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Class Act

Class Act: The Jazz Life of Choreographer Cholly Atkins

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Class Act
    Book Description:

    Cholly Atkins's career has spanned an extraordinary era of American dance. He began performing during Prohibition and continued his apprenticeship in vaudeville, in nightclubs, and in the army during World War II. With his partner, Honi Coles, Cholly toured the country, performing with such jazz masters as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Count Basie. As tap reached a nadir in the fifties, Cholly created the new specialization of "vocal choreography," teaching rhythm-and-blues singers how to perform their music by adding rhythmical dance steps drawn from twentieth-century American dance, from the Charleston to rhythm tap. For the burgeoning Motown record label, Cholly taught such artists as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Marvin Gaye to command the stage in ways that would enhance their performances and "sell" their songs.

    Class Act tells of Cholly's boyhood and coming of age, his entry into the dance world of New York City, his performing triumphs and personal tragedies, and the career transformations that won him gold records and a Tony for choreographing Black and Blue on Broadway. Chronicling the rise, near demise, and rediscovery of tap dancing, the book is both an engaging biography and a rich cultural history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50412-6
    Subjects: Music, History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    Jacqui Malone and Cholly Atkins
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxiv)

    This is a book about one of America’s most influential twentieth-century dance masters, Cholly Atkins. The broad spectrum of American dance figures includes very few artists who have had a comparable impact on the evolution of indigenous American dance forms and their dissemination to a worldwide audience.

    From the 1920s through most of the 1940s, American tap dance in the jazz/rhythm tradition experienced its heyday. Suddenly in the late forties, the bottom dropped out for many rhythm tap dancers who had established successful careers in vaudeville, in musicals, and with big bands. By the sixties, even Marshall Stearns, the great...

    (pp. 1-16)

    One evening Maye and I were leaving the Apollo and ran into a friend of mine, Marghuerite Mays, the former wife of Willie Mays, the great ball player. She said, “Cholly, I have a group I want you to work with. I’m planning to make big stars out of them.” I said, “Well, what do you want me to do?” She said, “They’re opening here next week.” “Next week?! You expect me to get them ready in a week?!”

    Now, the Pips had just come up from Atlanta, so they didn’t know about Coles and Atkins and they weren’t familiar...

    (pp. 17-38)

    Alhambra on the Lake was located right on Lake Erie and run by a corporation that owned a lot of downtown nightclubs. People would come there, hang out on the beach all day, then go up to the restaurant to eat. It served as a gathering place for families during the summer. All of the waiters and waitresses were teenagers right out of high school, kids who could either sing, dance, tumble, tell jokes, or do some kind of novelty act that would fit into a variety show. Usually a producer was hired to line up the acts for a...

    (pp. 39-58)

    Around the time that Red stopped dancing, Honi and his partner, Bert Howell, broke up, so all we were doing that summer was playing softball over at Mt. Morris Park and hanging backstage at the Apollo or on 126th Street. Everybody would sit out there and run their mouths for hours. Danny Miller, Little Joe, Bubba Gaines . . . all the hoofers would show up, and a lot of the guys who had acts, like Brother Ford and LeRoy Myers. Whoever was in town and wasn’t doin’ nothin’, you know.

    There was a bar on Eighth Avenue and 126th...

    (pp. 59-74)

    Marching around in an army uniform was the last thing I wanted to be doing in 1943. But since there was no way to get out of this military business, I decided to just make the best of it. When we arrived at Fort Dix, the officers lined us up, gave us our khakis and barracks passes, and started making assignments. Now, usually at an induction center, you hardly know anybody, because people are sent there from all over the country. But as soon as I arrived, I ran into an old friend, Rudy Traylor, who was an excellent musician,...

  9. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 75-96)

    While I was at Camp Kilmer, Honi and I had corresponded about doing something together when and if we got out of the scrap. So as soon as he was discharged in November of ’45, we started making plans. My divorce from Catherine came through in the early part of ’44 and I married Dotty on September 2, 1944, in Wilmington, Delaware, just outside of Philadelphia. Her father made all the arrangements. By that time she was well established as Cab’s vocalist, which eliminated any idea of putting our act back together and opened the door for me to hook...

    (pp. 97-118)

    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes stayed on Broadway for about two years; then we took it on the road until the beginning of 1952. It’s a funny thing about being in a Broadway show, especially if you’re a variety act. All the agents basically write you off, because you’re not available. It’s the same story when you go to Europe for a long time. Agents get in a pattern with the people they’re representing; they know where to place you and how to set up an ongoing itinerary. But, when you move out of that scope, it takes a long time to...

    (pp. 119-134)

    Aside from the Copasetics’ shows and a few other appearances, the only performances that Honi and I did in the early sixties were with Billy Eckstine. Annually, since the late fifties, Eckstine’s band had kicked off the new season at the Apollo Theater after its summer renovation. And each and every year, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t worked for twelve months, Eckstine would insist that we be in the show with him. So we had to go to the woodshed and pull out an act. No matter what we said, the three of us always ended up...

    (pp. 135-150)

    By the summer of ’62, I was still coaching groups in the CBS Building, but I had given up my office and moved upstairs to Queen Artists. Dinah Washington ran an agency on the tenth floor that managed singers and since I was working with a few of her artists and taking care of her personal stage direction, she invited me to share some space up there.

    I was coaching the Dells and five or six singles—grooming them, teaching stage etiquette, the whole shot. But I wasn’t doing my best work. I was still struggling with the loss of...

  14. 9 HITSVILLE, U.S.A.
    (pp. 151-170)

    Motown was jumping in 1965. It ran like a twentyfour-hour-a-day factory and everybody was trying to get in on the action because hits were bouncing off the production line. During my first week there Harvey organized the personnel for our department. As I said before, Artist Development was his brainchild and that was the first time any record company had created a component designed to prepare artists for personal appearances by hiring specialists in choreography, vocals, and theatrical etiquette.

    Maurice King was one of the mainstays of the department. He was a superb vocal coach and arranger with a rich...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 171-188)

    We had a lot of success with Artist Development until the groups started to feel their prosperity. In other words, after three or four years, most of the acts became complacent because they were making more money, had more fame, and everything was a big party. We’d schedule the different artists and they wouldn’t show up, so the personnel department started asking why certain tunes weren’t choreographed. Then they would get on the artists about it.

    Finally, Berry sent individual notices to everybody informing them that the company had decided to stop providing those services and if they felt they...

    (pp. 189-202)

    People often ask me how I get the groups to look so different, even though they’re all doing my style. Now, that takes me back to one of my mottoes: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime. In other words, you go primarily with the talent that you have to work with. Certain groups get more intricate steps than others. The choreography that I give them depends on what they are able to absorb and execute well.

    Also, the material that they’re noted for, the songs they’re noted for, the producers, the writers—they are not the same. What those producers...

    (pp. 203-220)

    In the early eighties, 1983 to be exact, I hooked up with Motown again for the documentary celebration of their twenty-fifth anniversary. We had the show in L.A., where it was taped, then edited for video and later aired on television. It was designed to be a two-hour documentary that would recognize many of the people who helped make the company a success. They laid out a nice little piece of business for me with Smokey Robinson. I sat in the audience while Smokey set the thing up on stage, then he said, “There’s Cholly Atkins right down there. Come...

    (pp. 221-222)

    Since the Mile High Tap Summit, I’ve taught at quite a few tap festivals—Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, St. Louis. During the summer of ’98, I did a residency at Jacob’s Pillow in Lee, Massachusetts. Along with occasional workshops in colleges and universities and various panels on music and dance, I am still involved in my first love, choreographing for vocal groups. All of my main clients have longevity. I’ve worked with Gladys Knight for thirty-eight years. She doesn’t perform with the Pips anymore, but Bubba occasionally does spot appearances in her concerts. I’ve been with the Temptations for...

  20. Groupography
    (pp. 223-224)
  21. Glossary
    (pp. 225-230)
  22. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 231-240)
  23. Index
    (pp. 241-260)