April 17, 2004 by

Leonard Reed


Categories: Artists, Musicians

lreed.jpgLeonard Reed, the co-creator of the famous Shim Sham Shimmy dance routine, died on April 5 from congestive heart failure. He was 97.
Born in a tepee in Lightning Creek, Okla., Reed’s mother was half-Choctaw Cherokee Indian and half-black; she died of pneumonia when he was two years old. A child of rape, Reed never knew his father. Instead, he was reared by relatives and foster parents in Kansas City, Mo., until he was adopted by his high school principal.
At 15, Reed took a job selling popcorn and candy at a local theater. He learned to tap and do the Charleston by watching other performers, and was soon good enough to win area dance contests. He visited Cornell University, with every intention of attending, but opted to pursue a dance career instead.
In the 1920s, Reed found an ideal dance partner in comedian Willie Bryant. Together they formed a vaudeville act called “Brains as Well as Feet,” and choreographed a flashy finale that was called the Shim Sham Shimmy. The routine, which was ideally suited to the line dance, is often referred to as the anthem of tap.
When his racial origins were discovered, the fair-skinned Reed was forced to stop dancing in white revues. For the next four decades, he worked in other areas of the entertainment industry. He produced shows at the Cotton Club in Chicago, entertained the troops during World War II, ran his own nightclub in Los Angeles and spent 20 years as the master of ceremonies at the Apollo Theater in New York. Reed helped launch Dinah Washington’s singing career and choreographed dances for Motown stars.
Reed is also credited with breaking the color barrier in the Professional Golfers’ Association. Golf officials in San Diego mistakenly assumed Reed was white and issued him a PGA card in 1951. This led to the abolition of the all-Caucasian rule, and opened the way for black golfers such as Tiger Woods.
In 2000, Reed received a Living Treasure in American Dance Award from Oklahoma City University, and a lifetime achievement award from the American Music Awards.
Watch Reed Perform at the Orpheum Theatre

5 Responses to Leonard Reed

  1. Alaina Campa

    I’m so happy to see this posted! This way, he can be remembered and people will read this and understand what a multi-talented man my uncle was.
    -Alaina, Leonard’s niece

  2. Rosie Rose'

    Leonard Reed was a multi-talented Angel on earth. I met him in 1990 and trained under him from 1990 until the time I had to make a transition to move back to the Pittsburgh in 1999. One of my biggest regrets in leaving LA was leaving Leonard and his training, guidance and encouragement. Leonard was a kind spirit and he helped me to believe in myself. He and Barbara together were a match made in Heaven and truly loved each. I truly miss him and truly regret that I did not get to spend more time with him.
    Lesson Learned:
    Don’t take people and time for granted. They are gifts from God and are only given to you temporarily…
    May your loving spirit live on – in the world of comedy, tap, dance, song and ALL of the many other things that you have blessed this earth with. I will always love you and will deeply miss you. Thank you for believing in me and for helping me to believe in myself. The jokes that you gave me will be used and I will do them just the way you told me to.
    Rosie Rose’
    (a.k.a. Prime Rose/)
    Pittsburgh, PA

  3. Liana

    I appreciated reading this little clip of Leonard Reed’s life. Although I never knew him he seemed like a great inspiration to everyone. I am in the 8th grade and is doing a project on him. He seems like a very intresting personm to learn about.

  4. ricky

    I met Mr. Reed in Hollywood in 1993; he took me under his wing, and I would frequently visit him in his office on the corner of Vine. He would talk to me often about life and of course the “Brown Bomber”..Never short of “Wisdom”.

  5. Anne Mohon Martin

    I met Leonard way back in the early 70’s. Leonard would show up sporadically to play golf with my father, Walt Mohon, and his friends, Nolan Pointer, and Don Reed, Leonard’s brother. There was another regular that played with them. His name was Robby, a big man that was a retired English professor. Robby passsed away in the 80’s. Also, Milan was a semi regular, but he moved away to Victorville. Next was Don, who was retired from Seagram’s, I think. Don always had his little flask with him so he could have a “Snort” of Scotch. Delma, Don’s widow, was the only family member of these guys that I ever met. The next one to pass away was Nolan, of liver cancer. I have never met a finer gentleman. He worked at the L.A. Country Club for many, many, years, taking good care of the elite members. Dad said Randolph Scott gave Nolan his old clubs before he died. My dad passed away in 2002, so Leonard even outlived him, although my father was much younger. For 25 years, these guys played golf together every Monday at Los Amigos in Downey, where I was working at the time. When I was playing, I’d usually ride with Nolan because Dad was on my butt about my swing. All the guys would get on my dad, telling him to just let me play my way. I loved all of them! They argued like husbands and wives, would get mad, then get glad, throw insults at each other, and get moody, but were always there for each other. Dad was white. Nolan, Don, Leonard, and Robby were all black. They were best buddies, and they were color blind. Dad mentioned once that Leonard was a choreographer, and managed the Apollo theater when he was still working. I never knew he was that well renowned until I was helping my daughter do a study on choreography. There was Leonard, with his beautiful blue eyes. So now I have a chance to tell Don AND Leonard’s family that both of them were fine men. They were like family to me, and anytime I showed up to play golf with them, they arranged it so I could play with them, by breaking into 2 groups. When I moved my dad to northern California, so I could take care of him, Nolan kept in touch, also Gene Malarky, another guy that joined the group later. Nolan didn’t send his beautifully signed card a few years ago, so I dug out my dad’s address book to call him. By then, Dad had dementia and didn’t remember Nolan. Nolan told me he was sick with liver cancer and weighed 70 lbs. I cried, because it was the end of an era, and I felt like I was losing the last of my “Uncles”. Nolan told me he had a son, an angry son from Oakland….that didn’t want anything to do with any white people. It was the way his boy was raised. I hope Nolan’s son knows that I cherish Nolan’s memory and feel like a better person for knowing him. As far as Leonard goes, I had assumed that Leonard had passed away after I’d moved up North. It was a total shock to realize that Leonard was still alive up until 2004. My condolences to his family. My dad never had better friends before or after those guys.

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