Before there were music videos or MTV, “soundies” popped up in Harlem bars and nightclubs in the 1940s, where these short, 16-mm films were viewed via coin-operated Panoramas. They typically featured the premier singers and dancers of the Harlem jazz scene, and Mable Lee reigned as “Queen of the Soundies.”
Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1921, and began performing at the age of four. By nine, she was considered a prodigy, tap dancing and singing along with big bands at popular Atlanta theaters, including the city’s first black-owned club, The Top Hat. In 1940, she and her mother traveled to New York City so Lee could audition for a coveted spot at the Apollo Theater. She eventually joined the Apollo’s chorus line after a brief stint at Harlem’s West End Theater, but it was her was solo acts, her soubrettes, with a chorus line behind her that caught the attention of other club owners. She soon left the Apollo for other hot-spot Harlem nightclubs – Small’s, Ubangie Club, and Club Sudan. It was at Small’s that Lee was discovered by Sun Tan Studios, the primary producers of soundies. During the 1940s, she performed in over a hundred of these films that were distributed far and wide. Lee emerged as the face of these powerful symbols of jazz-era Harlem that still linger in the American imagination. She sang, danced, tapped, shuffled, and showed everyone how to swing.
In the midst of all of this filming, she was traveling. In 1941, she left for London and starred in shows at the Palladium, often performing the racial stereotypes then prevalent on European stages. Lee remembered representing “America in the nightclubs” and “Africa in the jungle scenes.” But one of her longest-running shows was on the road during World War II in the first all-black USO troupe. Their unit included comedians, dancers, singers, and an orchestra; they spent the war in England, France, Belgium, and Scotland entertaining every branch of the U.S. military. Later in the early 1950s, Lee led her own USO unit with an all-woman chorus and band.
When she returned to New York, Lee found success on Broadway and off-Broadway, performing in revivals, revues, and full-scale productions during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (though she did take a little time out to return to Georgia, giving birth to her multi-talented son Michael in 1960). Notably, Lee toured nationally with the Broadway production of Bubblin’ Brown Sugar in 1976, cast in the lead role of Irene.
In the 1980s, she was granted funding from the National Endowment of the Arts to produce instructional videos on pre-war chorus line dancing. Much like with the soundies, which disseminated and perpetuated a fantasy Harlem, the videos introduced a new generation of dancers to another world. And while young kids of the 80s learned the Half Past Jump and the Chicken Shack Shuffle, Lee was also busy with a new dance production called The Sole Sisters. Assembling the “grande dames” of tap alongside newly-crowned “prima tapperinas,” the show premiered in the West Village in the spring of 1985 and showcased the young and older, white and African American heroines of tap dancing. Lee performed the high-heeled, get-down finale number, “Get Down Sole.”
Mable Lee didn’t stop there. She continued to dance and teach. It appears she performed at most tap dancing festivals (and there are many) in the last few decades, from National Tap Dance Day’s Extravanganza, where she was awarded for her lifetime achievement in dance, to the New York City Tap Festival, where she left everyone speechless. And, in 2008, Lee was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame. However, there were reports that she was slowing down. A few years later, in 2012, she charmed and wowed an audience at an American Tap Dance Foundation production but seemed tired (she was 91 years old, by the way). And, in 2014, a blogger reported that she had injured her hip and shoulder while instructing dance classes in Seoul, Korea (she was in Korea – at 93 years old). Though she’s since recovered, it’s likely that she’s been taking it easy.
During her trailblazing career in dance, Lee burned a hot path past stereotypes and racist assumptions about her skills and talent. But she also adapted with the times and expanded her influence as she went from “queen of the soundies” to internationally-renowned artist to TV instructor to dance maven of Korea. Today, we celebrate her life and her 95th birthday.