Mable Lee & What’s a Tapper To Do When That Cat Just Can’t Dance
Mable Lee exemplified, among other things, the sheer plain flat-out fun of tap dancing.
She underscored the point by tapping and singing for about 90 years, almost until she died on Thursday at the age of 97.
Mable Lee didn’t have the profile of famous female tappers like Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller. Like others of her skin tone, Lee didn’t get a shot at mainstream success on their level.
Instead, Mable Lee — sometimes spelled Mabel — was a working tap dancer. Oh my, did she work.
She started dancing and singing as a cute little kid in her hometown of Atlanta, age 4, year 1925.
As time rolled along, she danced on Broadway in a revival of Shuffle Along and toured with Bubbling Brown Sugar. She sang at the Met in a salute to Tchaikovsky. She headlined the London Palladium in Here, There and Everywhere and appeared regularly on the BBC.
Equally instructive about her dancing skills, she was one of the original Apollo Theater chorus girls. That was the team of which it was said the headlining male dancers would stand in the wings and steal the ladies’ steps. That probably didn’t happen all the time, but it definitely happened some of the time, and those ladies knew their value: They famously struck in 1940 and against stiff odds forced the Apollo to increase their wages.
Purely as a singer, Lee fronted an uncredited vocal group on the lovely rhythm and blues ballad “Dearest Dream,” cowritten by Billy Dawn Smith and released by Hull Records in early 1956. Most often she combined singing with dancing, both on stage and on film — where one of her specialties was soundies, short films that helped promote hit songs of the 1940s. Played on video jukeboxes, they were the precursor of modern-day videos, and between 1942 and 1946 Mable Lee made more than a hundred of them.
“Queen of the Soundies,” she was called, and while they were collectors’ items for a long time, some of them are available now on YouTube. Start with “The Cat Can’t Dance,” an amusing song that showcases the way Lee makes difficult dancing look preposterously easy.
The lip-synching on most of her soundies isn’t actually synched, a reflection the low budget. The sound was also primitive, so we usually have a hard time hearing her tapping — the music of her feet. Some of the time the cameras even look away from her feet, the sin they were forbidden to commit in movies featuring Fred Astaire.
For all that, through great songs and forgettable songs, Lee remains a delight to watch.
A bonus is that she was dancing with some of the best jazz and swing bands of the time, like Noble Sissle’s orchestra on “Sizzle With Sassle,” Louis Jordan in an extended number from “Reet Petite and Gone,” and Fats Waller on “The Joint is Jumping” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
There are also signs of the times. “Baby Don’t Go Away From Me” co-stars Stepin Fetchit in the kind of role that got him unfortunately stereotyped as an exaggerated comic figure.
Still, Lee stays true to the art, showing off the kind of dancing that won her a Flo-Bert Award (named for Florence Mills and Bert Williams) in 2004 and put her in the Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2008.
In March 1947 she became the first color cover subject for Ebony magazine.
It’s important to remember today, in an age when tap dancing is often considered a kind of vestigial novelty, that when Mable Lee was playing the vaudeville, club and theater circuit in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, tap was a featured attraction. She danced with the male legends of the era, from Harold Nicholas and Honi Coles to the team of Cookie Cook and Buster Brown.
In a satisfying and somewhat unexpected turn, many of the old-time dancers became part of a modest tap revival in the 1980s. Lee said she appreciated the renewed interest and noted that for her part, she had never stopped.
For her 91st birthday she sang a duet with her old friend Harold Cromer, “Stumpy” of the Stump and Stumpy team. A year later, in 2013, she sang “Blue Skies” at his memorial service.
Most of that generation is gone now, its legacy memorialized in almost random places like soundies. The good news is that performers like Mable Lee also preserved tap dancing as a living art form. That it remains so today is the other part of that legacy.