In another age I loved Jerry Jeff Walker – firstly because of his music and secondly, the fact he was the man who drove Jimmy Buffett to Key West to commence my favourite songster’s climb to fame. But that, my friends. is another story – stay tuned for ‘Jimmy and Jerry’ perhaps. This one is a tale of connections, real and presumed. I love connections.
If Jerry Jeff is known at all it is usually on the back of a single song he put together, ‘Mr Bojangles’. Now this tune is presumed to be the tale of a legendary dancer, but really it’s genesis is much more complicated than that – a saga again for another time. But we’re getting closer to the nub of this one.
As with Jerry Jeff, for most Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson has only one major claim to fame, although he is deserving of being remembered for so much more. He is the black tap-dancer who shared equal billing with Shirley Temple in a dance routine for a film, ‘The Little Colonel’ (1935). Fewer would know how ground-breaking this was. With this movie he became the first black American to share the lead in an inter-racial dance scene for a Hollywood film. But Bill Robinson was ahead of the times in so many more ways than just that and is worth checking out for his whole story, easily available in the ether, if you have the time.
Bill, though, is only the connector in this piece which began life when my beautiful, writerly daughter sent me a link to a site with the appellation of ‘The Most Influential Women You’ve Never Heard Of”. One so listed, in particular, caught my attention and gave me the start to find these interconnections, real or possible.
She was born in 1880. She died this year.
The first ‘she’ was the woman on that list Katie pointed in my direction – Aida Overton Walker. So what link did she have with Mr Robinson? Well, nothing that I could directly discern through research, but logically, for reasons that will become clear, there would have been something. To start with, they were both black and vaudevillian performers. Bill R commenced his career in in 1886, when he was a mere stripling of nine. He toured constantly from that point on, achieving ever increasing fame for his dancing skills as he went, at least with Afro-American audiences. It would seem unlikely that their paths did not cross. Bill lived a long life, dying in 1949, Aida was sadly not so fortunate. She was, though, the most famous performer of her race in the fist decades of the last century. Bill would have certainly known of her, perhaps even been inspired by her breaking of glass ceilings back in their day. And, it pleases me to think they may have trodden the boards together too.
Aida Overton entered the world in 1880. She was Virginian, but grew up in NYC and just like Bill, commenced her career young, touring with Black Patti’s Troubadours in the chorus line. She soon teamed up with a pair of comedians, Bert Williams and George Walker. She married the latter in 1899. By this stage the two men were moving into the production side of the vaudeville circuit, an entertainment form starting to enter a golden period in the States. Walker saw to it that Aida quickly became their star attraction and greatest asset, especially once her skill as a choreographer came to the fore.
In 1900 came her first smash hit – yes, they also had them back then – with the ditty ‘Miss Hannah from Savannah’. She was also prominent in the duo’s productions such as ‘Sons of Ham’, ‘In Dahomey’ and ‘Bandana Land’ – snappy titles, aren’t they? But husband George took ill in 1909, passing two years later. At that time the Boston Globe described George, Bert and Aida as ‘…the most popular trio of coloured actors in the world.’
But, after her hubby’s demise she, as an independent woman, continued her climb into the stratosphere of popular entertainment. By now she was even performing to white audiences, previously unheard of – particularly with her take on ‘Salome’. In other hands this was a very risque dance. White hoofers had even morphed it into the more notorious ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. But, for Walker, there were no scanty costumes or hints of the nudity that lay beneath. She knew, in the eyes of whites, that would confirm their regard of negro women as being ‘immoral and over-sexed’. To ape the erotic interpretations of ‘Salome’ would only encourage that notion. In the years leading up to World War One she was now sharing the stage with Caucasian dancers and the punters flocked to see her do so, despite the lack of titillation on her part. She became the first black dancer to be invited to perform at many a theatre with a whites only audience.
Due to her prominence, Aida found herself able to advance the cause of the downtrodden of her race, performing many benefits for her people, still treated as little better than slaves. But the constant touring was taking its toll and she died suddenly, in New York, of kidney failure in 1914. Laudatory obituaries appeared across the country, a tribute to the stature she had attained. She was known to many as the ‘Queen of the Cakewalk’, after a popular dance form with its origins in the plantations. Since those times her name had all but disappeared from history. Under a President with another amazing black woman by his side, she is again starting to emerge from obscurity.
So then, who was the other ‘she’? Now we have Alice. In contrast to Aida’s short time on the planet, Alice’s lasted more than a century. As a dancer, she wasn’t the huge star that her predecessor was – she being unable to make the transition from chorus to front of stage. Her moment of fame came late, largely as a result of her longevity. But still, hers is a wonderful story – and its culmination can be watched on YouTube. And one factor we do know for sure, as we have the evidence. Alice shared a stage with Mister Bojangles himself.
Alice Barker was born in Chicago, but like Aida moved to the Big Apple to further her career as a dancer. She related, late in life, that there was never anything else she wanted to do. Practically as soon as she walked she felt the urge to dance. Her earliest memory was, as a toddler, prancing around for her mother as her bath was being run. But fame at her chosen vocation eluded her for, on stage, she was forever in the background. Prior to WW2 she kicked up her legs in legendary clubs, such as the Apollo and Cotton, as part of the Zanzibeauts troupe. Out front of her would be the stars, such as Robinson and later on, Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Alice married twice but had no children – and after she retired she kept in contact with many of her dancing buddies. But sadly, as time went on, she became far too frail to maintain an independent lifestyle and spent the last couple of decades of her life in a nursing home – by which time all of her pals from her heyday had passed on. With her long life narrowing down to a single room, she let go most of her memorabilia, so in the last years had little to remind herself of her days mixing with Broadway celebrities, making movies and appearing in ads in the early days of television. She vaguely recalled seeing herself in a few of the latter and in the background of scenes in films, but there was nothing from the many ‘soundies’ she knew she had appeared in. That is, until one man decided to make it his goal to change all that. In doing so, he gave her a modicum of fame.
As to the soundies – well they were the equivalent of music video clips today, short films of the hot songs from the popular performers of the day. They were played on special machines in bars, clubs and at racetracks back in the thirties and forties. Some of them carried Alice as part of background choruses and dancers. Cameramen would lug their heavy equipment around to various venues to make them in the nightclubs of the day. It was one of the ways the masses could get a taste of the real thing, of the lifestyle they could never have.
David Shuff owned a beloved therapy dog and he would do the rounds, with his canine mate, of his local nursing homes to bring joy to the elderly residing there. One day he happened on the centurion, got to chatting with her and discovered her back story – particularly the bit about the soundies. With David Alice was in luck. David’s main calling was his work as a film music archivist, so he set himself the task of seeing if he could track down any evidence of Alice in those soundies that remained in existence. And in an on-line file marked Barker, he eventually found what he was looking for. Together, with his partner Mark Cantor, he seamed together all the bits that featured a good view of her to make a visual collage of her past career and took it to her room to show her. She was delighted with the result, exclaiming it made her ‘...wish that I could get out of this bed and do it all over again.‘ Of course, being the digital age, we can see the results on YouTube where it went viral.
Thanks to that medium, Alice Barker developed a devoted fan club, many of whom wrote her letters that bought her immense pleasure in her final months, Some were descendants of those troupers who were with her on the stages she hoofed her stuff on for several decades, way back when. Her followers even included the Obamas who also graciously sent a missive off to her expressing their appreciation of her contribution. For her final birthday a group of dancers performed some of her old routines in her room to her joy. Soon after that 103rd celebration, Alice Barker passed away in her sleep, happy in the knowledge that she was no longer a forgotten relic of a golden age.
But unlike many I didn’t discover her through the YouTube clip, but as a by-product of researching the life of another – and to link them together I had Bill ‘Mr Bojangles’ Robinson. Both are belatedly having their moment in the sun – one once forgotten and now remembered; one who never amounted to enough to be forgotten, with now her legacy burning brightly. Thank you Katie.
She has never before seen herself on film – the YouTube video is shown to Alice Barker in her room = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bktozJWbLQg