motion pictures include Varsity Show (1937), Atlantic City (1944), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and A Song is Born (1948). On his own, Bubbles appeared in Broadway Frolics of 1922, Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1930, and The Ziegfield Follies of 1931, and secured his place in Broadway history by originating the role of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935). The role of Mingo in that production was played by Buck. He also appeared with Judy Garland at the Palace and Bob Hope in Vietnam, and recorded Harlem Comes to London, Selections from Porgy and Bess, and Bubbles, John W. That Is.

Before Bubbles, dancers tapped up on their toes, capitalized on flash steps and danced to neat two-to-a-bar phrases. Bubbles loaded his bar, dropped his heels and hit unusual accents and syncopations, opening the door of modern jazz percussion. "I wanted to make it more complicated so I put more taps in and changed the rhythm," said Bubbles about his style, which prepared for the new sound of bebop in the 1950s and anticipated the prolonged melodic lines of "Cool" jazz in the 1950s.

Constance Valis Hill

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