John W. Bubbles

John William Sublett (February 19, 1902 May 18, 1986), known by his stage name John W. Bubbles, was a vaudeville performer. He performed in the duo "Buck and Bubbles." He is also known as the father of "rhythm tap."

John W. Bubbles
Portrait (as Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess) by Carl Van Vechten, 1935 Dec. 27.
Born(1902-02-19)February 19, 1902
DiedMay 18, 1986(1986-05-18) (aged 84)
OccupationVaudeville performer and tap dancer
Years active1926 - 1983

Life and career

Subblett was born in Louisville, Kentucky on February 19, 1902,[1] but soon moved with his family to Indianapolis. There, he formed a partnership with Ford L. "Buck" Washington in 1919. Their duo was known as "Buck and Bubbles." Buck played stride piano and sang, and Bubbles tapped along.[2] They were so popular that the duo moved to Manhattan, New York City in September of that year. They played together in the Columbia Theater, the Palace and played with artists Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye.[1] They were on the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.[3] They also became the first black artists to perform at the Radio City Music Hall. "Buck and Bubbles" performed live in the first scheduled 'high definition' television program on November 2, 1936 at Alexandra Palace, London, for the BBC, becoming the first black artists on television anywhere in the world.[1][2]

Though unable to read music, Bubbles was chosen by George Gershwin to create the role of Sportin' Life in his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. Since he didn't understand the music score, Gershwin spent the time to teach it to him as a tap rhythm. Sublett caused some problems because he often made up rhythms which caused confusion with other members of the cast.[4]:218 Sublett performed the role occasionally for the next two decades.[5] In 1963, in a studio recording of Porgy and Bess featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield, he performed Sportin' Life's two main arias from the opera, "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York".[6]

In 1920 he gave lessons in tap dancing to Fred Astaire, who considered Sublett the finest tap dancer of his generation. In the number "Bojangles of Harlem" from Swing Time (1936) Astaire dresses in blackface as the Sportin' Life character and dances in the style of Sublett while ostensibly paying tribute to Bill Robinson.[7]

Sublett appeared in Hollywood films of the late 1930s and 1940s, including Varsity Show in 1937, Cabin in the Sky in 1943 and A Song Is Born in 1948. In later life, he also made television appearances, one of his last being on a musical episode of The Lucy Show,[8] which also guest-starred Mel Tormé[9] and a featured performance on Barbra Streisand's 1967 TV special, The Belle of 14th Street, a tribute to the bygone era of vaudeville.[10]

During the Vietnam War, John Bubbles toured the war zone with the USO.[4]: In 1965, he appeared with Eddie Fisher on a USO tour, visiting many outposts and camps in the early war years. He appeared with Judy Garland in her 1967 concert at the Palace Theatre,[11] singing "Me And My Shadow."[12] That same year, he became partially paralyzed due to a stroke.[1]

In 1978, John Bubbles spoke at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles as a participant in a seminar on vaudeville. Someone asked him who the best tap dancer was. Bubbles answered, "You're looking at him." Then he added, "Honestly, if I had to name the best dancer, it would be Fred Astaire. He could tap. He had a good teacher. But he could ballroom, dance with a partner. All in all, he's the best."[13] That same night, Bubbles mentioned that Astaire had brought him into the rehearsal hall to work on "Bojangles of Harlem" and John's chops are right there in the number.

He performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York in 1979, which was one of his last public appearances. Sublett died on May 18, 1986, at his home in Baldwin Hills, California.[1]


Sublett is known as the father of "rhythm tap," a form of tap dance. Sublett included percussive heel drops in his tap style, as opposed to the tap dancing of Bill Robinson (Bojangles) who emphasized clean phrases and toe taps. Sublett's taps were made to the traditional eight-bar phrase, but allowed for more rhythmic freedom. He blended the improvisational style of jazz music with the traditional techniques of tap to create a unique style and sound.[14][15]

Sublett received the 1980 Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists.[16] He was inducted into the Tap Hall of Fame in 2002.[11]

Sublett was remembered by many celebrities; his catchphrase, "Shoot the liquor to me, John Boy,"[17] has been quoted in songs by several artists, including The Manhattan Transfer,[18] The Ink Spots,[19] and Louis Armstrong.[20] Michael Jackson admired Bubbles' dancing and studied his steps for inspiration. In the mid-1980s Jackson named his beloved pet chimpanzee "Bubbles" in memory of John Sublett.[5]


  1. "John Bubbles, The Dancer, Is Dead at 84". The New York Times. 20 May 1986.
  2. John M. Murphy and David Day (2015). "John W. Bubbles papers: Creator Info". Prepared for the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Provo, UT. Retrieved May 23, 2016.
  3. Wintz, Cary D.; Finkelman, Paul (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: A-J. Taylor & Francis. pp. 199–200. ISBN 9781579584573.
  4. Seibert, Brian (2015). What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. New York: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 9780865479531. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  5. Jackson, LA (November 2014). Musicology 2102: A Quick Start Guide to Diverse Synergies. MKM Multimedia Works. pp. 52–53. ISBN 9780578154695.
  6. "Gershwin: Porgy & Bess Highlights". Album Liner Notes. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  7. Mueller, John (1985). Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 108–109. ISBN 978-0517060759.
  8. "John William Sublett". IMDb. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  9. "Lucy Puts Main Street on the Map". IMDb. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  10. "The Belle of 14th Street: Taping The Show (1967)". Barbara Streisand Archives Television. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  11. "John Bubbles". Tap Dance Hall of Fame. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  12. Fricke, John (October 2003). Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art & Anecdote. Bulfinch. p. 297. ISBN 9780821228364. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  13. "Famous Tap Dancers in History". Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  14. "Tap History". Juba - Masters of Tap & Percussive Dance. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  15. "Tap Dance – An International Coproduction". Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  16. "John William Bubbles Sublett Happy Birthday". Tap Legacy. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  17. Friedwald, Will (2010). A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. Pantheon Books. p. 372. ISBN 978-0375421495.
  18. "Manhattan Transfer: Safronia B. Lyrics". Lyrics Freak. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  19. "That Cat is High Lyrics". Genius. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  20. "Track Listing: The Boys Are Back in Town". All Music. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
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