The Nicholas Brothers – Dance Pioneers
Most classic movie fans have seen The Nicholas Brothers’ showstopping performance in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. But other than that I am sure most film fans don’t know much about them. Since today is Harold Nicholas’ birthday, I thought this would be a good time to write about them.
Fayard Nicholas was born March 17, 1914 in Mobile, AL, and Harold Nicholas was born March 27, 1921 in Winston-Salem, NC. They grew up in Philadelphia. Their father, Ulysses Nicholas, was a drummer, and their mother, Viola Harden, played piano. They led a band at the Standard Theater in Philadelphia. Fayard watched them from the front row as a child and he saw all the black vaudeville acts. He was fascinated by dancers like the legendary Bill Robinson. So he imitated them.
Fayard taught himself by watching the stage performers and then imitating them. First he taught his sister Dorothy, and they performed as the Nicholas Kids. Then Harold joined the act. Dorothy dropped out and the Nicholas Brothers were born. Harold usually imitated Fayard. Their tap dancing style is called “flash dance” popularized by The Four Step Brothers and The Berry Brothers. I’m sure Fayard saw them perform.
As their fame grew, the Nicholas Brothers became the featured act at New York’s Cotton Club. Fayard was 16 and Harold was 11. While at the Cotton Club for two years, they appeared with bands led by Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. They appeared in the 1932 short film, Pie Pie Blackbird, featuring Eubie Blake. When producer Samuel Goldwyn saw the Nicholas Brothers at the Cotton Club, he brought them to Hollywood to appear in the 1934 film Kid Millions. They appeared in the Broadway musicals The Ziegfield Follies of 1936 and the 1937 musical Babes in Arms. Famed ballet choreographer George Balanchine was so impressed that he taught them some new techniques.
The Nicholas Brothers moved to Hollywood in 1940. Their most high-profile performance was performing Jumpin’ Jive with Cab Calloway and his Orchestra in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Other films include Down Argentine Way (1940), Tin Pan Alley (1940), The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). The Nicholas Brothers never starred in a film. They were featured performers and their segments were removed so the films could be shown in the Southern US where there were still Jim Crow laws. But there’s no question The Nicholas Brothers were the highlight of any film they were in.
After dancing with Gene Kelly in the 1948 film The Pirate, Harold moved to France. So they didn’t perform together anymore. They were forgotten until they appeared in the 1974 film That’s Entertainment. And there was interest in them after that. They received Kennedy Center Honors in 1991. Harold Nicholas died on July 3, 2000 in 2000 and Fayard Nicholas died on Jan. 24, 2006 at age 91. Here’s Cab Calloway and his Orchestra with The Nicholas Brothers performing Jumpin’ Jive from the 1943 film Stormy Weather.
— Frank Pozen for Classic Movie Hub
Frank Pozen pens our monthly Classic Movie Movies column. You can read all of Frank’s Classic Movie Music articles here.
Frank Pozen writes about music, wrestling and more at his blog, Frank Pozen’s Big Bad Blog, including his AccuRadio Song of the Day post. You can follow Frank at twitter @frankp316.
I enjoyed reading about the lives of The Nicholas Brothers — it’s always a joy to see them in any film. They were simply amazing. I also loved seeing them (and Cab Calloway) in Janet Jackson’s video Alright — it was awesome that she honored them in this way.
The Nicholas Brothers were simply something else. Unbelievable.
Thanks for reminding me again of that Janet Jackson video. I think I appreciate it more now than when it came out. The 90s weren’t half bad. 🙂
Marvelous! Thank you!
Great article, Frank!