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A Great Soul Of Tap*
Gregory Hines

I don't think it's any coincidence that Gregory Hines was born on Valentines Day for he was, in essence, a sweetheart, one of the good guys. Like Fred Astaire and Sammy Davis Jr. before him, Mr. Hines was born to entertain, to bring joy and celebration to whatever venue he decided to use, whether it be film, music, dance, or the stage. But, the shoes he was most comfortable in were taps; that incredibly unique form of art at which he was considered by many, to be the best, or at least the best of his generation. Gregory Hines was born dancing.

I don't remember not dancing. When I realized I was alive and these were my parents, and I could walk and talk, I could dance.

Out of the Ghetto

Gregory Oliver Hines was born on February 14, 1946, in New York City. Having spent her life in poverty, Gregory's mother was going to do what she could to see that her family escaped from the same fate. Her plan: teach these boys, Gregory and his older brother Maurice, to dance. And the plan worked. Being taught by a master of tap and a "world-renowned" tap teacher, Henry LeTang, didn't hurt and by the time Gregory was 6, he and Maurice were performing in the infamous Apollo Theatre. At 8 years old, the Hines boys were on Broadway in a performance of "The Girl in Pink Tights". As teenagers, they were known as the Hines Brothers and when their father, Maurice Sr. joined them as a drummer, they were known as Hines, Hines And Dad.

It was about this time that I began to see them on television, for tap in the '50s seem to have great entertainment value. Good old Ed Sullivan, who showcased Elvis, The Beatles, and many others, was delighted with the Hines family as was Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. A hit as well overseas, the Hines brothers were dancing their hearts out at venues like the London Palladium. But not everything was well. Gregory married in 1968, had a daughter in 1970, divorced shortly after and the brother act came apart in 1973. Gregory was about to take a sabbatical, so to speak.

I felt that I didn't want to be in show business anymore. I felt that I wanted to be a farmer. I was milking cows and shoveling terrible stuff and working all day. By the end of the day all I wanted was my tap shoes.

Gregory tried many outlets during his hiatus from dancing, including a move to Venice Beach, California, where he acknowledged a hippie phase during "a brief moment of rebellion." He started the rock band Severence, which marked the beginning of his illustrious solo career, experienced financial deprivation and met his second wife, Pamela Koslow. The whole experience was a growing one that gave Hines the self confidence he needed to head back to New York and resurrect his career. And a triumphant resurrection it was.


With a patched up relationship with brother Maurice, in 1978, Gregory returned to Broadway in Eubie!, a musical review featuring compositions by ragtime composer Eubie Blake; a performance that would earn Hines his first Tony nomination. The next year, Hines played Scrooge in the Broadway performance of Comin' Uptown and a repeat of the Tony nomination followed. The Duke-Ellington inspired musical,Sophisticated Ladies in 1981, brought him a three-peat in the nomination category and in 1992, Hines finally took the "Tony" home for his performance as Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly's Last Jam. This twelve year endeavor of work would have been enough for most folks, but Gregory Hines wasn't most folks and interspersed amidst all these Broadway productions was his incredible work in more than 40 films.


In 1981, Mel Brooks had cast Richard Pryor in the forth-coming "screwball" comedy A History of the World Part I, but when Pryor couldn't keep the commitment, the part of a Roman slave went to Hines. It was the beginning of a remarkable film career where he was able to mesh acting and dancing. Having spent most of his life on stage, Hines was able to transfer that same ease into film, which made his acting look effortless, hiding the countless hours Hines spent perfecting this craft. Highlights included The Cotton Club, with Richard Gere, White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Running Scared with Billy Crystal. One of his favorites was the 1989 film Taps, which gave the great tap-dancers their due. Men that Hines had idolized and watched as a youngster, shared the big screen with him. The "old-schoolers" included Harold Nicholas, Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde and the irrepressible Sammy Davis Jr. The sweet side Of Gregory showed up in a cameo role in Waiting to Exhale with Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett.


Among countless roles as a character actor in television movies (listed below), Hines also produced and starred in the 1989 film, Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America, which was nominated for an Emmy Award, an award which, ten years later, he won for his voice-over in the animated television series Little Bill, produced by Bill Cosby. Hines also had a recurring role in the TV Sitcom Will and Grace and had a short lived series himself, where he played a single father in the Gregory Hines Show. Hines also starred in the mini-series Bojangles, which earned him the Image Award presented by the NAACP.


Until the very end, Gregory Hines toured the country, putting on shows and spreading charm with his ability to share his talent with others. The highlight of any of his shows was near the end, when Hines would invite those in the audience to, "come on up, show me what you've got." The call-up portion of the show was "essential Hines", laughing, joking, pretending to collapse in defeat or in awe. "Bridging the gap between generations, talents, and styles," Hines was forever trying to educate the public to the reality that tap was an art form of black Americans and who was ready to share the enjoyment of that talent with the world, regardless of age, gender or race. Gregory Hines passed away on August 9, 2003, just a few days before he was scheduled to teach and perform at the Los Angeles Tap Festival. I have a feeling there's a celebration going on elsewhere this week, with Hines dancing like an angel.




* A title given by and "borrowed" from Howard Blume (LAWeekly)

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