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Nipsey Russell, 1971
Nipsey Russell was born on this date in 1924. He was a Black dancer and comedian.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Russell started performing professionally in 1931 at the age of 6, when he was featured as a singing-dancing master of ceremonies for a children's troupe in Atlanta organized by Eddie Heywood, Sr. Russell went to high school in his home town and received a BA in English from the University of Cincinnati. He also served in the United States Army.
He started in the 1940s as a carhop at the Atlanta drive-in The Varsity, where he would earn his tips by making his customers laugh. By the 1950s, he had set his act apart from the baggy-pants, mostly raunchy comics who were the staple of most Black clubs of the time. Dressed in a conservative business suit and tie but wearing a raffish porkpie hat, he offered a confident, sophisticated approach to comedy.
His jokes and topical observations were often delivered as aphorisms and rhymes. Russell read Shelley, Homer, Keats, and Paul Laurence Dunbar when he was ten and sometimes quoted from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." He was hip, glib, and conspicuously intelligent. He attracted downtown crowds to Harlem, becoming a standout pull at the Baby Grand, Small's Paradise, and other lounges with puns like "America is the only place in the world where you can work in an Arab home in a Scandinavian neighborhood and find a Puerto Rican baby eating matzo balls with chopsticks."
In addition to his sharp game-playing skills, Russell also delighted audiences with short poems, earning him the nickname "the poet laureate of television." His move to nightclubs was essentially a compilation of his stand-up routines, not unlike what Redd Foxx was doing at the very same time. In the late 1950s, he was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to a small part in the comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" in 1960.
Scattered appearances on television followed, as well as guest host duties on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era. In 1971, he started as a featured panelist on To Tell the Truth, which led to his hiring for The Match Game when Goodson-Todman Productions revived it two years later. He was also a trained dancer and appeared in the 1978 film "The Wiz" as the Tin Man.
He was widely known as a guest panelist on many 1970s and 1980s game shows, such as Match Game, To Tell the Truth and Pyramid. One of the early Black stand-up comedians who found success with mainstream audiences, Nipsey Russell, died October 2, 2005, in New York City from stomach cancer at age 80.