Ruth Leon recommends… Stormy Weather – The Nicholas Brothers

Ruth Leon recommends… Stormy Weather – The Nicholas Brothers

Ruth Leon recommends

norman lebrecht

February 02, 2023

Stormy Weather – The Nicholas Brothers

 Lovers of tap dancing, and I count myself in their number, know that the ability to make those clear, sharp sounds with musicality, form, technique and freedom is at least as demanding as the most complex of ballet movements but tap has historically been downgraded as a ‘pop’ or ‘street’ form.

I hate even to whisper this but could it be that this lack of respect for one of the greatest art forms is that it originated among Black artists  and only later was ‘discovered’ by the Fred Astaires and Gene Kellys who then popularised it for for mass audiences?

I once asked the great singer Lena Horne what she thought of Astaire and, without any disrespect, she said, “I didn’t need Fred Astaire because I had Honi.” She was referring to Honi Coles, one of the Copasetics, that extraordinary group of 1940s/50s Black tappers who, following in the footsteps of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, almost invented the form. This is not to say that there weren’t some fantastic White tappers who followed them, the aforementioned Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire among them.

Last week I challenged you to identify the greatest dance numbers ever filmed and I promised that, if I could find them online, I’d share them with you. Suggestions have arrived from all over the world and I’ll be sharing them here whenever there’s space. There is considerable consensus about the Nicholas Brothers, perhaps the greatest of them all but almost forgotten now except by a coterie of devoted fans, who are all mad about tap.

The 1943 movie “Stormy Weather”, starring Lena Horne, was, of course, in black and white but my friend Martin has discovered this miraculously high quality colourised version of the Nicholas Brothers tap dance scene with Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing “Jumpin’ Jive”.

​It was Fred Astaire, no less, who said this was the best dance scene ever filmed and who am I to argue?

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  • Robert Holmén says:

    Dig the guy in the trombone section who sticks out like a white thumb.

    That’s Claude B. Jones. He wasn’t exactly white but he was so close he could pass in the South.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Class! Always loved them and worried about all those splits, ouch! Can’t help thinking that if that was filmed today it would be ruined by a director thinking I’ve got eight cameras, and by golly I’m going to use them and we would have close up shots of ears and shoulders etc. Just goes to show how much can be achieved with just three virtually static cameras.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I don’t know that it is the case that the marvelous Nicholas Bros are almost forgotten now except for a coterie of devoted fans. There are several versions of this famous scene on YouTube and as far as I can tell each of them has many many “hits” and positive comments, many by people who have come upon their art for the first time. Ditto for other filmed routines of theirs on YouTube of which I would recommend their “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” scene from “Orchestra Wives” starring the Glenn Miller orchestra.

    I also don’t know that it (tap) has been historically downgraded, much less for racial reasons. Time marches on and the kind of music tap is best suited to — because the dancing itself is music — has also been put on the back burner.

    Indeed a case can be made that tap was elevated above other forms of popular dance not just by the best practitioners, both white and black, but by such evidence of stature as Morton Gould’s “Concerto for Tap Dancer and Orchestra” which is complete with cadenza. I recall seeing it performed on PBS as part of their Boston Pops telecasts but no longer recall who the soloist dancer was, only that in a bit of stage business between movements, he had nowhere to put his handkerchief after wiping his brow and concertmaster Emanuel Borok stuck out his bow to hold it.

  • Larry says:

    Without a doubt the GREATEST dance number ever filmed in Hollywood.

  • ira says:

    just terrific. thanks

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Those splits!!! I’m very familiar with the work of these super talented boys through the films made at the MGM Freed Unit.

  • Mr. Ron says:

    An amazing clip. Those frequent splits looked like they hurt.