Brian Harker – Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, An American Classic
(Oxford University Press. 328 pp. Book Review by Andy Hamilton)
John W. Bubbles was one of the great song-and-dance entertainers, the tap dancer who inspired Fred Astaire. He was a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and his vaudeville partnership Buck and Bubbles was popular for more than thirty years. Most memorably, he played Sportin’ Life in the original production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In later years he made a comeback on the talk shows of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, as comic foil to Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Lucille Ball.
Bubbles (1903-86) was born John William Sublett Jr in Nashville, Tennessee. Brian Harker’s excellent biography explains his difficult upbringing and his lucky breaks in the entertainment business. His partnership with pianist Buck Washington became a vaudeville star-turn. We learn that Buck was so short that he couldn’t reach the pedals if he sat on the piano stool, so he played standing up.
Fred Astaire considered Bubbles “the greatest tapper ever”. He originated rhythm tap, dropping his heels in heavy syncopation, bringing the weight down from his toes. George Gershwin knew Bubbles as a vaudeville star, and picked him for the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy And Bess. Gershwin wanted the character, a drug peddler, to be “a humorous and dancing villain”. The discussion of his role in this “part opera, part musical, part white fantasy, part Black reality”, as Harker calls it, forms some of the most fascinating material of the book.
Bubbles had a propensity for improvisation – and as a vaudeville performer, wasn’t familiar with learning this kind of part. But eventually he became a star of the production. His interpretation was supplanted in 1959 by Sammy Davis Jr.’s – but that was because, as Harker writes, “Few performers today can sing and dance with equal confidence, and fewer still know how to tap”.
Harker sums up why Bubbles isn’t better-known: “he failed to appear in enough films, in strong enough roles, to ensure his immortality.” For institutional racist reasons, Harker argues, the role of the slinkily seductive Sportin’ Life proved fatal for Bubbles’ film career. An example is his appearance in the unremarkable 1937 Warner Brothers musical Varsity Show, a vehicle for Dick Powell. Buck and Bubbles are cast, characteristically and demeaningly, as janitors, and Bubbles has a one-minute tap dance scene that Harker describes as a “masterpiece…the first (and possibly the best) film of Bubbles tapping”. But he never got the opportunities of a Dick Powell, let alone a Fred Astaire. The discussion of Bubbles’ comeback reminds us how, as late as the 1960s, shockingly racist attitudes persisted in the world of TV and light entertainment.
Brian Harker is known for his excellent monograph on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz, 2011), a title that combined astute musical analysis with cultural history. Like its precursor, his new book is closely-written yet very readable. It benefited from a stroke of luck in 2012, when Bubbles’ personal papers were donated to Brigham Young University, where Harker teaches. They included an unpublished 1969 biography by a writer named Jerry McGuire, in which Bubbles’ life-story is told largely in his own words. Harker has added to this material with his own archival research, and the result is a richly-deserved restoration of the legacy of a major figure in American entertainment.
LINK: Sportin’ Life at OUP USA
Categories: Book review