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*On this date, in 1902, John Bubbles was born. He was a Black dancer and entertainer known as “the father of rhythm tap.”
John William Sublett (his name at birth) was from Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in Indianapolis, IN. At eleven, he teamed up with Ford Lee Washington in an act billed as Buck and Bubbles. Bubbles sang and danced while Buck played accompaniment. They won many amateur competitions performing around the Louisville, Detroit, and New York City areas, sometimes in blackface.
After his voice changed, Bubbles focused on dancing; he developed a new tapping style that blended difficult innovations such as double over-the-tops (a rough figure-eight pattern done with a deliberate near-tripping technique). Bubbles would do them while alternating legs, traveling backward and forwards, and from side to side. By 1922, Buck and Bubbles reached vaudeville's top by playing at New York’s Palace Theatre.
They headlined the white vaudeville circuit from coast to coast. Their singing-dancing comedy act (which featured Buck’s easy piano style contrasted with Bubbles’ witty explosion of taps) was featured in the Broadway Frolics of 1922, Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1930, and Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. Bubbles made entertainment history by securing the dancing role of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The 1930s and 1940s were times of continued success for Buck and Bubbles until the death of Buck in 1955.
On his own, Bubbles appeared with Bob Hope in Vietnam, recorded several albums, and made his final public appearance in 1980 in the revue Black Broadway. John Bubbles’s rhythm tapping, later “jazz tap,” transformed dancing. Before his performances, dancers tapped up on their toes, focusing on “flash steps” and dancing to a quicker tempo. Bubbles cut the tempo in half and extended the rhythm past the typical eight beats. He also dropped his heels and hit unusual accents and syncopations.
He said about his style: “I wanted to make it more complicated, so I put more taps in and changed the rhythm.” He was the first Black to appear on Johnny Carson's Tonight TV show. John Bubbles died on May 18, 1986, in Louisville, KY.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York