With an unmatched level of artistry and gravity-defying combinations of flips, splits, singing and tap dancing, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000), known to the world as the Nicholas Brothers, are considered by many to be the most talented and spectacular tap dancing duo in history.
Fayard and Harold spent their careers shifting between engagements in vaudeville, movies, nightclubs, concerts, Broadway, records, radio, television, and extensive worldwide tours. Because of their versatility—they could sing, act, and dance and thus were considered a “triple treat”—they headlined all over the world. Fayard Nicholas later said, “We did everything in show business except opera.”
They grew up in Philadelphia where their mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist, and their father, Ulysses, was a drummer in the orchestra at the Standard Theatre, one of the city’s largest and most prestigious black vaudeville houses. Just by sitting in the theater audience watching the other great black entertainers such as the jazz musician Louis Armstrong, the dance team Buck and Bubbles, the singer Adelaide Hall, and the dance teams Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant and the Berry Brothers, Fayard taught himself how to dance, sing, and perform, then taught his younger sister Dorothy and brother, Harold, to form the act The Nicholas Kids. They were soon in vaudeville themselves, but when Dorothy opted out, they became the Nicholas Brothers.
The Cotton Club & Broadway
After performing around Philadelphia, their first big break came in 1932, when the Nicholas Brothers had graduated to the renowned Cotton Club in Harlem, where, for the next two years they delighted the all-white audiences and rubbed shoulders with great black entertainers such as Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway. In 1936, the Nicholas Brothers made their Broadway debut with Josephine Baker, Bob Hope and Fanny Brice in "Ziegfeld Follies", and also appeared in London in Lew Leslie’s revue "Blackbirds Of 1936". A year later they were back on Broadway working with the choreographer George Balanchine in the Rodgers & Hart hit musical "Babes In Arms".
Their film career had begun in 1932 with two short films, "Black Network" and Pie Pie Blackbird" (featuring Eubie Blake And His Band), and it continued via "Calling All Stars" (1936), and the Don Ameche - Betty Grable musical "Down Argentine Way" (1940), in which the brothers did a breathtaking dance to the lively number 'Down Argentine Way'. These successes gained them a five-year contract with 20th Century-Fox.
During the rest of the 1940's the Nicholas Brothers contributed some electrifying and superbly acrobatic dances to films such as "Tin Pan Alley", "The Great American Broadcast", "Sun Valley Serenade" (featuring Dorothy Dandridge), "Orchestra Wives", "The Pirate" (featuring Gene Kelly), and "Stormy Weather," where their performance jumping between Cab Calloway's orchestra, tap dancing on a piano and culminaing with splits down a grand white staircase, is often described as one of the greatest dances ever captured on film.
Television and Later Work
With the advent of television, the brothers were much in demand and Fayard returned to the USA; they appeared on programs such as "All-Star Revue" in 1951, "The Colgate Comedy Hour" in 1952, "The Hollywood Palace "in 1964, and "The Bell Telephone Hour" in 1966. Beginning in 1965, the Nicholas Brothers worked frequently in Las Vegas, and they toured—often with Sammy Davis, Jr.—throughout the United States and Europe.
Harold also continued as a solo performer and was top-billed in the musical "Back In The Big Time" (1986) and appeared in several more films, including "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974) and "Tap" (1989). Fayard appeared twice more on film, in "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" (1970), "Night at the Golden Eagle" (2002), and was still active in non-performing areas of the business and won a Tony Award when he co-choreographed the 1989 Broadway musical "Black And Blue", with Cholly Atkins, Henry LeTang and Frank Manning.
Awards & Recognitions
Their legacy continues to live on through all of their students, lovers of 'classical tap' around the world, and the many fans who tirelessly rewatch their films that display their singular elegance and sensational showmanship.