Leonard Reed, 97,
Tap Dancer Known for
Shim Sham Shimmy, Dies
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
"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
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
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
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.