TAP DANCE HALL OF FAME
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Eddie Brown (July 27, 1915 - Dec 28, 1992)
Superlative rhythm tap dancer known for clarity of taps, complexity of phrasing, and rippling musicality, was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He learned to dance at an early age from his uncle who was a flash dancer. “Everything I did was up tempo, home again and down, and I could do twelve choruses,” he recalled.
At the age of sixteen he was discovered by Bill Robinson at a tap dance contest held in his hometown; with 37 contestants, when he was called to the stage and asked him what music he wanted, Brown requested Robinson’s signature tune, “Doin’ the New Lowdown,” and proceeded to duplicate the steps that he had heard Robinson perform on record and in performance. Upon winning first prize in the contest, Robinson spoke to Brown’s parents and asked to take the boy to New York, but Brown’s mother refused. Two weeks later, Brown and two friends hopped a freight train and within two weeks made their way to New York where he supported himself by dancing in bars where people threw money on the floor. Because he was a minor, he could not be hired where liquor was sold; but when the management saw that people liked them, and would start buying beer, they let them stay.
At age eighteen, Brown joined the Bill Robinson Revue at New York’s Apollo Theatre; and remained with the show from 1933 to 1939 because he was able to withstand the strict demands of Robinson who was a perfectionist. Performing his hometown style of up-tempo flash dancing at Small’s Paradise, Brown saw that young hoofers at the time were dancing to slower swing tempos which allowed them to insert more beats into the bar. When he approached these dancers for work he was turned down, because they felt Brown did not understand what they were doing. “So I woodshedded for three weeks,” he recounted, “and found out that rhythm dancing was flash dancing cut in half.” He returned to Small’s and delivered two choruses of rhythm tapping to asking the musicians for slower tempo, and performing two tasty choruses of rhythm tap to slow swing tempo. “By me being a flash dancer, I found out that I could do the same steps, and it worked out beautifully. I went on from there creating, creating, creating.” When a show he was touring with arrived in San Francisco, Brown says he was no longer doing flash. “Everything was rhythm, down to earth rhythm.”
Falling in love with San Francisco, Brown decided to stay. He formed the trio of Brown, Gibson and Reed (Carl “Busboy” Gibson and Jerry Reed); the group later split off into Brown and Reed, as the Mad Cats of Rhythm. He also pursued work as a soloist, preferring to experiment on his own as a rhythm tap improviser. He teamed up with drummer Dave Tough in an act in which they would play off and answer each other in a drums-and-tap dialogue. Through the 1940s he appeared with Billie Holiday and Joe Turner at the Savoy in Art Tatum’s show, and with Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, George Shearing and the Jimmie Lunceford band as he pursued a career as a soloist.
In the 1970s, Brown was a featured artist in Jon Hendrick’s San Francisco production of Evolution of the Blues, which ran for five years at the Broadway Theatre. In the early 80s Babs Rifkin and Camden Richman were instrumental in bringing Brown out of “retirement” and getting him to tap again in San Francisco; and in 1982 helped his move from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Through the 1980s, Brown appeared in many tap festivals that began to be organized in San Francisco, Boston, Denver, Boulder, Houston, and New York. “Eddie Brown always opened our shows,” Brenda Bufalino recalls of the Colorado Tap Festivals. Dressed in his white tuxedo and white broad-brimmed hat, she says that Brown set the tone for the whole show quickly and emphatically: “He swung his short, four-chorus dances at a medium tempo, developing his rhythms by accenting and doubling up his heels. He set his tempos with crisp, syncopated time steps to which he returned after executing breaks with a flourish of very hip and complex patterns.” In 1987 Brown performed at the San Francisco Tap Festival with Steve Condos, Jane Goldberg, Nicholas Brothers, and Lynn Dally; and in 1989 at the Outrageous Rhythms Festival performance in Houston, Texas with Bufalino, Condos, Honi Coles, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.
From 1983-1992 Brown was a soloist and company member of Rhapsody In Taps (RIT), directed by Linda Sohl-Ellison, who says that more than a guest artist, Brown rehearsed with the company and was featured in company repertoire as well as performing in every annual Rhapsody in Taps’ Los Angeles season at the Japan America Theatre, UCLS’s Royce Hall, and Wadsworth Theatre. He especially loved working with drummer Tootie Heath, and the two of them had a great rapport on stage. Brown also taught for RIT’s National Tap Dance Day’s events and was the honored Tap Master for the company’s first National Tap Day Outdoor Potluck Picnic at Occidental College, an event that became an annual Los Angeles event due to public demand.
Brown choreographed several works for the company, as well as solos for Sohl Ellison. He also taught a popular and successful Saturday tap class at the Embassy Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, and many private lessons to Los Angeles tap dancers and others who sought him out, such as Pam Thompson and Heather Cornell. He also frequently appeared as a Guest Artist with Lynn Dally’s Los Angeles-based Jazz Tap Ensemble, and for them he choreographed Doxy, to the tune Sonny Rollins, which became a signature work of the company, as well as the well-known Eddie Brown B.S. Chorus. “Eddie Brown was one of America’s great tap treasures and we promoted Eddie’s visibility in every way possible way,” says Sohl-Ellison.
Brown likens his tap dancing to “scientific rhythm” because, he says, “You heard all this music/rhythm but couldn't see where it was coming from.” His style is rhythmically intricate with steps that are close to the floor with equally intricate and sophisticated jazz phrasings. “One of the distinctive qualities is the way he accents steps within a phrase, where he places the strong punctuation,” says Linda Sohl Ellison. And when Brown was asked how to go about achieving that, he answered, “Make every tap count; don’t miss any.”
Constance Valis Hill
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