American Dance Legends

Leonard Reed

Leonard Reed

Leonard Reed, 97,
Tap Dancer Known for
Shim Sham Shimmy, Dies

Published: April 10, 2004

Leonard Reed, a tap dance pioneer who was co-creator of the famous Shim Sham Shimmy dance routine, died here on Monday. He was 97.

The cause was heart failure, his family said.

Mr. Reed, with his dance partner, Willie Bryant, invented the shimmy routine as a flashy finale to their dance act in the late 1920's.

In their book "Jazz Dance," Marshall Winslow Stearns and Jean Stearns describe it as "a one-chorus routine to a 32-bar tune, with eight bars each," consisting of the double shuffle, crossover, an up-and-back shuffle and then another move, characterized as "falling off a log."

Mr. Reed was born in Lightning Creek, Okla., on Jan. 7, 1907. He was of black, white and Choctaw descent. His mother died of pneumonia when he was 2, and he never knew his father.

Reared by relatives and other guardians in Kansas City, Mo., he won contests dancing the Charleston and performed the dance at carnivals during the summers. He attended Cornell University but dropped out to pursue a dance career.

Mr. Reed paired with Bryant in a vaudeville act they called "Brains as Well as Feet."

"Dancing has been my only love," he said in an interview with The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "But I didn't let dancing stop me from doing other things. I had the ability to be multitalented."

Mr. Reed produced shows at the Cotton Club in Chicago and was master of ceremonies for 20 years at the Apollo Theater in New York. When he was not dancing, he was a songwriter, bandleader and comedian.

In the 1960's, Mr. Reed began producing for record companies and helped start the career of the singer Dinah Washington.

He once said his long, active life could be credited to "women, golf and show business," but not necessarily in that order.

In 2000 Mr. Reed received a lifetime achievement award from the American Music Awards. Two years later he received an honorary doctor of performing arts degree from Oklahoma City University.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara; a daughter; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren.

Leonard Reed

Leonard Reed

Published: April 10, 2004

Leonard Reed, who died on April 5 aged 97, was one of the greatest tap dancers of the 20th century, and the creator, with his partner Willie Bryant, of its most widely popularised form, the Shim Sham Shimmy.

Reed's professional career was short, lasting only from 1922 until 1933. The tremendous success that he achieved in that period, and the reason it came to an end, had a common origin: the tall, fair-complexioned, blue-eyed Reed was in fact of mixed black and white blood. Until he was exposed, he was able to pass for both races and, in the age of segregation, worked both the black theatres that were the laboratories of tap, as well as the more lucrative - but white - vaudeville venues.

He began in entertainment as a specialist Charleston dancer, doing three-minute slots in the shows that toured the black theatre circuits of the South and Mid-West. He learned to tap by watching other performers, and while appearing in a revue called Hits and Bits of 1922 was forced to parade his new skills when its star, Travis Tucker, was found to be too drunk to appear. Reed was 15.

Soon he was a regular visitor to the Hoofers Club, on 7th Avenue in Harlem, where dancers such as Bill Robinson traded steps and styles with all comers. Reed started working for the Whitman Sisters, who were acknowledged to have the best black revue, and formed a partnership with the similarly light-skinned Willie Bryant: "Reed & Bryant - Brains as well as Feet".

In about 1930, Reed and Bryant devised a new finale for their eight-minute show, a step of simple heel-and-toe combinations danced to four eight-bar choruses - tunes such as Tuxedo Junction or Ain't What You Do. Like most forms of tap, it was probably an adaptation of an earlier dance, but at some point Reed, who always retained traces of his flamboyant Charleston style in his taps, added a shimmy of the shoulders, perhaps at the prompting of the Whitman girls.

He and Bryant originally called it "Goofus", but it became known as the Shim Sham after a club where they regularly appeared. Its simplicity, and suitability as a line dance, especially with the newly popular swing music, meant that it was quickly picked up and disseminated by clubgoers. It has endured ever since, and has been called the anthem of tap.

For the next three years Reed and Bryant were never out of work, appearing in both black and white venues, notably the Palace Theatre, New York.

While a teenager at a white dance contest, Reed had once been revealed as black by an usherette and had been chased from the hall. In 1933, the secret of his mixed blood again slipped out, and he found himself barred from the white vaudeville circuit.

He and Bryant broke up, and at the age of 26 he largely retired from dancing, becoming instead a producer at the Cotton Club.

Nonetheless, his elegant, spacious tap style remained the dominant influence on such dancers as Maceo Anderson and the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, whom Fred Astaire considered to be the greatest exponents of the form and who, in the 1940s, would immortalise many of Reed's own moves in the Hollywood films in which they starred.

Leonard Reed was born in a tepee at Lightning Creek, Oklahoma, on January 7 1907. His mother, who died when he was two, was half-Choctaw Cherokee Indian and half-black. She had been raped by his father, who was white, and whom he also never knew. He was raised by his great-grandmother until he was 11, when he was placed in a foster home in Kansas City, Missouri.

He was soon running with the wrong crowd, and at the age of 13 was threatened with a four-year stretch in reform school for buying alcohol under-age. However, the headmaster of his high school knew that Leonard was being habitually assaulted by the guardian of the foster home, and offered to adopt him if he were not jailed.

By 15, Leonard had a weekend job selling popcorn at a theatre in Kansas City. The Charleston craze was sweeping the United States, and he learned how to dance it by copying the performers on stage.

Soon Reed was good enough to win local Charleston contests and spent the summer of 1922 as the barker for a black "tent show", or travelling revue.

He began to work for the likes of Travis Tucker in his holidays and then, at 18, while in New York visiting his prospective university, Cornell, entered and won a Charleston competition for whites. The victory proved to be his passport to the white theatres as well.

After the discovery of his racial origins, Reed turned to production and choreography. In 1934, he staged Rhythm Bound, with 40 singers, at the Harlem Opera House, and from the mid-Thirties worked in-house at the Cotton Club, arranging music and producing shows for Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday and the Nicholases.

In 1937, he was injured in a car accident and so was unfit for service during the Second World War, which he spent entertaining troops. He later wrote music for Lionel Hampton and Ella Fitzgerald, and then from 1950 until 1960 was the manager of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, then greatly celebrated for its talent shows. Among those that Reed helped to unearth was Dinah Washington. During the 1960s, he choreographed dances for Motown stars.

For many years, Reed was also the manager of Joe Louis's personal appearances, and helped the boxer work up the nightclub comedy act for which he was also known.

Both Reed and Louis were good golf players, and Reed is credited with having become the first black player to have taken part in a PGA tournament when, in San Diego in the mid-1940s, he was accidentally given a tour card by an official who thought he was white. Tiger Woods recently praised Reed's many years of work against segregation in golf.

Leonard Reed lived in southern California, and until his late nineties continued to teach tap dancing.

He married, in 1951, Barbara De Costa.

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