Fayard Nicholas

Elder of the Nicholas Brothers - 'the most amazing dancers... ever'

Friday 27 January 2006 01:00 GMT

Fayard Antonio Nicholas, dancer: born Mobile, Alabama 28 October 1914; married first Geraldine Pate (two sons; marriage dissolved), second 1967 Barbara January (died 1997), third 2000 Katherine Hopkins; died Los Angeles 24 January 2006.

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard Nicholas and his younger brother Harold, are acknowledged to be the finest dance team that ever worked in films, and among the greatest tap dancers of all time. Their style, wit, elegance and daring athleticism were phenomenal, with leaps and spins, especially their spectacular "double flying splits", that seemed to defy gravity. The ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov once called them "the most amazing dancers I have ever seen in my life - ever".

Their great talent is happily preserved in several feature films, and two of their most dazzling routines are in movies just released on DVD in the United States - Orchestra Wives and Stormy Weather - with Fayard providing an enthusiastic commentary for both of them. "When we perform," he said, "it's with style, grace, class and personality, and we call our style 'classical tap'."

The son of vaudevillians, Fayard Antonio Nicholas was born in 1914 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Viola Harden, played the piano, and his father, Ulysses D. Nicholas, played drums at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia (the couple billed as "The Nicholas Collegians") and it is there that Fayard taught himself to dance by sitting on the bandstand "next to my dad's drums" and nightly watching dance acts of the time such as Buck and Bubbles, the Step Brothers and the Berry Brothers. "I thought, 'They're having fun up there, I'd like to do something like that'," he recalled.

In 1920 his sister Dorothy was born, and the following year his brother Harold. Fayard taught both of them to dance, devised an act, and showed it to their father whom he recalled made only three comments - "I like the way you use your hands", "Don't look at your feet", but "Do look at the audience". The act débuted in Philadelphia in 1927 as "The Nicholas Kids", then toured with their parents, though Dorothy soon dropped out due, said Fayard, "to the late hours", though he confessed that she never cared for show business.

Harold proved a responsive pupil, however, and when the brothers dance together the pride that Fayard takes in his younger sibling is beguilingly apparent. Soon their reputation was such that Fayard recalled they always played last on the bill because "nobody wanted to follow us kids". When Owney Madden, the gangster who owned the famed Cotton Club (which featured black performers, though no African-Americans were allowed to be in the audience) saw their act in 1932, he arranged for them to audition for Duke Ellington, who put them into the show, and they continued to perform at the club when Cab Calloway replaced Ellington. "We were kids," said Fayard, "but we danced like men."

Their parents had now given up performing in order to manage their sons' careers. The brothers made their screen début in a Vitaphone short, Pie Pie Blackbird (1932), with Eubie Blake, and they made their feature film début after Sam Goldwyn saw their act and persuaded United Artists to give them a contract and roles in his production, Kid Millions (1934), in which they took part in minstrel sequences and performed the numbers "Minstrel Man" and "Mandy". Fayard, as usual, did the choreography for himself and Harold, describing the film's dance director, Seymour Felix, as "like Busby Berkeley - he didn't dance but he had ideas".

The brothers starred in two more all-black Vitaphone shorts, All-Coloured Vaudeville Show (1935) with Adelaide Hall, and Black Network (1936), and had prominent roles as radio performers in The Big Broadcast of 1936, in which Fayard also played the drums. Constance Valis Hill, in her book on the brothers, Brotherhood in Rhythm (2000), wrote,

These early films of the Nicholas Brothers demonstrate how they transformed and elevated the buck-and-wing tap dancing of the late 19th century and black comedy dancing of the early 20th into the refined and nuanced form of rhythm dancing that bid farewell to the tapping stereotypes of the Shuffling Fool and the Strutting Dandy.

Fayard said that he invented the famous "flying split" after he saw a vaudeville dancer doing a split, going down without using his hands:

I thought I could do one better, and taught myself to get up without using my hands. The next logical step was to jump into the split.

The brothers made their Broadway début in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, with Fannie Brice and Josephine Baker. During the show's previews in Boston, the running order was constantly changed since, as usual, nobody wanted to follow the brother's show-stopping act on the bill. Later in 1936, the Nicholas family sailed to London, where the brothers appeared in the revue Blackbirds of 1936, and made a film, Calling All Stars (1937), after which they returned to New York and the Cotton Club. "The Cotton Club was home," said Fayard. "We'd do a show here, a show there, go to LA and do a film, and then come back."

They returned to Broadway in the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms (1937), in which the choreographer George Balanchine suggested that Fayard jump over a line of chorus girls while Harold slid through their legs. Fayard ended his jump in a split and timed it so that Harold's slide could be extended through Fayard's legs. "Balanchine didn't show us anything," said Fayard. "He just told us what would be sensational for the number. And it was - the audience went wild!"

In 1940, 20th Century-Fox gave the Nicholas Brothers a film contract, which resulted in their finest film performances. In Down Argentine Way (1940), they did a spectacular night-club routine to the title song, in Tin Pan Alley (1940) they were part of an elaborate production number with Alice Faye and Betty Grable, and in The Great American Broadcast (1941) they tapped with luggage cases as props in a railway-station setting, ending the number jumping through the window of a moving train into mid-air splits. In Sun Valley Serenade (1941), accompanied by the Glenn Miller orchestra, they introduced the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon standard "Chatanooga Choo Choo" with Dorothy Dandridge, who then disappears from the scene as the brothers go into their dazzling acrobatic tapping.

The choreographer of Orchestra Wives (1942) was Nick Castle. "He had some wonderful ideas," said Fayard Nicholas, "like climbing up walls, and doing backward flips into a split." The result, to the song "I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo", was a sensational number described by the critic Pauline Kael as "such a feat of sustained high flying that you hold your breath in tense admiration".

It is arguably surpassed by their climactic routine in Stormy Weather (1943), which has them leaping off a grand piano on to the dance-floor in complete splits, leaping over each other's heads in full split down a series of deep white stairs, then, after jumping back up the stairs, sliding in the splits down two separate ramps. Fred Astaire, an admirer and friend of the brothers since the early days of their career, described it as the greatest dance number he had ever seen. The dancer Gregory Hines said, "Their Stormy Weather number is like Shakespeare - generation after generation will be amazed at what they do."

In 1942 Fayard Nicholas was drafted into the army (Harold was exempt because he weighed less than 100lb). He served initially in the laundry unit in Mississippi, but was later transferred to a special services unit in Arizona where he performed for GIs.

The brothers were back on Broadway in 1946 when Harold Nicholas was given a leading role as a jockey in the Broadway musical St Louis Woman, with songs by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. The show was a failure despite a fine score, but critics noted that a highlight was the sequence in which Fayard, as a rival jockey, did a challenge dance with Harold. The pair's final film together was The Pirate (1948), for which they were especially requested by Gene Kelly, who danced with them to the number "Be a Clown", though Fayard was disappointed that for the first time in movies he had no hand in the choreography, which was done by Kelly and Robert Alton.

They then embarked on a series of national tours, and in 1948 appeared at the London Palladium and gave a royal command performance for King George VI. In 1953 they moved to Europe, but after four years Fayard became homesick ("I'd fallen in love with Los Angeles") and returned on his own, taking a teaching post at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center. In 1964 Harold returned to the US, and the brothers appeared on television on Hollywood Palace, the start of a new performing career in theatres, night-clubs and television.

In 1970 Fayard Nicholas played his only dramatic role on screen when cast by William Wyler in the director's last film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones. In 1989 he won a Tony award for his choreography for the hit Broadway revue Black and Blue, which featured an early appearance by Savion Glover.

Severe arthritis curtailed Fayard's performing, but in 1981 long overdue recognition of the brothers began when they were given a film tribute at the Academy Awards show. In 1991 they received the Kennedy Center Honors, the US's highest award for artistic achievement, and in 2000 were given a sold-out tribute at Carnegie Hall, with Lena Horne and Savion Glover among those performing in their honour. Harold died later that year.

In 1988 The New Yorker recorded of Stormy Weather,

You just about go crazy from the sheer aesthetic excitement of what they are doing. Their virtuosity remains unrivalled.

Tom Vallance

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