Leonard Reed

Tap-dancer credited with co-creating the Shim Sham Shimmy

A tap-dancing pioneer, Leonard Reed was an accomplished exponent of both tap and eccentric dancing, a champion Charleston performer and one of the creators of the popular Shim Sham Shimmy dance step. He was also a producer of shows, both on Broadway and at the Cotton Club, a record producer, songwriter, comedian and bandleader, and for over 20 years he was master of ceremonies at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.



Leonard Reed, dancer: born Lightning Creek, Oklahoma 7 January 1906; married (one daughter); died Covina, California 5 April 2004.



A tap-dancing pioneer, Leonard Reed was an accomplished exponent of both tap and eccentric dancing, a champion Charleston performer and one of the creators of the popular Shim Sham Shimmy dance step. He was also a producer of shows, both on Broadway and at the Cotton Club, a record producer, songwriter, comedian and bandleader, and for over 20 years he was master of ceremonies at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.

He was born in Oklahoma in 1906. His father, whom he never knew, was white and his mother, who died when he was two years old, was half black and half Choctaw Cherokee. Raised by guardians in Kansas City, Reed learned dancing by watching the acts at the local theatre, where he worked in the evenings as a popcorn and candy seller.

After winning a Charleston contest, he started entering all the Charleston contests in Kansas City, including those for whites only. His ability to "pass" for white was later to enable him to play the major vaudeville circuits in the 1920s, when there was strict segregation. His first professional work was proclaiming the "bally" (ballyhoo) for carnival tents:

Outside the tent they'd put up a platform, on which you'd do the bally. All the girls in the show would come out and shake their little shimmies and dance the Black Bottom. And then, when my turn came, I did the Charleston with tambourines, no music, just hitting the tambourines.

He also worked in one of the medicine shows that proliferated during the era:

"Doctor" Howard Clark was making a mint in the early Twenties selling some terrible stuff mixed with turpentine - the dose was four drops on a teaspoon of sugar. As he warmed to his sales talk, we assistants would hustle around in the crowd, jiggling coins in our pockets as if we were making change and yell, "Thank you, sir", although we hadn't sold a bottle yet. We'd wind up selling a couple of dozen . . . As a come-on before his spiel, Doc would play some great down-home guitar while three of us banged away with tambourines, shouted and danced in a comic, exaggerated, almost grotesque style. It's the way many great dancers served their apprenticeship.

The handsome Reed with his bright blue eyes also worked as the barker for black shows, "because of my fast talking and light complexion, and because I stood out". After his first summer with carnivals, Reed was supposed to finish high school but instead he accepted a job dancing the Charleston in a touring all-black revue, Hits and Bits of 1922. Vaudeville appearances followed in both black and white shows:

I never got to any strategic city where anybody recognised me or knew what I was or what I wasn't. In addition to the white vaudeville circuits, I was playing the circuit controlled by the Theater Owners Booking Association, which was purely for black entertainers in black theaters, though the pay was lower than that on the white circuits.

(T.O.B.A. was often referred to as "Tough On Black Artists".) Among the great entertainers who started on this circuit were Bill Robinson and the Berry Brothers. During this period Reed formed a series of double acts with various partners. "Every time you'd look up you'd see me, but I always had a different act. Pen and Ink, Leonard and Willie, Cutout and Leonard, Sadie Montgomery and Leonard."

In 1927, while appearing in The Sundown Revue in New York, he started to attend the Hoofers Club, where black dancers would practise and rehearse routines:

That's where I learned to dance. All the dancers would hang out, and they would trade ideas. That was affectionately called "stealin' steps". Everybody did it. That's how you learned. You would do something and you'd say to the other dancers, "You trying to steal it? All right, do it!" And they'd try it. Of course, when they did it, it was slightly different. But that's how it was. Everybody was always showin' steps and trying to steal steps. It was an amazing time.

With Maceo Ellis, with whom he formed an act called Cutout and Leonard, Reed appeared in the Broadway revue Deep Harlem (1929), which showed the evolution of black song and dance from Africa to Harlem. He then formed an act with another light-skinned tap-dancer, Willie Bryant - billed as "Reed and Bryant - Brains as well as Feet" - and the pair played all the main vaudeville houses, including the Palace Theatre in New York. "All acts dreamed of playing the Palace. That's when you knew you had really made it." Fayard Nicholas, one of the brilliant Nicholas Brothers, said, "Reed and Bryant were the first great influences on me as a dancer."

During those days of the "three-a-day", they would wear dapper suits for the afternoon show, tailored tuxedoes for the dinner show, and top hat, white tie and tails for the evening show. The pair are credited with being co-creators of the Shim Sham Shimmy, which they would use for their flashy finale, a combination of tap and body movements which became a standard routine in show business around 1931:

Willy and I were doing what they call Shim Sham. But we would do it as a comedy dance, an old-man shuffle that we called "Goofus". An act named Three Little Words saw it, slowed it down, and presented it at Connie's Inn as the Shim Sham Shimmy. They added the shaking of the shoulders to it, which we didn't do.

In 1933 it became generally known that Reed and Bryant were part black and they were blacklisted from white show business. Reed gave up dancing and produced his first show, Rhythm Bound, staged at the Harlem Opera House in 1934. He continued to produce shows at the Cotton Club in New York and the Apollo Theater, and in the Forties had his own club in Los Angeles, the Lincoln Theater, which was often called "LA's little Apollo" and which featured a chorus line called "The Reedettes". For over 20 years he was Master of Ceremonies at the Apollo and in the 1960s he began producing for record companies and helped launch the career of Dinah Washington.

In 2000 Reed received a lifetime achievement award from the American Music Awards and two years later he received an honorary degree from Oklahoma City University. He credited his long and active life to "women, golf and show business, but not necessarily in that order". Interviewed in 1988, he lamented the lack of dance in so many Broadway musicals:

They used to say there wasn't such a thing as not having a tap-dancer in your show! 'Cause in my day, no matter where you went you would run into tap dancers. Everything had tap!

Tom Vallance

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