Brian HarkerMar 11, 2023
John W. Bubbles, an American Classic
Oxford University Press 2022
John W. Bubbles was an actor, singer, comedian, and most importantly, a dancer. Born in 1902, Bubbles was an innovator in the jazz tap style and half of the great vaudeville act, "Buck and Bubbles," with his partner pianist Buck Washington. Brian Harker tells Bubbles' story in Sportin’ Life: John W. Bubbles, An American Classic (Oxford University Press, 2022). Bubbles’ long career, which largely ended after a stroke in 1967, spanned several significant shifts in American popular entertainment. He started entertaining audiences in vaudeville just as films began to dominate the landscape followed by television. Harker tells the story of Bubbles’ tumultuous life and situates his career as a Black dancer within segregated America and an entertainment industry that perpetuated racist stereotypes and exploited its workers—especially those from minoritized communities. Although Bubbles originated the role of Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he has largely slipped out of American memory. Harker restores Bubbles to his rightful place as an innovative dancer and an important figure in twentieth-century American popular entertainment.
Kristen M. Turner is a lecturer in the music and honors departments at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on race and class in American popular entertainment at the turn of the twentieth century.