London ball

John W. Bubbles, an American classic’ – London Jazz News

Brian Harker – Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, an American classic

(Oxford University Press. 328 pp. Book review by Andy Hamilton)

John W. Bubbles was one of the great song and dance artists, the tap dancer who inspired Fred Astaire. He was a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and his Buck and Bubbles vaudeville partnership was popular for over thirty years. Most memorably, he played Sportin’ Life in the original production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He later made a comeback on Steve Allen and Johnny Carson’s talk shows, as a comedic foil to Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Lucille Ball.

Bubbles (1903-1986) was born John William Sublett Jr in Nashville, Tennessee. Brian Harker’s excellent biography explains his difficult upbringing and his strokes of luck in the entertainment world. Her partnership with pianist Buck Washington became a vaudeville star. We learn that Buck was so small he couldn’t reach the pedals if he was sitting on the piano stool, so he played standing up.

Fred Astaire considered Bubbles “the greatest tapper of all time”. He originated the rhythmic tapping, dropping his heels in a loud syncopation, bringing the weight back to his toes. George Gershwin knew Bubbles as a vaudeville star and cast him for the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. Gershwin wanted the character, a drug dealer, to be “a humorous, dancing villain”. The discussion of her role in this “part opera, part musical, part white fantasy, part black reality,” as Harker calls it, is one of the most fascinating elements of the book.

Bubbles had a propensity for improvisation – and as a vaudeville performer, was not used to learning that kind of role. But eventually, he became a production star. His rendition was supplanted in 1959 by that of Sammy Davis Jr. – but that was because, as Harker writes, “few performers today can sing and dance with equal confidence, and fewer still can tap “.

Harker sums up why Bubbles isn’t better known: “He didn’t appear in enough movies, in strong enough roles, to ensure his immortality.” For institutional racist reasons, Harker argues, the role of the seductive Sportin’ Life proved fatal to Bubbles’ film career. An example is his appearance in the mundane 1937 Warner Brothers musical University show, a vehicle for Dick Powell. Buck and Bubbles are portrayed, characteristically and degradingly, as janitors, and Bubbles has a minute-long tap-dancing scene that Harker describes as a “masterpiece…the first (and possibly the best) movie of bubble tapping”. But he never had the opportunities of a Dick Powell, let alone a Fred Astaire. The discussion of Bubbles’ return reminds us of how, well into the 1960s, outrageously racist attitudes persisted in the world of television and light entertainment.

Brian Harcker is known for his excellent monograph on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz, 2011), a title that combined artful musical analysis and cultural history. Like its precursor, its new book is tightly written but highly readable. He enjoyed a stroke of luck in 2012, when Bubbles’ personal papers were donated to Brigham Young University, where Harker teaches. They included an unpublished 1969 biography by a writer named Jerry McGuire, in which Bubbles’ life story is told largely in his own words. Harker has added his own archival research to this material, and the result is a well-deserved restoration of the legacy of a major figure in American entertainment.

LINK: sports life at OUP USA