He’s Got Rhythm: Upcoming John W. Bubbles Collection
From the 1930s lights and glamour of motion pictures in Hollywood and Broadway Theater in New York City, John W. Bubbles emerges in entertainment history as the father of rhythmic tap. Mr. Bubbles, as he was commonly known, merged tap and provisional jazz styles in his dance. He improvised by dropping his heels on the offbeat and extending rhythmic patterns beyond the eight bars of music and accenting the rhythm with his toes. At the time, tap dancers danced mostly on their toes and to a 2/4 beat of early jazz-type music. Many have opined that John W. Bubbles was the greatest tap dancer of his generation.
With humble beginnings in Louisville, Kentucky, John William Sublett was born in 1902 and was later raised in Indianapolis. He began performing with his sister when he was only seven years old. In 1918 he was performing with his childhood friend Ford L. “Buck” Washington and was going by the name John W. Bubbles. The duo was known as “Buck and Bubbles” and for the next 40 years their talent charmed audiences across the country.
Throughout their career, Buck and Bubbles broke down the racial barriers that many African Americans faced at the time. They were the first African Americans to perform at the Radio City Music Hall when they appeared in Ziegfeld Follies in 1931. They were also the first African American act to appear at the Palace. It is believed that they may have also been the first black artists to appear on television.
Mr. Bubbles had a natural talent for music as a singer, dancer, and entertainer. This talent was recognized by George Gershwin who taught Bubbles how to read music and chose him for the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess in 1935, a role which helped make him a star. He went on to perform with Judy Garland and Bob Hope, rubbing shoulders with other Hollywood stars and elite entertainers.
As an incredible improvisational dancer, John W. Bubbles was a large influence on tap dancers everywhere including Fred Astaire. Astaire had the opportunity to learn some steps from Bubbles, but struggled somewhat with the material. During the tribute “Bojangles of Harlem” in the film Swing Time, Astaire ironically dresses as Bubble’s character in Porgy and Bess and dances in the rhythmic style of Mr. Bubbles.
In 1967, Bubbles had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed on the left side. However, during the 1970s a surge of new interest in tap dance made him beloved to a whole new generation. Bubbles was awarded the American Guild of Variety Artists Life Achievement Award in 1980. In 1986, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his home. In 2002, Mr. Bubbles was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of fame.
The L. Tom Perry Special Collections has acquired an expansive collection of John W. Bubbles’ personal belongings which include many artifacts from his career and personal life. Among them are his hat and cane which he stylized in his dancing, and which influence can be seen in performances of Fred Astaire. The collection also contains photos and autographs of famous Hollywood stars, original sheet music, film and sound reels, and correspondence just to name a few.
As the collection is still being processed, there is no call number yet but it is something we gladly look forward to browsing through in the future. In the meantime, interested readers can find many charming videos of Mr. Bubbles online. Here are a few just to get you started.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. Portrait of John W. Bubbles, as the original Sporting Life in George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Photography by Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964).