Harlem’s John W. Bubbles, First At Radio City, First On TV And Her Taught Fred Astaire

John William Sublett, February 19, 1902 – May 18, 1986, known by his stage name John W. Bubbles, was a vaudeville performer. He performed in the duo “Buck and Bubbles.” He is also known as the father of “rhythm tap.”

 They also became the first black artists to perform at the Radio City Music Hall. “Buck and Bubbles” performed live in the first scheduled ‘high definition’ television program on November 2, 1936 at Alexandra Palace, London, for the BBC, becoming the first black artists on television anywhere in the world.

Subblett was born in Louisville, Kentucky on February 19, 1902, but soon moved with his family to Indianapolis. There, he formed a partnership with Ford L. “Buck” Washington in 1919. Their duo was known as “Buck and Bubbles.” Buck played stride piano and sang, and Bubbles tapped along. They were so popular that the duo moved to Harlem, New York in September of that year. They played together in the Columbia Theater, the Palace and played with artists Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye. They were on the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. They also became the first black artists to perform at the Radio City Music Hall. “Buck and Bubbles” performed live in the first scheduled ‘high definition’ television program on November 2, 1936 at Alexandra Palace, London, for the BBC, becoming the first black artists on television anywhere in the world.

Though unable to read music, Bubbles was chosen by George Gershwin to create the role of Sportin’ Life in his opera Porgy and Bessin 1935. Since he didn’t understand the music score, Gershwin spent the time to teach it to him as a tap rhythm. Sublett caused some problems because he often made up rhythms which caused confusion with other members of the cast. Sublett performed the role occasionally for the next two decades. In 1963, in a studio recording of Porgy and Bess featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield, he performed Sportin’ Life’s two main arias from the opera, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York”.


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In 1920 he gave lessons in tap dancing to Fred Astaire, who considered Sublett the finest tap dancer of his generation.

In 1920 he gave lessons in tap dancing to Fred Astaire, who considered Sublett the finest tap dancer of his generation. In the number “Bojangles of Harlem” from Swing Time (1936) Astaire dresses in blackface as the Sportin’ Life character and dances in the style of Sublett while ostensibly paying tribute to Bill Robinson.

Sublett appeared in Hollywood films of the late 1930s and 1940s, including Varsity Show in 1937, Cabin in the Sky in 1943 and A Song Is Born in 1948. In later life, he also made television appearances, one of his last being on a musical episode of The Lucy Show, which also guest-starred Mel Tormé and a featured performance on Barbra Streisand’s 1967 TV special, The Belle of 14th Street, a tribute to the bygone era of vaudeville.

During the Vietnam War, John Bubbles toured the war zone with the USO.: In 1965, he appeared with Eddie Fisher on a USO tour, visiting many outposts and camps in the early war years. He appeared with Judy Garland in her 1967 concert at the Palace Theatre, singing “Me And My Shadow.” That same year, he became partially paralyzed due to a stroke.

In 1978, John Bubbles spoke at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles as a participant in a seminar on vaudeville. Someone asked him who the best tap dancer was. Bubbles answered, “You’re looking at him.” Then he added, “Honestly, if I had to name the best dancer, it would be Fred Astaire. He could tap. He had a good teacher. But he could ballroom, dance with a partner. All in all, he’s the best.” That same night, Bubbles mentioned that Astaire had brought him into the rehearsal hall to work on “Bojangles of Harlem” and John’s chops are right there in the number.

He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1979, which was one of his last public appearances. Sublett died on May 18, 1986, at his home in Baldwin Hills, California.

Sublett is known as the father of “rhythm tap,” a form of tap dance. Sublett included percussive heel drops in his tap style, as opposed to the tap dancing of Bill Robinson (Bojangles) who emphasized clean phrases and toe taps. Sublett’s taps were made to the traditional eight-bar phrase, but allowed for more rhythmic freedom. He blended the improvisational style of jazz music with the traditional techniques of tap to create a unique style and sound.

Sublett received the 1980 Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists. He was inducted into the Tap Hall of Fame in 2002.

Sublett was remembered by many celebrities; his catchphrase, “Shoot the liquor to me, John Boy,” has been quoted in songs by several artists, including The Manhattan Transfer, The Ink Spots, and Louis Armstrong. Michael Jackson admired Bubbles’ dancing and studied his steps for inspiration. In the mid-1980s Jackson named his beloved pet chimpanzee “Bubbles” in memory of John Sublett.

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