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.

 

2014 - Carnell Lyons belonged, like so many American jazz musicians, to the so called “American musicians in Europe” and so was a great influence on the tap scene in Europe.

Carnell was born 6th of August 1917 in Kansas City, Missouri. In the 20s and 30s Kansas City was a swinging town, a secret jazz center to the general public (until record producer John Hammond discovered Count Basie 1936 by hearing Basie on a radio broadcast from the Reno night club). It was the town of Benny Moten, Andy Kirk, George E. Lee, Jay McShann, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Ben Webster and future jazz star Charlie Parker. The so-called “Vine Street District” in Kansas City, Missouri was full of all kinds of night spots and jazz clubs owned by the local mafia and protected by Kansas City’s “Al Capone” Tom Pendergast. In this atmosphere of jazz and crime Carnell grew up. The dance of the time was tap dance and Lindy Hop. Many night spots like the Reno and theaters like the Lincoln Theater had a floor show which would feature America’s best tap dancers. In the movies you could see Bill Robinson, Buck and Bubbles and the young Nicholas kids, a special inspiration for all youngsters. Seeing the Nicholas Brothers and the young Peg Leg Bates inspired Carnell to try to tap dance himself. His first teacher was a neighbor kid by the name of Cornelius Redman, everybody called him “Perk”. He was a little older than Carnell and the other kids, and he would teach them on the streets the basic steps like Time Steps, Wings, Over the Tops – what they would call “Plain Dance”. In a little barn in the backyard of his house Carnell and his friend Fuzzy built up a good wooden floor and all the neighbor kids met in there to practise all day long. Carnell: “We had a big house, a backyard and a frontyard. And we had a shed like a garage. I made a dancing place there, takin’ up the floor and put a new floor down. And we had an old gramophone there to wind up – Tea for Two, Honeysuckle Rose – and we was dancin’ off that.” This little practice room became the dance center of the neighborhood and new teachers came in. Virgil Bowles, a neighbor kid who was already in show business taught them the Soft Shoe, Harvey Collins, who specialized in the new style of Rhythm Tap, and Jimmy McFadden (father of the McFadden Brothers), who was the founder of the famous Kansas City tap quartet “The Chocolate Drops” also joined them. In the middle of the 30s Carnell founded, with two of his friends, “The Three Rags of Rhythm”.  With this trio they went to local amateur contests and theaters like the Lincoln which had the famous Vine Street Variety Show. About 1937 they auditioned for a carnival named the “Hennies Brothers” which toured the whole USA. On this carnival he met his life-time friend, the great tap dancer Fay Ray who at that time, as a sixteen year old girl, was in the chorus line of the show. Back in Kansas City Robert Wilson replaced Cecil Groves and the group’s name changed to “The Three Businessmen of Rhythm” and they invested all their new money in good clothes. 1938 started the decline of Kansas City as a jazz paradise. First of all, Pendergast, the big protector of the mafia, and that means show business, went into jail. Count Basie went to New York, Jay McShann went to Chicago. And like them, many young musicians and dancers were looking for new and bigger possibilities in the big jazz centers. And like their schoolmate Charlie Parker who hoboed to Chicago in autumn the Three Businessmen of Rhythm jumped on a train heading for Chicago. Soon they auditioned for the Club de Lisa, one of the most famous night clubs in town. They got the gig which turned out to be a steady job whenever they came to town. In 1942 they got their first professional management by the Frederick Brothers agency which was looking for dancers to accompany Fletcher Henderson’s band.  And so they made it the first time to New York playing the Apollo Theater. In 1943 they had their Broadway appearance in the Broadway Revue “Artists and Models” with Jane Froman, Jackie Gleason and the Peters Sisters. Right after the show Robert Wilson was drafted and Carnell and L.D. continued as a duo and got their first taste of European show business when they were hired by Val Parnell for the musical “Here, There and Everywhere” with Tommy Trinder and the fabulous Mable Lee at the London Palladium (April 1947 – January 1948). When they came back the act broke up and Carnell joined the duo of two successful acrobats, Jesse Franklin and James Hawthorne. The trademark of Jesse and James was the spinning of huge trays. Carnell learned the tray spinning and with “Jesse, James and Carnell” his most successful years in show business followed.

 

With Jesse, James and Carnell and their new agent Eddie Smith they climbed the heights of black and white show business. They’ve been in the Kate Smith, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle TV shows and they were one of the few black acts playing Las Vegas (El Rancho) and Radio City Music Hall (May 23rd 1953).

After a tournee through South America and the Far East with Xavier Cugat, Jesse left the act and was replaced by L.D. who came back (1955). The act of Jackson, James and Carnell can be seen billed as Businessmen of Rhythm at the Harlem Variety Revue (studio film clips with Willie Bryant as MC, Coles and Atkins, Little Buck and many others). The midfifties was the time when the possibilities for tap dancers to perform in USA died out and only very few acts could continue. So like many other artists who didn’t want to stop, the trio immigrated to Europe where this type of show business was still en vogue. With Paris as their headquarters they toured whole Europe and in 1956 they were engaged for the German picture “Liebe, Tanz und 1000 Schlager” starring Caterina Valente, Peter Alexander and also John W. Bubbles, who was another emigrant. They can also be seen in the Austrian TV production “Fatty George’s Black and White Show”.

At the end of the 50s, first L.D., then James went back to America. Since 1961 Carnell was a solo act, living in Frankfurt, Germany, jumping from military base to military base to perform in the different soldier clubs. In the famous Vagabond Club in Wiesbaden he met his future life and show business partner, the contortionist Edith Fügert billed as “Eddi Dorino”. They fell in love. But tragically short after that, when she was back in East Germany, the “Iron Curtain” fell and East Germany built up “The Wall”. And for them a ten years fight for freedom started until 1970 when Edith could legally emigrate from East Germany (Moskau Treaty).

In 1972 they were engaged to Tokyo through dear friends and collegues, Peter and Romaine McKay. To work on the same spots every night Carnell and Edith put a duo act together and toured five years in Japan and the whole Far East.  Coming back to Berlin, Germany at the end of the 70s tap dance was no longer a way of making a living in Germany. So, around 1980, when Carnell was asked to teach tap dance, this was the start of his new teaching career which made him the man who brought Rhythm Tap to Europe. Almost at the same time when tap started to come back in the USA, Carnell started the tap revival in Europe, teaching all the dance festivals and schools. After twelve years the highlight of his teaching career was that he was invited through Jackie Shue to teach the 1992 Tap Festival in Portland

and the coming back to New York where Jackie Shue arranged a performance party for his 75th birthday. Jackie organized a show where many of his old and new friends like herself, Buster Brown, Fay Ray, Chuck Green, Lon Chaney, Harriet Browne, Brenda Bufalino, Josh Hilberman, Hank Smith, Rod Ferrone, Joe Orrach, Herbin van Cayseele, Jane Goldberg and us danced for him. With the sweet memory of this late recognition in the tap revival Carnell went back home to Berlin. – Thank you, Jackie!

Alan Carnell Lyons died on September 12th 1992 in Berlin, Germany.

A tribute to by Kurt Albert and Klaus Bleis