Tuesday saw the passing of one of the greatest dancers to ever have ever lived. Fayard Nicholas, who peformed with his younger Harold as the Nicholas Brothers, died from pneumonia and complications from a stroke. He was 91 years old.
Fayard Nicholas was born in 1914 to professional musicians. His father was a drummer and his mother was a pianist at the Standard Theatre in Philadelphia. At the theatre the two brothers saw most of the great black Vaudeville acts, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Willie Bryant. Fayard learned to dance by observing these acts and Harold learned to dance by watching Fayard. While still young they started playing theatres, including the Standard Theatre, around Philadephia. While at one of these theatres, the Pearl, the manager of the Lafayette, one of the biggest vaudeville theatres in New York City, saw the brothers and signed them immediately. From the Lafayette the Nicholas Brothers moved onto the famous Cotton Club.
While still at the Cotton Club, the Nicholas Brothers would make their first motion picture short, "Pie Pie Blackbird," backed by Hubie Blake and his orchestra. From shorts the Nicholas Brothers would move onto major motion pictures. Their first major movie was in Kid Millions in 1936. That same year they would make their Broadway debut as part of the Ziegfield Follies. They would later appear on Broadway in 1937 as part of the Rogers and Hart musical Babes in Arms.
It was in the Forties that the Nicholas Brothers made the bulk of their movies. In 1941 they appeared in The Great American Broadcast. In Stormy Weather in 1941 the Nicholas Brothers performed their famous "Jumpin' Jive" routine, which Fred Astaire himself considered one of the greatest musical numbers ever filmed. The routine involved a staircase down which the brothers performed their renowned splits. In none of their early films did the Nicholas Brothers peform alongside white dancers, so great was the racial divide in America at the time. All of this changed with The Pirate in 1948, when the Nicholas Brothers performed alongside Gene Kelly. In my humble opinion, it was one of the few times that the great Kelly was actually outclassed!
Hollywood clearly was not ready to star the Nicholas Brothers in their own films, so they once more took to the stage. They made tours of Asia, Europe, and South America. In Britain in 1948 they gave a command performance before the King of England. Eventually the brothers would go their seperate ways. Harold would appear in the movie Uptown Saturday Night while Fayard would go on to choregraph Black and Blue, for which he won a Tony Award in 1989. They would appear together as the Nicholas Brothers in Sammy, a specialty concert featuring Sammy Davis Jr., on Broadway in 1974.
Over the years the Nicholas Brothers would win a number of awards. They were honoured with the The Kennedy Centre Honours, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Gypsy Award from the Professional Dancers Society, and the American Black Lifetime Achievement Award. The Nicholas Brothers also found their place the Apollo Theater's Hall of Fame and the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame.
Alongside his brother Harold, Fayard was one of the greatest dancers of all time. Quite simply, their routines were spectacular. They performed splits without any support from their hands. They incorporated incredible leaps, backflips, and cartwheels into their routines. They were no mere tap dancers. The Nicholas Brothes combined grace, style, and urbanity with fantastic acrobatics. If it was not for the racial prejudice which existed in the United States in the Forties, I would have no doubt that the Nicholas Brothers would be as famous as either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.
Needless to say, I am saddened by Fayard Nicholas' passing. Besides Astaire and Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers were my favourite male dancers. They were simply spectacular to watch. Not Kelly quite matched the level of athleticism they displayed in their movies. Indeed, the "Jumpin' Jive" routine in Stormy Weather is simply fantastic. They tapped up the staircase, slid down the steps, and jumped into splits over each others' heads. The Nicholas Brothers were clearly among the most talented dancers of all time. I very seriously doubt that their acheivements will ever be matched.