International Tap Dance Hall of Fame

 

The International Tap Dance Hall of Fame is the only tap dance hall of fame exclusively focused on tap dancers. It features founding and innovative 20th and 21st century professional tap dancers.With a collection of photographs, biographies, and videos, the Hall of Fame is becoming a colorful and diverse retrospective of America's seminal tap dance personalities.

 

2013 - James Buster Brown (May 17, 1913, Baltimore, MD –May 11, 2002, New York, New York)

James “Buster” Brown, the elegant rhythm tap dancer with a heartwarming wit who was much beloved in the tap community as a teacher and mentor, was born James Richard Brown, the sixth and only male of eight children. His father, William Brown, was an oyster shucker in Baltimore, and mother Mary Brown (Mary Ella Otho), who raised the children when her husband died, when Buster was six years old. Raised in the jazz age, listening to music and dancing, Buster became interested in show business, especially after seeing Albert “Pops” Whitman (1921-1951), son of Alice Whitman of the Whitman Sisters, who built the famous tap and acrobatic act known as Pops and Louie.

 

He first performed as one the Three Little Dots, a male dancing trio with John Orange and Clifton Payne. He attended Frederick Douglas High School in Baltimore (Noble Sissle, Cab Calloway, Baby Laurence Jackson, and Derby Wilson also attended), where he befriended (who was later to become) Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, from whom he picked up moves. With John Orange and Sam Campbell he formed The Brown Brothers, which became The Three Aces. After graduating around 1933, the act was renamed The Speed Kings because of the speed and precision dancing they featured. In Philadelphia, they launched a two-week tour with Jeni LeGon in a variety show that toured Washington D.C.  Around 1936-1937, the Speed Kings worked with Brownskin Models, which played the Apollo Theater.

 

After John Orange drowned in a swimming accident, Brown returned to Cleveland, Ohio, where he met Emmet McClure and Sylvester Lake. Naming the act Speed Kings 2, they danced a Soft Shoe, and then did “rhythm” dance. “We opened with the soft-shoe, and the music never stopped,” Brown recalled. “We segued into speed and precision dancing.” The act was influenced by and modeled after Pete, Peaches, and Duke, one of the greatest of precision dance teams.

 

Speed Kings 2 arrived in New York in 1939, playing the Apollo and Small’s Paradise with Earl Bostic’s band. In his spare time, Brown hung out at the Hoofer’s Club. The team worked through World War II and broke up in 1942. One of the last gigs was the Cole Porter musical film, Something To Shout About (1943), starring Don Ameche, Janet Blair, and Jack Oakie; also on the bill were Hazel Scott, Charles Walker of Chuck and Chuckles, and Cyd Charisse, making her film debut. After moving to Boston, having dissolved The Speed Kings 2 and working with a singing group called The Three Riffs, Brown moved back to New York to form his own solo act which comprised comedy and tap dancing. He opened with a soft shoe, closed with flash, and in between interspersed songs with jokes and dances. He also worked from 1945 to 1951 with the duo Brown and Beige (with partner Ernest “Pippy” Cathy), where they played the Apollo Theater. When the duo broke up in the early 1950s, Brown worked briefly with the Choclateers (Eddie West, Paul Black, and Gip Gibson, replacing West), a comedy, singing and dancing group who are credited with originating “Peckin,’”, which they performed in a Soundie. From the time Bill Robinson died in 1949 and through the 1950s, jobs in tap dance were scarce. Brown found several jobs, such as working for a record company (Broadway and 50th Street) and managing the Bobby Restaurant.

 

In the 1960s he began dancing with the Hoofers, a group that included Lon Chaney, Baby Laurence, L.D. Big Red (“Rhythm Red) and that performed tap jams on Monday evenings on 125th Street in Harlem. Leticia Jay was an eccentric dancer who had worked with Chuck Green. Around that time, Jay produced a television show that included Brown, Gibson, Jimmy Slyde, Fred Kelly, Chuck Green and Ralph Brown. In 1968, The Hoofers toured Africa for eight weeks with a State Department sponsored Jazz Dance Theatre, in which they gave a command performance or Emperor Haile Selassie who awarded them with “The Lion of Jedea Coin.” In 1966, Brown also toured as a soloist with the Duke Ellington Big Band throughout the United States and Canada, performing in one part of Ellington’s Sacred Concert entitled “David Danced Before the Lord” (in a role originated in 1965 by Bunny Briggs). In 1967, after moving with his wife Dorothy into an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhatta, Brown began singing with the Ink Spots. At the beginning of the 1970s, Brown became a lifetime member of The Copasetics Club, founded in 1949 in memory of the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 1974 he traveled with the group to New Paltz, New York, where he appeared in the tap dance documentary, Great Feats of Feet.

 

In the 1980s, as tap dance launched into its so-called renaissance, Brown picked up his career as a jazz tap dancer. He appeared in the Broadway touring production of Bubblin’ Brown Sugar and the Paris production of Black and Blue. Dancing and teaching at festivals and workshops across America, he continued working with the Hoofers, the Copasetics, with Leon Collins (as one of the “Schnitzel Brothers”), and as a single in Europe. He appeared with the Hoofers in the television production Tap Dancing, in the Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club (1984), and in Susan Goldbetter’s video documentary Cookie’s Scrapbook (1987).

 

In 2000, Brown toured with the Savion Glover and Friends production Footnotes, with Jimmy Slyde and Dianne Walker. In the late 1990s, he hosted his own Sunday evening tap dance jam sessions at Swing 46 in New York City, where he nurtured the next generation of tap dancers. In February 2002, Brown was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts degree from Oklahoma City University. When asked by the tap dancer Roxanne Butterfly what he thought made a dancer a great artist, Brown replied, “If you are making me feel like I am dancing with you.” He would also say, “It’s not in the move, it’s in the groove.”

 

Constance Valis Hill