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Shennette Garrett-Scott

cabaret and vaudeville singer and performer, was born Eliza May (or Mae) Alix in Chicago, Illinois, to Rossetta (or Rasetta) Hayes and Ernest Alix; her parents’ occupations are not known. When Alix was a teenager, her mother remarried; it is not known if Alix's father died or if her parents divorced. Alix lived with her mother; stepfather, Arthur Davis; older sister, Josephine Alix; and younger stepsister, Ellen Davis, in Chicago.

Alix probably began her career singing and performing in chorus lines and local shows. By the early 1920s, she had already established a modest local name for herself when jazz clarinetist and bandleader Jimmie Noone took notice of her in 1921 She continued her collaboration with Noone s Apex Club Orchestra for a series of recordings for Vocalion Records in the late 1920s and early 1930s including recordings of My Daddy Rocks Me and Birmingham Bertha a song ...

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Charles Blancq

jazz clarinetist, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Theogene V. Baquet, a music teacher and the leader of the Excelsior Brass Band of New Orleans, and Leocadie Mary Martinez. Baquet and his younger brother, Achille Baquet, were descendants of “downtown” Creoles, whose musical training was closely allied to the traditions of the French musical conservatory—a musical tradition held at that time to be far superior to that of the “uptown” jazz musicians. At age fourteen, Baquet was already playing E-flat clarinet with the Lyre Club Symphony Orchestra, a Creole ensemble with twenty to thirty pieces, directed by his father. Baquet later received additional training from the legendary Mexican-born clarinetist Luis “Papa” Tio, who, with his nephew Lorenzo Tio Jr., was among the founding members of the New Orleans school of clarinetists, a group that included Johnny Dodds, Albert Nicholas, Omer Simeon ...

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Allison Kellar

vaudeville entertainer and singer, was born in Iowa but grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. Her mother, Amanda Billups, was a Native American, and her father, Addison Blanks, was an African American.

After her studies were complete, Blanks first taught school in her hometown; however, she soon spread her wings as a professional entertainer, performing around the country and appearing in shows in Chicago and New York City. She began her career in a touring vaudeville act, dancing and singing with her sister, Arsceola Blanks, in the late 1910s. Her sister married Leonard Harper and formed Harper & Blanks, another vaudeville act; Birleanna married the baseball player Chesley Cunningham (the date of the marriage is unknown).

In 1919 Blanks made her debut in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre, where she sang in Over the Top This musical comedy was the first Billy King show in which ...

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Jack Sohmer

jazz bassist, was born Wellman Breaux in Saint James Parish, Louisiana. Nothing is known of his parents except that they were of Creole heritage, and it is not known when he anglicized his name. Braud began playing violin at age seven and later took up guitar. His earliest work was with string trios playing on the streets of New Orleans. During the 1910s he worked regularly at Tom Anderson's cabaret, probably playing guitar in a group with the violinist Armand J. Piron while also playing drums and trombone in various ad hoc brass bands.

In 1917 Braud moved to Chicago, where he began playing bass and toured with John Wickliffe's band, later joining the Original Creole Band (or Orchestra) at the Pekin Café as a replacement for Ed Garland. When Braud joined the band the other members included the cornetist “Sugar” Johnny Smith, the clarinetist Lawrence Duhé the trombonist ...

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Jim Haskins

entertainer and nightclub operator, was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Smith, a barber, and Hattie E. (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia, because her parents did not wish to disappoint the various neighbors and friends who offered suggestions for naming her, Bricktop received her nickname because of her red hair when she was in her late twenties from Barron Wilkins, owner of a nightclub called Barron's Exclusive Club in Prohibition-era Harlem.

Bricktop's father died when she was four, and her mother moved with the children to Chicago to be near relatives. Hattie Smith worked as a domestic in Chicago, and her children attended school. Bricktop showed early musical talent and interest in performing. She made her stage debut as a preschooler, playing the part of Eliza's son Harry in a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin at ...

Article

Freda Scott Giles

dancer, singer, entertainer, and actor, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents’ names are not known. His early childhood was spent in Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family was part of a touring carnival; by the age of seven, John was performing on the stage, participating in amateur contests as a singer. Accounts differ as to when he returned to Louisville and when he met his vaudeville team partner, Ford Lee “Buck” Washington. Some sources list their ages as ten and six, respectively, while others list them as thirteen and nine. The team began working professionally by 1915 as “Buck and Bubbles,” an act combining music and comedy.

They would remain together for nearly forty years originally combining Washington s talents as a pianist with Sublett s as a singer when his voice changed Sublett turned to tap dancing as his primary talent As they developed their act ...

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Jane Goldberg

Nicknamed “Bubber,” Bubbles is best known for his original portrayal of Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) and as one half of the famous singing-and-dancing comedy act of Buck and Bubbles. The act, which began when the ten-year-old Bubbles teamed with six-year-old Ford Lee (“Buck”) Washington, lasted almost fifty years. The two were featured in the Ziegfeld Follies of1931 and were the first black artists to appear at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

Known as the father of rhythm Bubbles influenced an entire generation of dancers during tap dancing s innovative period of the 1920s and 1930s He made tap a jazz form when he created new accents by the drop of his heels introducing gradations of tone and complex syncopations Tap dancers previously had tended to stay on their toes when Bubbles experimented with turns and heel drops he changed the ...

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Jane Goldberg

Coles started to dance as a teenager, performing on street corners in Philadelphia, and then he began to enter amateur talent shows. In 1931 he joined George and Danny Miller in an act called the Miller Brothers (later the Lucky Seven Trio), doing fast tap routines on giant dice, pedestals, and boards suspended in the air. After an unsuccessful attempt to break into show business in New York City, Coles returned to Philadelphia, where he locked himself in a room and practiced eight hours a day for a year. When he returned to New York in 1933, Coles had the fastest feet in show business. Ironically, it was his celebrated slow soft-shoe, co-choreographed with his partner, Charles (“Cholly”) Atkins, some years later, and performed to a slow tempo rendition of “Taking a Chance on Love,” that made Coles and Atkins one of the great class acts.

Coles s self ...

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Constance Valis Hill

tap dancer, raconteur, and stage, vaudeville, and television performer, was born Charles Coles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George Coles and Isabel (maiden name unknown). He learned to tap-dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time-step “cutting” contests, and he made his New York debut at the Lafayette Theater in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique. He returned to New York City in 1934 confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music Performing at the Harlem Opera House and at the Apollo Theater Coles was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business And at the Hoofer s Club where only ...

Article

Donna L. Halper

radio personality and advertising executive, was most likely the first black announcer in the history of broadcasting, on the air as early as 1924. His successful radio career would span four decades and make him a wealthy man. Cooper did not come from an entertainment background. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he was one of ten children of William and Lavina Cooper. Jack Cooper quit school after the fifth grade to help support his impoverished family. He held a number of low-paying jobs and for a time got interested in boxing, winning more than a hundred bouts as a welterweight fighter. But he found his calling on the vaudeville stage, where he became a singer and dancer, beginning in 1905 and continuing well into the 1920s. He was more than just a performer, writing and producing skits and entire shows, often in collaboration with his first wife Estelle ...

Article

Elton C. Fax

John W(alcott) Cooper was a native of Brooklyn, New York. Little is known of his parents except that his father, John Cooper, came from Beaufort, South Carolina, and his mother, Annie, from Georgia. Both died while their son was still a small boy. The child received his formal schooling at Professor Dorsey's Institute in downtown Brooklyn. Because of his small stature, young Cooper became an exercise boy at the nearby Sheepshead Bay racetrack. There his attention was drawn to ventriloquism by a white practitioner who liked to visit the stables. The ventriloquist, hoping to frighten the exercise boy into believing the horses “talked,” would slyly practice his craft around the animals' stalls. But young Cooper, wise to the pranks of track regulars, listened with no fear and with more than casual amusement.

With his keen intelligence good singing voice and a flair for showmanship Cooper soon joined a ...

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Charlie T. Tomlinson

ventriloquist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to John W. Cooper Sr. and Annie Morris. Cooper's parents died when he was still a child, and at the age of thirteen he began to care for himself by working as an exercise boy at the stables of the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in New York City. At the age of fifteen Cooper began singing tenor with a troupe called the Southern Jubilee Singers. After seeing performances by two white vaudeville ventriloquists, Harry Bryant and Al O. Duncan, Cooper became interested in the art of ventriloquism. While continuing to perform with the Southern Jubilee Singers, he began to focus his attention on becoming a professional ventriloquist. His first documented ventriloquist performance was with the Southern Jubilee Singers in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1894 He was twenty three years old As he toured with the singers his ventriloquist act was incorporated ...

Article

Gregory Adamo

entertainer. One of the first African American superstars, Samuel George Davis Jr. was a tap dancer; film, theater, and television actor; singer; impressionist; and multi-instrument musician. From the 1940s until his death, Davis was a recognizable American entertainer. Truly a child of show business, he was born to vaudevillian parents in Harlem in 1925. He began performing at age three, eventually joining his father in the Will Mastin Trio, a tap dance troupe. He traveled on the vaudeville circuit in its waning days, and his hard work and talent made him the star of the act, eventually leading the trio to appearances on television and in major nightclubs. In 1954 Davis suffered a serious car accident while driving from a gig in Las Vegas to a recording session in Los Angeles He lost an eye as a result After his recovery Davis returned to performing and was ...

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Carolyn L. Quin

Davis, Sammy, Jr. (08 December 1925–16 May 1990), variety performer and entertainer, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American dancer, and Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus girl, both in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland, a vaudeville troupe. He lived with his paternal grandmother, Rosa B. Davis, whom he called “Mamma.” After his sister was born in 1927, his parents separated.

Davis went on the road at age three with his father, performing with a Will Mastin vaudeville show, known then as an all-colored revue. The group came on between the main acts and served as just another anonymous comedy group to liven up the audience. Davis affectionately referred to Mastin as his uncle. The first show Mastin developed that included Davis was Struttin’ Hannah from Savannah When he was seven he got the billing Silent Sam ...

Article

Sammy Davis Jr., was born in New York City, the son of vaudeville performers Elvera Sanchez Davis and Sammy Davis Sr. He began a life-long career of entertaining at the age of three, appearing in the vaudeville group in which his parents danced, Will Mastin's Holiday in Dixieland. Two years later, after his parents' divorce, he stayed with his father and officially joined the group. Davis made his movie debut with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President (1933). Throughout the 1930s he toured with the Will Mastin Trio, becoming the central figure in the group, singing, dancing, and playing several instruments.

In 1943 Davis joined the United States Army and served for two years directing shows and touring military installations. After leaving the army he returned to the Will Mastin Trio, which became an established part of the club circuit, playing bills with American entertainers Jack ...

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Sholomo B. Levy

singer, dancer, and actor, was born in Harlem, New York, the first of two children of Sammy Davis Sr., an African American vaudeville entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus dancer. Sammy's paternal grandmother, “Mama Rosa,” raised him until he was three years old, when his father, who had separated from Elvera, took his son with him on the road. Within a few years, the child's role grew from that of a silent prop to that of a show-stealing singer and dancer, the youngest member of the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr.

Fellow performers were the only family Sammy knew and the world of the theater was the only school he ever attended He was billed as Silent Sam the Dancing Midget to hide him from truant officers and child labor investigators After a period during which the group could not find work or shelter ...

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JoAnna Wool

dancer and vaudevillian was born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1872. According to her husband, Charles E. Johnson, Dean was born Dora Babbige, and her brother, Clarence Babbige, served as a judge in Kentucky during the Reconstruction period. By the mid-1880s her family moved to Indiana, and Dean found employment as a nursemaid in nearby Ohio.

Dean entered show business as a “statue girl” in The Creole Show, a popular touring production staged by Sam T. Jack. Dean possessed a striking figure, a pleasing smile, and a quality of warmth and personal charm that she was able to project from the stage; billed as “The Black Venus,” she struck dramatic poses during musical numbers and made a hit with the audience. Paired with talented soft-shoe dancer Charles E. Johnson Dean also became known for her performance of the cakewalk a dance developed by blacks ...

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Rainer E. Lotz

dancer, choreographer, actor, and impresario, was born Winston Louis Douglas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Frederick Douglas (no relation to the veteran antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, although Louis's name is sometimes found spelled in the latter way). Frederick Douglas was a music hall or vaudeville performer whose specialty was juggling with plates; young Louis started life on the boards handing plates to his father, ad-libbing when the act went wrong and the plates tumbled. His mother, a devout Catholic, ensured his formal education at a missionary school and hoped he would become a missionary to Africa; instead Douglas traveled across the Atlantic at an early age as a member of the Georgia Pickaninnies, one of many vaudeville troupes that featured young black performers while drawing heavily on racial stereotypes. The troupe arrived in Ireland in 1903 and started a European tour that would ...

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Elton C. Fax

Born in Texas, Sherman H. Dudley, like many Southern blacks who resented being addressed by their first names by whites, used only his initials in an effort to ward off the insult. In the tradition of most black performers of his day he worked the medicine-show circuit. Talented singers and dancers often began their professional careers as performers hired by itinerant street salesmen of patent medicines. The performances were designed to attract prospective buyers to the hucksters' medicinal wares. Most such entertainers of the South were blacks, many of them mere boys.

While still in his twenties, Dudley joined the McCabe and Young Minstrels, working as a comic end man who called himself Hapsy. He followed that stint by teaming with singer and dancer Dude Kelly and performing as a substitute for Sam Lucas at Broadway s Star Theater So successful was the pair of substitutes that they ...

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Kevin Byrne

vaudeville entertainer and theatrical entrepreneur, was born in Dallas, Texas. The names of his parents are unknown. Though in later interviews Dudley frequently changed the story of how he broke into show business, his earliest stage work was most likely in Texas and Louisiana as part of a medicine show. This job, in which he played music and told jokes to draw a crowd to the pitchman and his wares, was an appropriate beginning for a man who always sought to be the center of attention. Dudley eventually became an artist and businessman who, as demonstrated by both his actions and writings, was passionately concerned with cultivating the rights and strengthening the dignity of African American performers during an era when what it meant to be a black entertainer was greatly in flux.

Dudley s apprenticeship in the professional theatrical world took place during the last decade of the ...