The fabulous dancing, singing, acting Nicholas Brothers
December 22, 2017 10:16 PM   Subscribe

The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (born 1914) and Harold (born 1921), grew up in Philadelphia, the sons of musicians who played in their own band at the old Standard Theater. Fayard absorbed the Vaudeville acts he saw and made those acts his own, teaching himself how to tap dance with style. Harold joined him, and together, they were amazing, even at a young age. We Sing, We Dance: The Nicholas Brothers Story (YouTube; earlier documentary of the same name copied from VHS, on YouTube; credits on TMC for the second documentary)

The brothers got their start in Harlem at the Country Club, as recounted by Ed Sullivan in his introduction of the brothers, calling them "the two great dancing stars of the country and of the world." The video quality isn't great, so let's look back farther to 1932 at for their first on-screen appearance with Eubie Blake & Band in "Pie, Pie, Blackbird." The next year they had a short part in The Emperor Jones (full film on YouTube; information on TMC). They appeared in the musical number "Mandy" in Kid Millions in 1934, and headlined in the short An All Colored Vaudeville Show the next year, and headlined another short, The Black Network featuring Lucky Numbers, in 1936, when they had a dancing part in My American Wife. They sang and danced in Calling All Stars in 1937, and in 1940, they performed in full color in Down Argentina Way, where their full number was so popular in a test screening that the projector rewound it to play it a second time, following the rousing applause from the audience. That same year, they danced in Tin Pan in "The Sheik from Araby." In 1941, they sang, danced and leaped through train windows in The Great American Broadcast, the same year they sang and danced with Glenn Miller's Orchestra to Chattanooga Choo Choo , with Harold's first sweetheart, Dorothy Dandridge. They ended Orchestra Wives, performing again with Glenn Miller's Orchestra to I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo in 1942. The next year found them pulling off what Fred Astaire called the greatest dance number ever filmed, in a scene with Cab Calloway from Stormy Weather.

In 1944, Harold Nicholas performed alone on screen for the first time, in The Reckless Age and in Carolina Blues. Four years later, the Nicholas Brothers were together again, this time with Gene Kelly, in The Pirate. By the late 1940s, their on-screen fame had largely come to an end. Fed up by racism, Harold left the country for Europe in the 1950s. They each had small acting roles in the 1970s, but those were one-off affairs.

The two finally received wider recognition and support in the U.S. in later decades. In their earlier days, ballet luminaries including Mikhail Baryshnikov and George Balanchine praised the brothers' dancing, with the latter hiring them in 1937 for the Broadway musical Babe in Arms, where they learned more of ballet. But it was Gregory and Maurice Hines, who hadn't heard of the Nicholas Brothers until they were called "the next Nicholas Brothers," who helped bring them new accolades. Gregory said "I thought we were going to be the next Nicholas Brothers, until I saw them. Then I realized no one was going to be the next Nicholas Brothers."

The brothers started receiving awards and new recognition in 1978, with the pinnacle likely being their Kennedy Center Honors in 1991.

Harold Nicholas passed away in 2000 at the age of 79, and Fayard died in 2006 at the age of 91.
posted by filthy light thief (15 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
There will never be a day when I am not prepared to drop every damn thing and watch some Nicholas Brothers. That Stormy Weather scene is just pure amazement.

Be A Clown (from The Pirate) is great-- a highlight is when one of the Nicholases capers so high he kicks the stage drapery-- but I wish the routine had included more tap from these three great tappers.

(The song itself, of course, is a retread of Make 'Em Laugh, Donald O'Connor's great solo from Singin' in the Rain. O'Connor's physical work in that film makes me wish he had done a number or two with the Nicholas Brothers.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:39 PM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Harold was also in the incredible and historical dance circle scene in Tap.
posted by rhizome at 10:44 PM on December 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you looked at the TMC credits for the second documentary and wonder who "Hammer" is, it is indeed M.C. Hammer.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 PM on December 22, 2017

This is probably somewhere in this terpsi compendium, but I believe they also worked with young Jacksons.
posted by clew at 11:38 PM on December 22, 2017

There will never be a day when I am not prepared to drop every damn thing and watch some Nicholas Brothers.

Dang straight. Saw the post and stopped what I was doing to watch the clips.

For anyone perhaps unaware of some of the context of the clips, some warning that a number of them do contain some racist content. The backdrops to some of the numbers in the Vaudeville Show are racial caricatures, Kid Millions has Eddie Cantor in blackface, The Sheik of Araby number is the height of orientalism where sexism and racism meet, and even more benign clips like I've Got a Gal From Kalamazoo are sort of based around a segregationalist attitude, where the white singers sing their version, leave, and then the Nicolas Brothers come in and give the alternate take.

The better films they were in, Stormy Weather, The Emperor Jones, and The Pirate are definitely still products of their time, but overall manage to still have relevance beyond that. The legendary number from Stormy Weather, unlike that of I've Got a Gal From Kalamazoo, builds from Cab Calloway's own dynamism into even greater whole. The script for the film falls into stereotyping, but the performances and general attitude still carries through a sense of meaning that wasn't common for films of the era. (I don't know about Reckless Age, but it looks more interesting as well.)

None of that background radiation detracts at all from the performance of the brothers Nicolas as their grace carries them above the crap their surrounded with. They're amazing and this is an excellent post with some numbers I hadn't seen before, so many thanks.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:46 PM on December 22, 2017 [9 favorites]

They had a cameo in the 1989 music video of Janet Jackson - Alright.
Not bad for paying respects to the Nicholson brothers, Cab Calloway and Cyd Charisse back when there was no internet virality.
posted by jouke at 12:35 AM on December 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I'd somehow never seen the Stormy Weather clip. Insane. Awesome. And they make it look like so much fun.
posted by emmet at 7:03 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Nicholas Brothers were the most dynamic and exciting dance team in film, bar none. The second they appear, the energy jumps several notches. And their exquisitely coordinated moves could only come from a literal lifetime of working together. I like Astaire and Rogers etc. just fine, but damn, I LOVE the Nicholas Brothers.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:19 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Whenever I think of the Nicholas Brothers I think of those giant stairs from Stormy Weather but I'd never seen the beginning of it before with them dancing in the orchestra. Fantastic!
posted by ceejaytee at 7:39 AM on December 23, 2017

Here's the scene rhizome mentioned. Harold Nicholas, then in his late sixties, shows up around the 3:55 mark.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:21 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

A fabulous post about the fabulous Nicholas Brothers!!! And Tap is one of my all-time favorite movies. At that point, Fayard couldn't dance any more because of, I think, crippling arthritis, so we only get Harold, who does just fine by himself.
posted by MovableBookLady at 8:38 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd somehow never seen the Stormy Weather clip. Insane. Awesome. And they make it look like so much fun.
Stormy Weather should have been played every year on television, like The Wizard of Oz.
posted by Bee'sWing at 9:15 AM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

That scene from Tap is a master class in many styles of tap dancing. I think Jimmy Slyde is astonishing but they're all really good. This was Sammy Davis' last movie and he'd already had two hip replacements, I think. Love this movie.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:41 AM on December 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

YES THIS OWNS. thank you flt!
posted by clavicle at 12:52 PM on December 23, 2017

I'd somehow never seen the Stormy Weather clip. Insane. Awesome. And they make it look like so much fun.

And effortless. They're in tuxes with tails and they aren't even sweating.

And despite the testicle-shattering splits down the stairs, they both had children.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:31 PM on December 24, 2017

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