TAP DANCE HALL OF FAME

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Mable Lee
2008 Inductee

Mable Lee, the sassy chanteuse and jazz dancer with the million-dollar legs who was regaled in the 1940s as “Queen of the Soundies,” was born in Atlanta, Georgia (August 2, 1921) to Rosella Moore and Alton Lee. She was a child prodigy who began performing at the age of four; and all through elementary, middle, and high school, was known for her singing and dancing talents. By the age of nine, she was performing with a big band in popular clubs around town; at the age twelve, she was performing in the first black-owned nightclub in Georgia, The Top Hat. She arrived in New York City with her mother on August 18, 1940 and auditioned at the Apollo Theatre --   singing, dancing with a chair in her mouth, doing flips and splits-- but because she did not have an agent, she could not be booked as a soloist. On the advice that she seek work as a chorus liner, she went to a mass “call” for an audition and was chosen out of 300 girls to dance in the chorus at Harlem’s West End Theatre (on 125th Street). The chorus at the West End was so good (they were choreographed by Charlie Davis and Leonard Reed) that Frank Schiffman would not let any of those women work at his Apollo Theatre. It was only after the show closed (in August of 1940) that dance director Leonard Harper brought her to the Apollo, where she joined the “Number One” chorus. She worked six shows a day, and sometimes around the clock, when having to rehearse with a new band.  “I got my training and start in the chorus,” said Mable about her training in the “School of Doing” at the Apollo. When the Apollo “Number One” chorus dissolved in 1941, Mable was given a spot as a soubrette, singing and dancing as a soloist with a line of women behind her. She had realized her dream: “I came here to be, what my teachers from kindergarten and up always said, to be a star; I’ve been in show business all my life.” She was also in comedy skits, playing straight woman to such comics as Pigmeat Markham and Spider Bruce. After the Apollo, she worked at such Harlem’s nightclubs as Small’s, Ubangie Club, and Club Sudan. And then went to London for eighteen months, where she performed at the Palladium where she says, “I represented America in the nightclub scene, and represented Africa in the jungle scenes.” The London critics called her “the second Florence Mills.” During World War II, Mable performed in the first all-black USO unit; conducted by Eubie Blake and his sixteen-piece orchestra. With over 45 performers (including Butter Beans and Susie, Cook & Brown), doing five shows a day, the troupe played every army, navy, and marine camp. In the 1950s, Mabel would perform in the USO with her own show, with two comedians and an all-woman chorus and band. She often crossing paths with Leslie Bubba Gaines. “Bubba,” she says, “took USO shows all over the world-- he was another Bob Hope.” From 1940 to 1946, Mabel made over 100 soundies such as Half Past Jump Time (c. 1945), Baby, Don’t Go Way From Me (1946), Ebony Parade (194-) with the Cab Calloway and Count Basie bands, and Everybody’s Jumpin’ Now (c. 1946) with Noble Sissle and orchestra. Chicken Shack Shuffle (1943) is a virtual dance instruction song in which Mable sang, “You jump to the left and you cross your leg, and tip along like you’re walking on eggs/ you do anything but a pigeon wing, you strut like a rooster but you gotta swing.” She then performed her own free interpretations of the dance with truckin’, boogie shuffles, and cross-back steps, and legomania. In The Cat Can’t Dance (c. 1945), she sang about the guys who sent her diamonds rings and took her to the swankiest clubs, bemoaning, “but these cats just can’t dance.” Adored by Harlem audiences, Mable appeared on the March 1947 cover of Ebony Magazine. After touring France, Belgium, Ireland, and Scotland, Mable returned to New York to do booking auditions, raise $350,000 for, and star in the Broadway revival of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s all-black jazz-age musical Shuffle Along (1952); in which she sang  “Craving for That Kind of Love” and “You Ain’t Been Vamped ‘til You’ve Been Vamped by a Brownskin.” She also sang with Eubie Blake on his album Eubie Blake and His Girls (1960) making popular again the hit song “You Got to Git the Gittin,’ While the Getting is Good.” The year 1960 was also another blessed year for Mable, who gave birth to a son, Michael, who was born in Georgia (on April 13, 1960) would grow up to writes music, form a band, write plays, and sings in the choir of the church Mable had belonged to. But while Michael was growing up, Mable continued to work. In 1969, she was the only woman to perform with Chuck Green, Lon Chaney, and James Buster Brown in The Hoofers, which opened at the Mercury Theatre to rave reviews. She performed in the leading role of Irene in the national touring production of the Broadway musical hit Bubblin’ Brown Sugar (1976); with Honi Coles, who went out as a “time man,” changed scenes while tapping and was understudy to the lead Vernon Washington (in the role of Sage). After getting standing ovations for her soft shoe dancing in the AMAS Repertory Theatre’s production of Suddenly the Music Starts, Mable was nominated for an Audelco Award for Outstanding Musical Performance. In 1985, Mable received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make master dance videos on teaching vintage chorus line routines and other fundamentals of chorus line work.  Since 1999, Mable has performed regularly in National Tap Dance Day’s Tap Extravaganza, where she was honored with a Flo-Bert Award for lifetime contribution to tap dance. From the first New York City Tap Festival in 2001, Mable has been a star attraction; the special Toe-Knee Award she received from Tony Waag in 2004 was but a preface to her induction in 2008 into ATDF’s International Hall of Fame. After her performance at Tap Extravaganza in 2000, master of ceremonies Ted Levy was left speechless and had to take a few minutes before he could introduce the next act. Mable, at age of seventy-nine, was THAT HOT! As she says, I love doing what I’m doing, what God made me do. I love being apart of people, teaching and performing. I’m an expression of show business, not just dancing-- open yourself up, give them love. I love being feminine, being a woman. I do not like vulgarity-- I will give you a bump, but not to be nasty, but a lady.”  Like many performers from her generation, Mable has achieved that rare level of “entertainment” that identifies a true performer-- but she has one-upped on it. She can dot it all and looks good doing it, in those wonderful costumes and with her great pair of legs.

Constance Valis Hill

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