Buddy Bradley is to tap dance what Buddy Bolden is to jazz. There are no known recordings of Buddy Bolden that have survived the years, yet many historians and jazz musicians alike, including Jelly Roll Morton, credit Bolden as one of the fathers of jazz. Buddy Bradley, in much the same fashion, left little record of his creative work, yet many credit him as a master teacher and choreographer. A key figure in the development of tap dance in the past century.
Very specifically, we know that one of Bradley’s star pupils was Henry LeTang, who would go on to win a Tony Award (Black and Blue, 1989), and become one of the foremost tap dance choreographers of his own time. Mable Lee also tells stories of her time teaching at Bradley’s studio while in London. And lastly, Johnny Brandon, the British teen idol actually started out as Bradley’s protege, performing in many shows in the West End of London, before crossing over into pop music.
There is much more mystery, myth, and unconfirmed fact surrounding the life and times of Buddy Bradley. We aim to take it all on here, in the hopes that we might arrive at a picture of the man and his immense contribution to the art of tap dance.
Buddy Bradley was one of the great, unsung geniuses of stage and screen choreography in America and England. He was recognized throughout the entertainment community in New York during the late ’20s and early ’30s, but — because he was black — was never acknowledged in public for any of his work in the United States, even though he trained and devised dances for a generation of screen legends. Instead, he had to go to England to make a career and a name for himself, and while there for more than 20 years, he was a celebrated artist and teacher, and a profound influence on the world of ballet, film, and theater.
Buddy Bradley was born in Harrisburg, PA, in 1908, and he taught himself to dance as he grew up, picking up the steps common in the black community of the era, and later assimilating tap and other specialties; he worked as a chorus boy in clubs and danced in stage revues during the 1920s, when he was in his teens. It was at the Billy Pierce Dance Studio in New York that he started to build his reputation as a teacher and creator.
In 1928, when he was but 20 years old, Bradley began attracting Broadway clients, ranging from actors and professional dancers in need of new routines to the girlfriends of local mobsters, and for 250 dollars a routine, Bradley obliged them. Soon his work with the professionals brought in more of the same: Clifton Webb, years before he emerged as a waspish, prissy screen personality, had his performing breakthrough as a dancer in 1929 in a stage work called The Little Show, in a number called “Moanin’ Low” with choreography by Bradley; his other clients in the late ’20s included Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler, Fred Astaire, and Adele Astaire, who danced a Bradley-choreographed number in the 1929 Ziegfeld Follies. He also revised and re-staged all of the dances used in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1928, but he got no public credit for his work — the man who did take the creative bows was the original choreographer Busby Berkeley, who parlayed the recognition that he received in this and other theatrical productions into a renowned Hollywood career.
Bradley’s big break came in 1930 when he went to England to choreograph a new stage musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, entitled Evergreen, which was being produced in London by Charles B. Cochran, starring Jesse Matthews and her husband, Sonnie Hale. Evergreen was a watershed in Bradley’s career, a genuine musical play rather than a revue, with a high-profile cast and lots of exposure. What’s more, the circumstances under which it was produced allowed him to draw on 20 years’ worth of experience, mostly from African-American traditions, and put his best creative instincts into the work at hand, with no compromises. At the time, the London entertainment world, like that of Paris, was in the midst of a love affair with American jazz and its underlying African-American culture; whatever the flaws that did exist in British racial attitudes, there was none of the raw hatred and fear that existed in American society, and it was easier to mix the cultures and the participants: Paul Robeson was making his name, and his music and acting careers, on the stages, in the concert halls, and recording studios of London, and other black American artists, including Adelaide Hall and Josephine Baker, would soon make the trip to Europe as well. Bradley caught the moment just right, and from the opening number, “Harlemania,” Evergreen was a hit, playing over 200 performances (which, in those days, constituted a theatrical success).
Bradley was well remunerated for his work and, even better, credited for it in full. In Cochran, he had a top-ranked producer who had complete confidence in him — an ally he might have had a very hard time finding in America — and who, in turn, opened the way for other producers to approach him. Over the next decade, Bradley choreographed a half dozen major productions on the London stage. Cochran’s 1931 revue had Bradley working as the senior partner in collaboration with a young George Balanchine; in 1932, Bradley collaborated with Frederick Ashton, the renowned choreographer and future head of the Royal Ballet, in a dance work mixing jazz and ballet entitled “High Yellow,” which was performed by members of the Vic-Wells Company; the 1934 stage production Words And Music teamed him with Agnes DeMille; and Cochran’s 1940 revue Lights Up! put him in partnership with Ashton. Bradley and Ashton had collaborated on several works between 1932 and 1940 over the next decade, each influencing the other, and giving Bradley a means of directly influencing high culture that he never could have found in the United States at that time. He had a home in England, and a future that offered him opportunities that he never could have even considered in America.
When he was living in America, and based in New York, he was unable to get credit for his work on-stage. Bradley could hardly have been thinking much about working in movies, except perhaps as a dancer, and then only if he went to Hollywood, naturally.
In England, however, the movie industry was based in London, practically right on top of the theater world, and drew much of its creative talent from the theater, and it wasn’t long before several cinematic opportunities opened up for him.
In 1933, Gaumont-British studios signed a contract to produce a film adaptation of Evergreen, and the producers recruited the play’s two original stars, Matthews and Hale, along with Bradley as choreographer. The resulting movie — christened Evergreen — enjoys a reputation in England akin to that of 42nd Street in America, as the definitive musical of its period. In addition to a handful of delightful Rodgers and Hart songs retained from the stage version (including “Dancing On The Ceiling”) and some excellent new tunes by Harry Woods, the film benefited from several delightful performances and Bradley’s choreography. He not only gave Matthews some of her finest moments onscreen (and Hale his very best screen work), but also devised one huge production number rivaling Busby Berkeley’s work, which made use of the film medium in ways that no one in England had ever attempted before, and also created a breathless, dazzling finale. Bradley also found room to appear unaccredited as a dancer in the film. Evergreen was the finest musical made in England during the 1930s (and possibly ever) — it was the first British musical to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York — and it is one of the most watchable musicals of that decade.
Bradley subsequently choreographed a handful of British films, including the comedies Head Over Heels in Love (in which he also appeared onscreen) and Gangway(both 1937), starring Matthews, and Maurice Elvey’s thriller The Spider (1940), although most of his activity during the 1930s was centered on the stage. He was heavily involved with ballet as well, through his work with Ashton and others. He continued working in dance in England after the war was over and contributed to one movie, Brass Monkey (1948), even as he ran a dance school in London that had some 500 students. By the 1960s, Bradley had returned to America, and he and his wife were living in New York when he passed away in 1972. His most accessible and enduring legacy, at least in film, remains Evergreen, which has been reissued on videocassette and laserdisc, and revived in repertory film showings for decades.